“Hee Haw” Thrives on Bad Jokes and Country Music

A-Hee Haw“Hee Haw” Thrives on Bad Jokes and Country Music

In 1969, a summer replacement was needed for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and some brain(s) came up with the idea of a corn-fed version of “Laugh-In.” Featuring the residents of Kornfield Kounty, it was called “Hee Haw” and was hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark. It was a smash. And now five of its 55-minute episodes are available in a set of 3 DVDs from Time Life with the title “The Hee Haw Collection.”

The format of each show consisted of an introduction by Owens and Clark, a string of horrible jokes, and nine country and western numbers. The singers heard in this collection are Grandpa Jones, The Hagers, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Gordie Tapp, Donna Fargo, Tommy Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Charlie Rich, Ramona Jones, Dottie West, Susan Rae, and Hank Williams Jr.

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Hosts Owens and Clark

Never a fan of this kind of music, I found the numbers pleasant and after a while hard to distinguish from one another. On the other hand, jokes like

She: Sorry I ran over your hog. I’ll replace it.

            He: You know you can’t. You ain’t fat enough

do make you guffaw because of their sheer awfulness. My favorite is the one about the man who was so fast that he could turn off a bulb and get into bed while it was still light. Okay, not exactly Oscar Wilde but it was not intended to be. There are also some clever cartoon characters in the same scenes as the humans, a device used mostly to emphasize the badness of the joke. Cute.

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Grandpa Jones

I tried to get the names of the comic characters but they were quickly named at the end of each episode with no printed cast list. Wikipedia has a long list of all those who appeared over the years and the reader will have to settle with that.

The five programs included were aired (in the order given) on 12-17-69, 10-16-71, 2-24-73, 12-31-69, and 1-28-70. There are also bonus features of interviews for those interested.  The last disc also has “All-Time Favorites,” “Hee Haw Classics,” and “Special Comedy Selections.”

All in all, recommended for those who like the music and chortle over cornfield humor. But it never pretends to be more than it is and they are all so genial that one can just switch off one’s mind and enjoy.

 

Hits of 1920

The Hits of 1920 Still Give Pleasure

 A-ARCH-1920 It is obviously very well to read books about the old-time songs and those who sang them and quite another actually to hear them being sung. Then twice blessed are the smaller labels that can take chances and issue CDs that are targeted to smaller but appreciative audiences. Such a label is Archeophone with their Phonographic Yearbook series, all of which I have already have reviewed. One of them, “1920: Even Water’s Getting Weaker,” is a special favorite of mine.

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Bert Williams, considered by many to be the greatest performer of them all

Here we have 24 tracks of recordings that appeared in 1919 and 1920. You will find such titles as “The love nest” (used by Burns & Allen as their theme), “When my baby smiles at me,” “Swanee,” “Prohibition blues,” “Whispering,” and “Rose of Washington Square.” And you hear Paul Whiteman and his Ambassador Orchestra, Art Hickman’s Orchestra, Al Jolson, Bert Williams, Edith Day, and Eddie Cantor, among others. Space limitations make it impossible for me to list them all—but they all are wonderful.

Note: The Archeophone website gives the complete tracking liss of all their products.

The booklet gives you a good background of the times, notes on each selection, and some wonderful photos of exploding beer barrels and the singers that drank from those that got away. Yes, there will be offensive racial references; but we cannot ignore the shameful part of our history without doing an Orwellian 1984-type rewrite on it.

Grab this one and the others in the series. You can order from Archeophone by e-mail: sales@archeophone.com, or from their website www.archeophone.com.

Bergonzi at the Met as Hero and Bumpkin

Bergonzi as Tragic Hero and as Village Bumpkin

Among the several CD transfers of vintage Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the Sony label, two of the more recent releases star Carlo Bergonzi in the tenor lead–one a tragedy, one a comedy.

IMG_20150815_0002Verdi’s “Ernani” (recently seen by many as an HD telecast at local theaters) is based on a play by Victor Hugo. Francesco Maria Piave, who wrote many a libretto for the Master, did a good job boiling it down to a straight love-plot and omitting most of the political matter that made Hugo’s play so startling for its day.

Basically, Ernani (Carlo Bergonzi), who turned bandit after Don Carlo killed his father and seized his property, is in love with Elvira (Leontyne Price). But so is Charles V of Spain (Cornell MacNeil), and so is Elvira’s uncle Don Silva (Giorgio Tozzi). Though not as incomprehensible as “Il Trovatore,” the plot of “Ernani” seems a little silly to audiences today, hinging as it does on bravado oaths and how Honor must be served. (W.S. Gilbert spoofed this sort of thing in “The Pirates of Penzance”; but Verdi was a hot blooded Italian and to him a man’s word meant something.)

As much as I dislike Franco Corelli’s excesses, I think I would have preferred him to Bergonzi in the role. The latter simply does not have the clarion tones that such a heroic role demands. The audience at that December 1, 1962 performance, however, adored him. An energetic reading of the score by conductor Thomas Schippers helps a distinctly impressive cast.

IMG_20150815_0001On March 5, 1966, Bergonzi appeared in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” as the prize village bumpkin Nemorino, who loves the lovely Adina (Roberta Peters), who loves to read about Tristan and Isolde’s magic love potion and is herself loved by the army officer Belcore (Frank Guarrera). Known for opera buffa roles that require patter technique, Fernando Corena is the believable charlatan, Dr. Dulcamara.

The libretto by Felice Romani is little more than a sequence of duets; but the score is bubbly enough, especially under Schipper’s baton, to keep things from getting dramatically boring.

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Corena as the quack

Here I find Bergonzi’s voice to be just right for the innocent he is playing. I did, however, find some fault with his bel canto technique in the gem of the score, “Una furtiva lagrima,” halfway into Act II. Others may disagree.  Peters is at her usual chirpy soprano, Guarrera is an imposing Belcore, and Corena does what he does best. It is difficult to be funny on a CD, but he comes close.

Both operas have some cuts, “Ernani” more than “Elisir,” and both sets take up two CDs.

Hippolyte et Aricie

 

51Woc7KK-9L._AA160_HIPPOLYTE ET ARICIE”  Suffers from Silly Production Values

The story of Euripides’ “Hippolytus” concerns a young man, Hippolytus, who worships Artemis, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and ignores Aphrodite. The latter punishes him by inflaming his stepmother, Phaedra, with passion for him, leading to a triple disaster.

When Racine took up the tale in “Phaedra,”  he catered to the tastes of his age by giving the young man a love interest, Aricie; and when Rameau needed a libretto for his 1773 opera, he used the Racine version, gave it a happy ending,  and called it “Hippolyte et Aricie.” This is the title of the Opus Arte DVD that holds a 2013 performance of the work, given at the Glyndebourne Opera House and conducted by William Christie.

I was going to ignore this “concept” production, but it gives me the perfect example for my talk on “How not to give an opera.” Director Jonathan Kent explains in the program notes that his intent was “to reinvent Baroque opera for the 21st century” and follows up with a lot of abstract nouns to justify his staging.

He explains that the north of France can get very cold while the south is warm. From this, he sees the goddess Diane’s chastity as cold and Cupid’s love as hot. So he sets the prologue of the work in a REFIGERATOR! (Was he actually paid for mocking the opera thus?)

 

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Hippolytus and the horses that would drag him to his death

As with so many recent productions of operas of all periods, the major characters are dressed in the most un-colorful modern garb—Theseus gets a white suit, Phaedre a plain black dress. The immortals are given full scale Baroque costumes that relieve the visual boredom. And putting the mortals in a two-story cutaway 1950s house (actually using the structure of the refrigerator minus the orange juice, sausages and eggs) simply takes away from whatever grandeur is left to them thanks to Kent’s “concept.”

In one scene, the chorus is decked out in bright red Baroque-style hunting outfits. In several others, they are dressed in the dullest possible dark outfits. And of course, just about everybody has to be barefoot.

Come on. If he thinks his audience will not accept Baroque opera done in the Baroque staging, why does he take on the job? There are scenes from other productions on You Tube done in the costumes of Rameau’s time. They are a pleasure to watch.

I cannot fault the singers, who have little say about the physical production: Ed Lyon (Hippolyte), Christine Karg (Aricie), Sarah Connolly ( Phaedra), Stephane Degout (Theseus), and the imposing Francois Lis (Pluton, Jupiter, and Neptune). The smaller roles are quite good. However, the too-contemporary choreography, so common in productions from this period, jars completely with the music.

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A traditionally staged version can be found on the Erato label

This, then, is one of these DVDs that are best heard and not seen, unless one appreciates these childish directorial games. Perhaps if a director who trusts the work he is assigned to direct would bring the 21st century back to Rameau’s time, then I would be willing to watch and review it for its artistic merits.

Oh yes, Opus Arte still cannot find it worthwhile to give the track listings in the program notes.

 

Elektra and Medea

Two Classical Greek Women Wreak Revenge

61EPWONfwrL._SY606_By a coincidence, new videos of two operas based on Greek tragedies have appeared in the same month. Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” (1909) is on the Opus Arte label and features a 2010 performance from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden with Christian Thielemann conducting. The other, on an ArtHaus DVD, is Aribert Reimann’s “Medea” in a 2010 performance at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Michael Boder.

[In this article, the German spellings of the Greek names will be used.]

61llE+-mmgL._SL1024_Both works center on a woman driven to the utmost limits of human endurance and bent on a horrible revenge. Elektra lives only for the day when her brother Orestes will return to murder their mother Klytamnestra, who had murdered their father Agamemnon. Medea has given up all for love of Jason, who had stolen the Golden Fleece from her father. Once back in Greece, Jason decides to marry a Corinthian princess, take the children, and send Medea into exile.

Stories like this demand powerful music. After experimenting with a new orchestral sound for his “Salome” (another female you would not like to meet), Strauss went a step further with “Elektra.” But the score is entirely dramatic and seems to fit the action and emotions. A leitmotif based on the word “Agamemnon” opens the work and is heard at crucial points. The effeminacy of Aegisth is clearly underlined by the bouncy little theme that accompanies his first entrance. (His stage time is very short!)

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Poster for Pasolini film version

The score for “Medea” is more like a movie soundtrack. As the program notes point out, Reimann abandons any sense of beat and lets the music flow around the action. This might be very well, but the effect is that it all sounds the same, regardless of what is happening on stage. The declamatory style of singing so beloved of recent composers (could they give us a beautiful melody if they wanted to?) will strike some as a group of actors shouting at each other at the top of their vocal range.

This works fine for Medea, who is almost always at the end of her patience—and sanity. But when every one else on stage is in the same flight path, it does become (well, let me say it) boring. Some relief comes when the young Princess sings; she does sound like a classic Grecian Sandra Dee. But it is also practically a “vocalise” in which arbitrary syllables are given multiple notes.

The set of “Elektra” consists of a huge black parallelogram with a blood red background peeking through. When the shape is rotated out of sight, the rest of the stage is all red, with a silly staircase leading nowhere. “Medea” takes place in a sort of bombed out-building site that suits the mood of the action.

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Electra and Orestes in proper garb

Both productions start with the women dressed in an approximation of Greek costume. And then—as is absolutely required in opera today—the male chorus of “Elektra” show up in modern garb, with one dressed in a clownish top hat and tails. “Medea” also has the women dressed in period costume. Then enter Jason in modern fatigues. And later Orestes in a dark suit. Why? Timelessness? Saving money on effective costumes? They are all doing it? The audience didn’t seem to mind and I read that this production was the hottest ticket in town.

Finally, a very touchy subject. Elektra (Linda Watson) is done no favors by her close-ups. And for a character who eats her meals from a dish along with the dogs, she has not lost any weight (to be tactful). Klytamnestra (Jane Henschel) is simply obese; but that fits the character of a totally decadent Queen. On the other hand, Medea (Marlis Petersen) is very sexy and believable in the role.

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Hugo von Hoffmannsthal

One last point. Hugo Hofmannsthal’s libretto for “Elektra” sticks pretty closely to the Sophocles play. Reimann based his libretto for “Medea” on the Euripides version with deletions and with additions taken from an earlier German treatment of the legend. Much is made of the Golden Fleece in the opera, although it is only alluded to in the play.

So there we are. Two works with so many similarities—Greek tragic sources, idiosyncratic scores, mixed costuming, surreal staging—and yet so different in effect because of casting and (in the case of the videos) camera work.

“Zigeunerbaron” is Something of a Letdown

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“Zigeunerbaron” is Something of a Letdown

   When Johann Strauss II’s “Der Zigeunerbaron” (The Gypsy Baron) opened in 1885, Western Europe had spent a 50-year love affair with Hungarian music. So this operetta about Gypsies, with a score infused with Gypsy music was a sure hit. But for me, today, after a promising overture, the show does not work as well as other Strauss musicals.

In yet another grand production given at the Seefestspiele Morbisch in 2011, now on a Videoland DVD, the silly plot is not enough to maintain interest, the comic songs are not funny, and the moments of great beauty are few and far between. In fact, the only excitement comes during the choreographed sequences, so that the highlight of the production is the fully danced curtain calls!

The cast does its best to keep things moving, but again the story and somewhat unexceptional score are against them. I will not go into further detail. I believe this production is worth seeing because anything by Strauss, Jr. always has its merits. And it is always fun watching this group fill its huge stage, even though those telephone operator mikes on their faces look ludicrous in closeup.

The running time is 143 minutes and there are subtitles in four languages. The tracking list in the booklet is inaccurate.

 

81Kx0GmYwTL._SY679_Note: There is a made for television and abridged version with a less than scintillating tenor in the title role, Siegfried Jerusalem. There is less dancing and the plot remains uninteresting.

Great Comedy Overtures

A-Great Comedy OverturesGREAT COMEDY OVERTURES   How tired some librarians or reviewers must get at  being asked, “What’s a good book for me?” or “What recording has enjoyable music?” or inane questions like that. But in answer to that “enjoyable music,” I have many recommendations, one of which is a brand new Naxos CD titled “Great Comedy Overtures.”

Of the countless operas and operettas that enjoyed glorious  reputations and are done no more, many of them have left their overtures to be played at “pops” concerts and as fillers for LP and then CD collections, such as this one. With few exceptions, none of the 11 works on this disc are revived at all outside of their countries. But each one is a gem of tuneful delights.

The overtures in this program are from “Zampa” (Herold), “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (Nicolai), “Il segreto di Susanna” (Wolf-Ferrari), “Mignon” (Thomas), “Donna Diana” (Reznicek), “Martha” (Flowtow), “Fra Diavolo” (Auber), “Zar und Zimmerman” (Lortzing), “Il matrimonio segreto” (Cimarosa), “Si j’etais roi” (Adam), and “Der Barbier von Bagdad” (Cornelius).

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The famous overture with the opera attached

Yes, people of a certain age or a collector of old-time radio broadcasts on CDs will recognize the “Donna Diana” overture as the open theme music of “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” The fact that the “Zampa” overture was played at my Junior High School graduation is neither here nor there.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is led by Lance Friedel. Have fun.

The Wild West

A-Wild WestA Fascinating Study of Geography and the Western Movement

Athena Learning has come up with another winner, “The Wild West,” subtitled “A Wild Ride into America’s Historic Frontier.” Actually, both titles are a bit misleading. With British wild-west enthusiast Ray Mears as author and guide, the eight episodes in this 2-DVD set show how the geography of this country intermeshed with the lives of those who lived in the different sections of the continent and with the pioneers who traversed it to find better lives, to get rich quick, or to prey on the others.

Through a series of interviews and panoramic shots of the terrain, we see in some detail how people coped with the environment and weather to survive. The names of the chapters speak for themselves: “The First Settlers” [in the Appalachians], “Furs and the Mountain Men” [the Rockies], “The Wagon Trains,” “Homesteaders and Cowboys,” “Plains Indians and the Buffalo,” “Gold and the Boomtowns,” “Bandits and Lawlessness,” and “The Desert Indians.”

The word “cowboys,” by the way, referred to the troublemakers and the outlaws, while the decent cattlemen were called “ranchers.”

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Navajo weaver and spinner

The funniest anecdote is that of the man who found the first gold nuggets at Sutter’s Mill and told a companion not to mention it to anyone! The saddest story is in the last chapter in which our treatment of the Navajo tribe is told in bitter detail.The story of the Apaches fighting to keep their way of life is told briefly and in a way to make us root for Geronimo, who fought until his tribe was down to 34 souls and finally had to surrender. We were not very good at keeping treaties.

Equally shameful is the railroads’ advertising that passengers could amuse themselves on the great plains by shooting buffalo from the cars. No wonder the Native Americans thought the white man was crazy. The former killed for need, the latter for profit or just plain fun.

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Go west and get rich

In between all this are the demonstrations by descendants of those who went or were there before of how they used the environment to eke out an existence, even to the extent of using the surrounding mud to build their homes. All in all, a fascinating look at man’s relationship to nature and how it built a nation.

Each chapter is 25 minutes long and there are subtitles. As always, a most informative booklet is provided.