My father, Frank Behrens, passed away on April 2, 2016 after a long illness. He died peacefully at home surrounded by family. I will soon post an obituary and touching tributes from friends and associates that were shared with us after his passing. I will also maintain this blog with new material. Check back here soon.
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.
Now and then, I find an opera that is not great in itself but enjoyable and interesting for what it tells us about its times and for what it predicts. Such is “Les Femmes vengees” (The Avenged Women) by Francois-Andre Danican Philidor that made its premier in 1775 and was revived and recorded in 2014 by Opera Lafayette. It is now available on a Naxos CD and worth the hearing. Ryhan Brown conducts.
The scenario, said to be a sort of sequel to Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” involves a plot by three wives—Madame Riss (Claire Debono), Madame Lek (Blandine Staskiewicz), and Madame la President (Pascale Beaudin)—and M. Riss (Jeffrey Thompson). The idea is to trap and humiliate M. Lek (Alex Dobson) and M. le President (Antonio Figueroa) when they come to make merry with Madame Riss.
So there is much hiding behind doors in the best tradition of French farce, much potential sex that never quite comes to fruition, and plenty of opportunity for semi-serious and outright satirical songs. The ensembles are especially good. In fact, if I didn’t know anything about the date of composition or the composer, I would have guessed at early Rossini or early Donizetti.
The booklet gives a detailed synopsis and a few interesting photos from the production. The libretto can be found on the Naxos website, while the recording (thankfully) has only the complete score. (The dialogue is long and would not be appreciated by non-French speakers.) All in all, a minor but pleasant little gem that deserves revival.
Yet again, Time Life has brought onto DVDs a collection of not-too-old-time TV shows, this one titled “The Carol Burnett Show, The Lost Episodes.” (Perhaps “The Up to Now Lost Episodes” would be more accurate?) The contradiction notwithstanding, this 6-disc set is a delight.
There are 16 episodes, the earliest of which was seen on 9/11/67, the latest on 3/1/72. The usual gang is on all of them: Carol herself, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence. Among the many guest stars are Carol Channing, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Phyllis Diller, Jim Nabors, Bob Newhart, Bernadette Peters, Don Rickles, Julie Andrews, and Flip Wilson.
The funniest sketch (to me) has a sex-mad Carol as Katherine Hepburn supposedly warding off the Humphrey Bogart of Steve Lawrence in a fabulous spoof of “The African Queen.” And I just loved the whole gang’s takeoff of the original “Mission Impossible,” with Carol doing a devastating satire of Barbara Bain. And how audiences loved those moments when Korman tries unsuccessfully to keep a straight face while Don Rickles and Tim Conway are in high gear.
The most frantic routine has Don Rickles as a shoe salesman driven to thoughts of homicide by his female customers.( He tells one of them that she doesn’t need a shoe salesman but a blacksmith.) By the end of the sketch, he looks ready for Dr. House’s team to save him. Conway’s style is quite the opposite and far more subtle. But both get laughs, especially from Korman!
There are some routines that show up on several of the shows. There are “The Old Folks” with Burnett and Korman, “Carol and Sis” with Burnett and Lawrence, “As the Stomach Turns” with Burnett, Korman, Lawrence, and whoever the guest star might be. There is the opening routine in which Burnett answers questions from the audience (with what degree of preparation I cannot tell), Burnett as the Charwoman, and other routines which the audience expects and which the writers never fail to provide.
While some of the comic sketches might fall a bit flat, the dance routines are of the highest caliber. Among the vocalists doing guest star duty are Pat Boone, Vikki Carr, Jack Jones, Dolly Parton, and Chita Rivera.
As with the other Burnett anthology, there are over 5 hours of bonus materials: interviews, famous sketches, outtakes, and even a backstage tour. An informative booklet gives all the tracking and lots of extra information and pictures. A great collection of one of the best variety shows from the past!
First thing, if you ever see a person with a metal detector, remember to call him a “detectorist” or you will be told firmly that the machine is the detector. This much I learned from a 6-part miniseries from the BBC titled “Detectorists,” now out on a single DVD from Acorn Media.
The general plot revolves around Andy (Mackenzie Crook, who also scripted and directed the series) and Lance (Toby Jones), whose Impossible Dream is to find a buried Saxon treasure ship near the village of Danebury (get it?). The land under which they are sure it lies belongs to the crotchety and eccentric Bishop (David Sterne), who has trouble keeping his invisible dogs in check.
Love interest is provided by Andy and his teacher girlfriend Becky (Rachael Stirling), the latter of whom is not thrilled by a pretty young lass named Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) who expresses an interest in joining the boys in finding hidden treasure—most of which shows up as tin can pulls.
Lance is still very much in love with his ex-wife Maggie (Lucy Benjamin), who is now happily married to Paul (Paul Casar), a Pizza Hut employee. When Andy finds an actual gold coin on his own, Lance breaks off their friendship.
The villains of the piece are two antiquarians with connections in higher places, who are forever trying to treasure hunt on the same land, preferably without Andy and Lance. In the meanwhile, the treasure hunting club in Danebury, seven members strong, has been spectacularly unsuccessful in finding anything worthwhile. In fact, the President is reduced to giving a talk on buttons, which puts most of the members to sleep.
In a series of interviews, Mackenzie makes it clear that he wanted the series to be a “comedy of character,” not a series of one liners. I see by my notes that I laughed out loud exactly four times during the 180 minutes running time. One time was when Andy is trying to watch TV but is utterly defeated by all the remotes his now departed Becky left him. Another was seeing the utterly blank treasure hunting group’s Business Chart whiteboard.
“Detectorists” is a pleasant look at nice characters obsessed with their hobby. The saddest, perhaps the funniest, scene is the Open House given by the group. There are several tables displaying the fruits of past efforts: can pulls, buttons, and other items of no interest whatsoever. All the event needs is just a single visitor.
The show is worth the watching, but not quite as “hilarious” as the quotations in the press release put it.
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.
Verdi’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.
On 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.
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.
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.
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.
British humor is something else again. You probably know the character of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Boo-kay”) on “Keeping Up Appearances” and how funny-repulsive her self-centered, social-climbing personality is. Well, picture two of them (minus the slapstick) at war with each other in a small English town back in 1930 and you have a good idea of what makes “Mapp and Lucia, Series 1 and 2” such an entertaining miniseries. It has been reissued in a 4-DVD set from Acorn Media. However, no subtitles have been added.
Based on books by E.F. Benson, this series tells the story of the social leader Lucia Lucas (Geraldine McEwan) who rents from Elizabeth Mapp (Prunella Scales) a modest home in a village called Tilling-on-Sea. When the latter proves to be obnoxious socially, dishonest commercially, and nearly insanely jealous over Lucia’s abilities (real and professed), a series of one-upmanships begins between the two that splits the village into factions and almost always ends with Mapp’s humiliation. Even when a natural disaster binds the two for a long period of time…. But no. You will have to see for yourself.
The first series, I believe, is the more focused one, establishing the rivalry between the two title characters and winding up with the strangest bonding experience (albeit a brief one), thanks to… Again, see for yourself. The second series sees Lucia practically take over the town as Lady Mayor. But the plotting is a bit more scattered than that of series 1; and while charming, it does not bring about as many laughs
McEwan gives us a bubbly Lucia, whose very phoniness endears her to us, mainly because she is so good at it. Scales (yes, it is indeed Mrs. Fawlty herself) is equally perfect as the dowdy Mapp, forever conceding and withdrawing when she sees that Lucia has a temporary upper hand but instantly regrouping and planning revenge even as she gives a toothy smile of friendship. .
Equally memorable is the Georgie Pillson of Nigel Hawthorne (King George III, Sir Humphrey in the “Prime Minister” series, and countless other character roles). He plays the effeminate friend of Lucia just this side of camp, an utterly lovable old thing whose feelings for Lucia are strongly positive (but sexually ambiguous); but he can still stand his ground when he feels she is wrong. A truly believable character as Hawthorne plays it.
The other characters in the village are memorable to varying degrees. My favorite is “Quaint” Irene (Cecily Hobbs), obviously infatuated with Lucia and the voice of common sense in Tilling. You might recognize the second actress to play Hilda Rumpole, Marion Mathie, as the wealthy Mrs. Wise, while others supporting players have appeared in several British telecasts and films.
Oh, please do give this set a try. But you must accept the elements of British sophisticated humor and do not look for mugging, silly walks, and men in drag. This is a good wine, not canned beer.
It takes patience in our times to sit through Handel operas, burdened as they are with the traditions of their time. There are the absurd plots, which are merely pegs upon which to hang arias. Then each aria gives expression to a single emotion and is sung through twice (da capa aria, “from the top”) so the singer can show off the second time through. Now and then, a duet or small ensemble might break up the pattern; but the pampered singers wanted to have the stage to themselves.
When opera in Italian became the rage in the London of the early 1700s, Handel jumped in with “Rinaldo” (1711), a tale of the first crusades, which is now available on an ArtHaus Musik set of a DVD and two CDs. Happily it does not update the settings and costumes, as so many other productions do to give the work “relevance” (but, I suspect, to save on expensive costumes).
This is the only DVD of a Handel opera in which I never hit the fast forward button because I was enjoying it so much. You see, it is done with marionettes! Yes, as part of the Ludwigsburg Festival in 2014, “Rinaldo” is performed by the little people of the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo & Figli, accompanied by the Lautten Compagney Berlin, conducted by Wolfgang Katschner.
[I found out after completing my review that a good two hours had been lopped from the full score. That helped too.]
Although a marionette cannot change its expression, these darlings have expressive faces that perfectly fit their one-dimensional characters. Now and then, the camera shows the human singers in the orchestra pit; but the wooden cast carries the day. The settings and special effects are based on drawings of productions from Handel’s day; and even the battle scene between Crusaders and Saracens is remarkably well done.
There are several artists, who are seen now and then, hidden above the stage controlling the marionettes, and one can only wonder how the strings never get tangled when two lovers embrace. And how I love the bouncy little walk a marionette takes, especially when an army crosses the stage!
I will not take up room with the plot, which can be googled, but I should give credit to the fine vocalists: Antonio Giovanni (Rinaldo, a fearless knight), Marie Friederike Schoeder (Almirena, his beloved), Yosemeh Adjei (Goffredo, her father, who will not give her to Rinaldo until Jerusalem is won), Owen Willetts (Eustazio, his brother), Florian Gotz (Argante, a wicked Saracen), Gesche Geier (Armida, the witch) who helps Argante capture the lovers. (Armida, by the way, shows up in other operas of that period.)
The running time is 137 minutes and the subtitles are in English and German.
The Best “Miss Marple” Series Now is Complete in HD
At last, BBC has completed on DVDs the restoration of the original “Miss Marple” series. Yes, these are the ones in which Joan Hickson gives the definitive characterization of the seemingly dipsy but razor-sharp village busybody, Jane Marple. With the arrival of Vol. 3, viewers can now enjoy these mysteries that have been not only remastered in high definition but supplied with subtitles. The latter are, however, often incomplete or paraphrases of what is actually spoken. Why?
Hickson is by far the best of the Marples. Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal had Agatha Christie fuming. Helen Hayes in two television versions was characterless, while Geraldine McEwan’s Marple was pure Jessica Fletcher and best forgotten—especially since the original plots were considerably altered. Julia McKenzie was at least sincere but lacked that goofy façade that Hickson so beautifully managed.
Volume 1 of this enhanced BBC series contains “The Murder at the Vicarage,” “The Moving Finger,” “The Body in the Library,” and “A Murder is Announced.” In Volume 2 are “They Do It with Mirrors,” “A Pocketful of Rye,” “4:50 from Paddington,” and “The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side.” And now the last volume rounds it all off with “A Caribbean Mystery,” “At Bertram’s Hotel,” “Nemesis,” and “Sleeping Murder.”
Among the many familiar stars spotted along the way are Jean Simmons, Claire Bloom, Timothy West, Tom Wilkinson, Joss Ackland, Paul Eddington, and a very young Samantha Bond.
One can see where Christie had tongue firmly in cheek. You can spot the twinkle in her eye when she names a story after a nursery rhyme, so in “A Pocket Full of Rye,” having two serious murders, is amusing to follow the hints in the song’s lyrics. The author confessed that she also had a lot of fun with “The Body in the Library,” the very title of which, like “The Murder at the Vicarage,” sounds deliberately old fashioned.
My favorite episode? “A Murder is Announced” for its complexity and “A Murder at the Vicarage” for the performances of Paul Eddington and Cheryl Campbell. My favorite character? Top honors to David Horovitch as Chief Inspector Slack, whose dislike of Miss Marple is matched only by his admiration for her astuteness.
Add to this a delightful set of bonus features at the end of each of the three BBC sets, “A Very British Murder.” Here narrator Lucy Worsely, with a charming weak “r,” discusses with dozens of old prints and photographs, mysteries—real and fictional—and personalities behind them that captured the British imagination from the mid-1880s and through the next 100 years.