An Overproduced “Night in Venice”

A-OP-Night in VeniceTuneful Operetta is Overproduced

When I read that Dagmar Schellenberger would become artistic director of the Seefestspiele productions, I had high hopes. Johann Strauss’ “Eine Nacht in Venedig” (A Night in Venice) has always been popular since it opened in 1838 and has enjoyed many audio recordings in German and in English. There is a DG DVD of a 1973 German television production that runs at about 96 minutes, and now the Seefestspiel production with a running time of 148 minutes is out on the Video Land label.

Many people will agree that “less is more” in any theatrical production. Today, audiences have been sold the idea that superjumbotitanic is what they want, and so many shows are overproduced to win approval. Operetta, on the whole, needs a more intimate approach

So my problem with this performance is that the production values tend to overpower the work itself. The complex plot, with obviously rewritten dialogue, is hard enough to follow without the visual distraction of several shops near the dock, the minute details of which can be seen on the video but certainly not from the colossal arena in which the audience sits; while the huge hull of an ocean liner dominates all the rest of the set.

The leads are in modern dress (which is not what a Strauss opera needs!), complete with at least one cell phone, while three nogoodnicks are tailored in Damon Runyon style. But the Venetian carnival costumes do please the eye. The music is enjoyable, the songs not very subtly delivered—nothing is subtle in this production—and the acting just adequate for the cardboard characters involved.

The basic plot concerns the plans of the Captain of the boat to seduce a Senator’s wife. As with classical comedy, the Males propose while the Females dispose. It is all very unoriginal but the music makes it worth it.

One good thing that has come out of the new regime is that the program notes have improved immensely. The older sets gave a sketchy synopsis and a seldom correct tracking list. With “A Night in Venice,” the synopses are very detailed and the tracking list is extremely detailed. Not only does the latter show which of the 60 tracks have musical numbers but also those with spoken dialogue. (Oh, there are so many with spoken dialogue! In Act III, 9 of the 15 tracks are just dialogue.)

All in all, elephantine but enjoyable.

Partners in Crime

A-Partners in Crime (New)Two Christie Novels Fare Less Than Well in New TV Series

Compared with the Poirot and Marple mysteries, Agatha Christie’s “Tommy and Tuppence” novels are decidedly third place. The idea of a young couple wanting to solve crimes in the style of other fictional detectives was a cute one and  the plots and the approach were lighthearted.

In 1982-1983, British television came out with “Partners in Crime,” in which the Beresfords, Tommy (James Warwick) and Tuppence (Francesca Annis), sleuthed around through 11 tales, one of which was “The Secret Adversary.” Warwick was rather dull, Annis a bit over the top; but they were enjoyable on a somewhat shallow level.

For some reason, it was decided to redo “The Secret Adversary” and give “N or M?” a try, with yet a new team: Jessica Raine (Tuppence) and David Williams (Tommy). Each story is given 3 parts of 55 minutes each—and I read that the British viewers’ reaction was less than favorable.

For one thing, Christie’s spy novels are never quite as good as her murder mysteries. (See “The Big Four,” the worst of the Poirot novels.) Secondly, Tommy and Tuppence are forever making the wrong moves, and in the real world they would have wound up dead in the first few hours.

Alas, Warwick’s Tommy was dull, but he looks like Olivier when compared with Williams. As some actor once said about another of the profession, he “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Nor is he handsome enough and certainly not young-looking enough for the part. Raine is a better actor but again not young-looking enough. So you can see that a much better set of leads might have helped the clunky plots. And each story having165 minutes running time merely emphasizes the awkwardness of the plots.

With an eye to a second series (which has been blurred by the poor reception of this first series), the writers established two permanent secondary characters. James Fleet plays Carter of the Secret Service, while Matthew Steer is the scientist Albert. Neither is encouraged by the director to bring any life into the proceedings.

At least the older series had the advantage of the colorful costumes of the 1920s. Here, the far drabber costumes of the 1950s are of no help. So while I usually carp about television’s taking a good series and remaking it into a bad one, here we have a not all that good a series being made into a poor one. If there is a lesson to be learned, why hasn’t it?

There is some interesting bonus material and the subtitles are much appreciated.

Lehar’s “Giuditta”

A-OP-GiudittaLehar’s Last Operetta Shows Its Weaknesses

Franz Lehar did write a lot more than “The Merry Widow,” but his last work for the musical stage, “Giuditta” (1930) is seldom done. The composer let himself be persuaded to stage this work at the Vienna State Opera, of course with legendary tenor Richard Tauber as the lover; and the work is basically an operetta with some pretentions at being an opera, but with several elements that would eventually turn into the musical comedy.

I am glad to have finally seen “Giuditta” on a Video Land DVD as it was performed in 2003 at the Seefestspiele Morbisch, in which the audience sits in a huge arena while the action takes place on a small fabricated isle. This necessitates those ugly telephone-operator face mikes for the singers and the consequent distortion of sound when the music becomes forte.

It is all very spectacular visually, however, and the nightclub act that opens Act IV is a hoot, inserting songs from other Lehar works. No, when it comes to operetta, I think we will never see or hear what the composer and his librettists originally created. But as long as the music remains fairly intact, I can’t complain too much. (Except when they do “improvements” to Gilbert and Sullivan, and then I explode.)

Giuditta (Natalia Ushakova) is bored to death with her elderly husband in Andalusia and runs off with a soldier, Octavio (Mehrzad Montazeri) when his regiment leaves for Morocco. There she becomes a nightclub star, and when Octavio’s regiment is sent away, she does what a girl can do when it must be done. He returns as a pianist (!) and finds her with a new patron of her arts. Their story ends in sorrow.

Unhappily, I find neither of these characters particularly interesting. The sexual situations are unusual and the music a bit heavy for your typical operetta. But all in all, I found the major plot uninteresting and contrived.

As always, there is the secondary comic couple, in this case Pierrino (Markus Heinrich) and Anita (Julia Bauer), who also fled from Spain and made it good at the very same club. They too are not very interesting, and funny only in the way such stereotyped characters were expected to be in works like this. One can easily see why the operetta was a dying art form by 1930.

The running time is 116 minutes (the box says 126), the subtitles are only in English, and the tracking list is useless.


Josse Vachon

A-Reve de NoelPopular Christmas Songs Done in French-Canadian Style


How many recordings—78s to 45s to LPs to CDs—of Christmas/Seasonal songs have I heard in my life? Pop singers likes Bing Crosby and  Dinah Shore, and even opera stars have all given it a try. After a while, they start to blend into a homogenous mixture; and one can only wish for a new approach.

Many years ago , I became acquainted with singer Josee Vachon, who specializes in French-Canadian songs. I tried to get a copy of her unusual Christmas CD title “Reve de Noel” (Dream of Christmas) before the holiday itself, but a stray e-mail did me in. But rather than wait for 51 more weeks and because a good recording is good no matter when heard, I will talk about this album at the start of this new year.

Josee has that voice just right for folksongs and programs like this one. As with secular folk songs, I grew to realize that simplicity is the essence of this musical genre. While the grand approach, such as that of the Morman Tabernacle Choir, sounds majestic, it overpowers what should be the simple message of the story of the Nativity.

With this in mind, Josee has taken a novel approach. Living in Framingham, MA and appealing to a French-Canadian public, she has taken 15 selections, most of which will sound familiar to us all, and used French translations that either change the context of the original lyrics or paraphrase them in a most delightful way. (I still have enough French to follow the printed texts. Alas, there are no English translations.)

For example, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” becomes a hymn of praise to the Christ Child, while “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” is summoned to Heaven. There are fairly straight translations of “White Christmas,” “Jingle bells,” and “Winter Wonderland” (which becomes “Au royaume du Bonhomme Hiver” In the kingdom of Goodman Winter).

Among the old traditional numbers are “The first Noel,” “Little drummer boy,” “Silent night’ and of course “What child is this?” (which goes back to Henry VIII when it was “Greensleeves,” and much later took on a Christmas set of lyrics).

The singer and her guitar is backed up by percussion, bass, organ, and keyboards; and in one selection by the Rhode Island Cajun band Magnolia. So while the tree still stands in the livingroom, keep the spirit still bright with “Reve de Noel.” See for more information about purchasing this and other CDs.




Cy Walter

A-Cy WalterThe Keyboard Artistry of Cy Walter is Celebrated on CDs

Cy Walter (1915-1968) was well known for four decades as a pianist, composer, and arranger on the New York cocktail lounge scene as well as from his recordings and radio appearances. I never would have been much interested in him had not my son Richard by accident met his son Mark and agreed to set up a website to celebrate Cy’s career and artistry.

Therefore the appearance of two CDs on the Harbinger Records label caught my attention: “Sublimities, Cy Walter Centennial Tribute, Volumes 1 and 2.”

The first disc has Cy playing 14 of his arrangements of such classics as “All the things you are,” “Dancing in the dark,” “The way you look tonight,” and “The song is you.” There follow 24 selections played by Cy on several radio shows, included among which are “Tea for two,” “It’s only a paper moon,” “Star dust,” and “Laura.”

Volume 2 is dedicated to selections in which Cy is heard as accompanist and in which he is joined by other pianists. Of great interest are several of his own compositions, some taken from private discs in the family’s collection.

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Cy himself

The program notes in both sets tell us much about Cy’s life and accomplishments. We learn much about him as a person through the eyes of Ruth McGirl (his niece), Mark Walter, and fellow artists such as Michael Feinstein, as well as Richard Behrens, who put together and runs the Cy Walter website.

As Peter Mintun points out in the notes, Cy’s “brilliant recordings have largely remained inaccessible save to devoted fans for more than sixty years.” Since these new CDs hold “recordings from Cy’s earliest, and utterly rarer 78rpm and radio transcription discs and privately held recordings,” they are of great historic as well as artistic interest

Mintun also mentions some of the famous singers for whom Cy was accompanist: Jean Cavall, Greta Keller, Mabel Mercer, Lee Wiley—and even Frank Sinatra. Indeed, I must leave the reader to cull from the copious notes more information and impressions concerning this most interesting artist.

These discs shed all sorts of new light on very familiar American songs and might be used by teachers of the piano to demonstrate to their students what an “arrangement” means. For the rest of us, there is a good deal of fascinating listening in these two excellent compilations that salute a keyboard genius.

As actor, lyricist, author, and producer Chilton Ryan writes in the notes, “I am thrilled that, thanks to Mark, others now will have the chance to know and appreciate the legend that was Cy Walter.”

Has “Doc Martin” Run its Course?

A-Doc Martin 7Has the “Doc Martin” Series  Run Its Course?

Some shows grow so popular that the producers cannot dream of bringing them to a conclusion. I am afraid that “Doc Martin” is a case in point. Now in its 7th season, on the screen and in a boxed set of 2 DVDs from Acorn, the plots are showing the strain of the necessary changes any long-going series needs.

Doc Martin (Martin Clunes) and his wife Louisa (Caroline Catz) are living apart. Martin is taking therapy with Dr. Rachel Timoney (Emily Bevan), who convinces him and Louisa to meet with her together.

Series steady Joe Absolom as Al Large

Bert Large (Ian McNeice) has run his business into bankruptcy. His son Al (Joe Absolom) is unsuccessfully trying to run a tourist inn with Martin’s aunt Ruth (Eileen Atkins). The Doc’s secretary Morweena (Jessica Ransom) wants more pay since she has to handle any case that involves visible blood. And while still enamored of the Doc, pharmacist Tishell (Selina Cadell) allows her long-gone husband Clive (Malcolm Storry) to resume his marital status and obligations.

In a neat bit of tying together different plot lines, Ruth believes she can save the inn if Bert’s expertise at something illegal is put to practical use. Perhaps future series, if there are any, could do more with this concept.

Much remains the same. Martin cannot get rid the mutt Buddy. PC Joe Penhale (John Marquez) is as much an idiot as ever, especially now that he is infatuated with the Martins’ babysitter Janice (Robyn Addison). And character after character insists on self-medicating and winding up in dire straits at moments most inconvenient to Martin.

In the penultimate episode, Gemma Jones and Sigourney Weaver show up as guest stars, Jones in a small role that any actress could handle, Weaver as a strong character who pops up for one scene and vanishes. However, Jones’ role becomes major the last episode and she manages to make it human.

Although I hate to admit it, the show simply has lost most of its humor. Where Doc Martin’s quirks were funny in the first season or two, they are simply taken for granted now, all the more because we know he cannot change or the series would lose its major premise. I would be sorry if this series closed; but I feel the producers had better come up with something new or return to the lighthearted atmosphere of the first few seasons.

The shameful story of “Empire,” British style

A-EmpireThe Shameful Story of the British Empire

A thoroughly jaundiced view of the history of the British Empire can be found on the Athena Learning DVD tersely titled “Empire.”  Written and hosted by Jeremy Paxman, it tells the shameful story of how Britain decided it was in charge of the world—or at least those parts of it not already inhabited by whites—and destined to make those parts thoroughly British.

There are five hour-long episodes in this 2-disc set, each looking at the subject from different points of view. “A Taste for Power” discusses the taking over of (mostly) India by diplomacy and broken promises and by military troops. “Making Ourselves at Home” shows how the families of the governors and soldiers took over acres of land and built British-style homes and clubs.

“Playing the Game” connects the goal of the “public” schools to make no-nonsense hard playing Christians out of the boys who would carry these ideas when they went to rule countries of which they knew or understood nothing. (This is where Michael Palin of Monty Python appears briefly to heighten the absurdity of that mindset.)

David Livingstone

“Making a Fortune” is the most shameful of all: the slave trade, forcing opium on the Chinese, and other indications of what being religious meant to them back then. Finally, “Doing Good” starts with the sincere attempts of Dr. Livingston to spread his religion to the Africans (he succeeded, we are told, in making a single conversion!) and goes on to the otherwise motivated British such as Cecil Rhodes, who wanted power.

The feeling of history repeating itself (this is being written two days after the attack on Paris by ISIS) comes from the story of how the Mau Maus decided that Kenya was for the Kenyans and did something about it by decapitating the most prominent of the British governors. The British reaction, as always, was even crueler; but that is all part of believing that one’s way is the right way.

The greatest irony of all is today’s white Brits complaining of all the commonwealth people in their cities. Of course, they had no part in the original crimes against humanity done by the past regimes; but they are reaping the whirlwind. Will other governments around the world ever learn what it is to consider their culture superior and therefore to have the “right” to advise other nations how to act?

This should be required viewing for those in power who can so easily abuse it…and then wonder why nobody likes them.


Filosofo di campagna

A-OP-Filosofo di campagnaLittle-known Comic Opera is a Lot of Fun

What  gift to get the opera lover who has all the popular operas? Easy. Get an obscure one that is a lot of fun. Such is Baldassare Galuppi’s 1754 comic opera “Il filosofo di campagna” (The Philosopher of the Country) which is now available on a Bongiovanni DVD in a 2012 performance from the Teatro Comunale, Belluno.

Until now, the name Galuppi was familiar only as the subject of a poem by Robert Browning but his music was unknown to me. With a libretto by the venerable Carlo Goldini (whose “Turandot” was used for the libretto of the Puccini opera), “Filosofo” tells the usual convoluted tale of a network of lovers.

Now hold your breath: Don Tritemio (Carlo Torriani) wants his daughter Eugenia (Ilaria Zanetti) to marry the rich peasant Nardo (Cuneyt Unsal), nicknamed the Philosopher, while she loves Rinaldo (Max Baldan), having her housemaid Lesbina (Giorgia Cinciripi) pose as Eugenia when Nardo shows up, and he falls in love with her, while promising his niece Lena (Camilla Antonini) that she will get a husband by the end of the day. (Get it?)


As one would expect, the serious arias are designed to express a single emotion, while the comic ones show the stupidity or cleverness of a given character. For example, Don Tritemio sings to Rinaldo his “reasons” for rejecting him as a suitor for Eugenia by explaining he is rejecting him because he said “No”!

The cast is pleasant and are enjoying the silly romp. The tenor playing Rinaldo, which by the way was sung by a woman in the original production, is not complimented by close-ups, what with his double chin. But a stronger negative is the far too many close-ups of conductor Fabrizio da Ros, who seems at best disinterested in the proceedings and at times even bored! And the business of superimposing him over the actors is more than annoying. He makes even von Karajan look modest.

The program notes are quite interesting. However, an essay on the social importance of the plot pushes the thesis a little too far. Yes, the plot is a little like—not a lot like–that of “The Barber of Seville,” but while Figaro is at pains to help a nobleman, there is no such element in the Galuppi work. The latter is far too lighthearted to carry any heavy social satirical burden.

The running time is 110 minutes, the picture is in 4:3 ratio, and the subtitles are in English and Italian.

The Girls in the Band

A-Girls in the Band           GIRLS IN THE BAND   How many of these names do you recognize? Marian McPartland, Esperanza Spalding, Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, Ina Ray Hutton? Possibly the last one. They are only a few of the many female jazz musicians that struggled to be heard in a country that was sexist even more than racist, while men like Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington made the headlines.

Virgil Films has brought to DVD a wonderful documentary titled “The Girls in the Band,” directed by Judy Chaikin, that tells in 88 minutes the story of these women whose love for jazz made them face all the obstacles that the male domination and racial bigotry could put in their way.

The most interesting story is that of a white woman playing in an all-Black women’s band, who had to hide as much as possible when they did a gig down south. How much have things changed since then, one might wonder.

The format gives each artist time to have her own story told through vintage films, stills, and interviews. There are several bonus features, the best of which is an ironic recreation of a photo taken decades ago in Harlem in which dozens of male jazz artists posed along with only three women. See for yourself how this wrong was righted!

I personally do not like jazz, but I do admire the artistry of those highlighted in this film.