I find some recordings of film scores enjoyable even without the context of what was on the screen while the music was playing. My all-time favorite is Georges Auric’s score for “La Belle et la bete,” followed by Miklos Rozsa’s for “Thief of Bagdad” and “Jungle Book,” and William Walton’s for “Henry V.”
Among the most interesting scores is Charlie Chaplin’s own for his “Modern Times,” and it is now available on a CPO CD with the NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Timothy Brock, who also restored the music.
What was left in writing and what is heard in the film itself had many differences, slight and great; and Brock describes the problems he encountered in the excellent program notes. But while the music is of great historic interest both as film music and the work of Chaplin, the question remains as to whether it is worth the hearing for those who have no knowledge of the film “Modern Times.”
Hearing the score, all 79 minutes of it, I was too aware that all sorts of things were happening on the screen of which I could recall little. The track listings give hints such as “Lunchtime—Charlie’s breakdown—Worker’s Rally,” but while I find the music enjoyable in an abstract sense, I feel that viewing the film first is essential to enjoying it completely.
[Note. My son Richard is quite a Lovecraft expert, and I asked him to write this review. FB.]
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), an American writer who spent his career confined to the pulp genre, published in only a handful of magazines, in a genre known at the time as “Weird.” He has emerged in recent decades not only as a literary talent of great merit but has attracted a world-wide popular audience and perhaps achieved a cult status.
New editions of his small output (70 short stories and two novellas) are proliferating on bookstore shelves in the form of anthologies and leather-bound collector editions.
Now Naxos Audiobooks has released recordings of two of Lovecraft’s more popular stories, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Effectively read by actor William Roberts, the set runs for a little over six hours and is a gripping journey back to an era of American pulp weirdness.
In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” originally published in 1931, a narrator visits a New England port town that has fallen into ruins, inhabited by the genetic results of mating of humans with ancient sea creatures. The haunting descriptions of the nearly abandoned streets, the rotting wharves and decaying houses, are unparalleled in Lovecraft’s fiction, and the final revelatory scene is one of the truly great moments in the horror genre. This tale has been echoed in many horror novels and films that involve a naïve person wandering into a strange town, most notably “The Wicker Man.”
In 1930, Lovecraft was writing “The Whisperer in Darkness,” a story that featured alien life forms from the unknown ninth planet, then known as Planet X. While completing the tale, he learned that the planet Pluto had been discovered. This find helped reshape this story of strange doings in the Vermont hills into a science fiction classic. A remote farmhouse north of Brattleboro is the scene of a ghastly visitation by the Mi-Go, one of Lovecraft’s innumerable ancient races, who are colonizing the earth to harvest its mineral resources.
The story was written at a time when scientists were just realizing how incomprehensibly vast the universe really is, and while many may have been filled with wonder, others were struck by the horrible notion that in that vastness waited creatures that could use the earth as a resource to plunder. The Mi-Go’s treatment of the humans they encounter is horrific and pure Lovecraft.
These two tales, presented unabridged by Naxos Audiobooks, is a great introduction to Lovecraft’s weird science fiction and the vast mythos that he created in his short and largely unsuccessful writing career. I only wish that the notes gave more information about the author and the works.
Three Puccini operas as they were performed at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, are now offered as a boxed set of three OpusArte DVDs, titled simply “Puccini.”
The La Boheme, conducted by Andris Nelsons, was performed in 2011 and I rate it as the best staging of the work I have seen. My favorite bits of business come in Act II when we get to see the cook at the Café Momus and see Musetta (Inna Dukach) shoot some pool before her waltz song. The leads, Teodor Ilincai (Rodolfo) and Hibla Gerzmava (Mimi) are attractive—although physically not quite starving or consumptive respectively; while the other Bohemians—Marcello (Gabriele Viviani), Colline (Kostas Smoriginas) and Schaunard (Jacques Imbrailo)—are completely inside their roles.
Vocally, they are all top notch. Some details of the orchestration, as conducted by Andris Nelsons, are lost in the big house acoustics. Perhaps I am overly conscious of this having spent years listening to studio recordings where these details are quite clear.
Tosca (2006), conducted by Antonio Pappano, has a good Mario in Jonas Kaufmann, while Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca is more fiery than usual and prone to a bit of overacting. Bryn Terfel so hams it up as Scarpia that if he had a mustache he would twirl it. It was a bad choice to have separated him physically from the rest of the chorus during the mass that ends Act I, the point being that he should be among the worshippers and still “forget God.”
Having no blood on the knife or even on Tosca’s gown or hands is something of a mistake; and having blood all over her written safe conduct is another. (You do know the plot, don’t you?)
Antonio Pappano conducts the dramatic score with lots of energy.
The Turandot (2014) has two faults. Marco Berti is simply not attractive enough for the role of Calaf. (I hope I am not being politically incorrect, but I do believe that looks are important in the theater.) More important the work is staged as a play within a play. The chorus, which is an important character in this work, is all on balconies upstage, while the soloists and dancers move about the stage proper.
All of this not very original concept simply removes the characters two levels away from reality and it is difficult to care about them. This is a shame, because Lise Lindstrom is a very human Turandot and Eri Nakamura a very sympathetic Liu.
The colorful score is well served by conductor Henrik Nanasi.
A 1914 Victor Herbert Show Given in Revised Format
Since Victor Herbert wrote stage musicals from 1895 to 1924, it is no wonder that his music (and plots) evolved from the European operetta type (“Naughty Marietta” and “The Princess Pat”) to shows like “The Only Girl” (1914) that sound like early Jerome Kern with their ragtime numbers and contemporary plots.
With available CD recordings of several Herbert works (with dialogue) from the Ohio Light Opera, it is a pleasant pastime to trace this development. Now Light Opera of New York is joining in with recordings on the Albany label like “Orange Blossoms” (1921) and now “The Only Girl.”
I must emphasize that this “Only Girl” is a “revised edition.” The original, as the very helpful program notes tell us, had more dialogue than music and seemed “more like a play with some good music.” So Stage Director Michael Phillips scuttled most of the dialogue that was filled with references to current events, revised what was left and kept but rearranged the songs.
The weak plot involves a temperamental lyricist nicknamed Kim (Kyle Erdos-Knapp), who finds his perfect composer in Ruth Wilson (Antoni Mendezona). He cannot bear the thought of a female partner and … Well, one can guess and who can really have any deep feelings for such clichéd characters?
The songs are mostly light hearted and typical of their times. There is a scene in which the men compete in a song contest with the women and sing an anti-marriage song, “Bachelors don’t learn a bit of sense.” The women reply with “Ages ago, as you well know” and are given the prize. And the plot does not advance by one millimeter.
And since this is a show about putting on a show, a few songs from the show within the show are merely sung as part of a rehearsal. But the idea of a song furthering the story was not an important one back then.
Mendezona’s voice is operatic, which is appropriate for a work with songs that would be at home in Herbert’s earlier works, while Erdos-Knapp’s sounds more like those heard in current musicals—youthful but not powerful. The secondary roles include singers with strong voices, such as Sarah Best as Jane, and comic nasal voices from the other females.
The score is very pleasant without having any really memorable numbers, but it is conducted with a passion by Gerald Steichen. Well worth the hearing, especially for local theatre groups looking for something out of the ordinary to perform.
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.
When the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to set “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the start of World War I (see my review on this site), they also decided to couple it with “Love’s Labour’s Won.” Er, yes. That title does show up in a list of Shakespeare’s works in 1598; and one can assume it is either a lost play or another name for a known one.
So with no evidence pro or con, they decided that “Much Ado About Nothing” was as good as any other and ran it with “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” setting it at the end of World War I at Christmas time. And since Berowne and Roseline in the earlier play are much like Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado,” they cast the same actors (Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry) as both couples. They are excellent, Terry being one of the strongest Beatrices I have seen. Now both plays are out on OpusArte DVDs, separately and as a boxed set.
While the production is quite good, I have two complaints. It has become a common fault in Shakespeare productions that the comedy is overdone. So while the rest of MAAN is a mixture of high but human comedy and serious situations, the scene in which Benedick is tricked into believing that Beatrice loves him is staged very cleverly but as pure farce. Again, the first scene with the town watch, headed by the malapropian Dogberry (Nick Haverson), is too slowly articulated (lest audience miss a single joke) and in their second appearance there is far too much pantomime.
There are a good many choral interludes, other than the one called for in the script at Hero’s tomb, and Christopher Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love” is heard twice. Arranger Nigel Hess explains things in a short interview in the bonus section. And there is an optional voiceover by Director Christopher Luscombe.
The serious parts are well played and believable: Leonato (David Horovitch), Antonio (Thomas Wheatley), and Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson). Sam Alexander makes a somewhat restrained villain as Don John, while Flora Spencer-Longhurst makes a sympathetic Hero. It is hard to make Claudio likable, since he so easily falls for Don John’s lies, but Tunji Kasim takes a good stab at a difficult role.
The scenery is solid and realistic, the changes working smoothly with the partial help of a rising section of the thrust stage. Even the Christmas tree is put to comic use, but in an over-the-top way.
I suggest that one see LLL first for obvious reasons. And thank you, OpusArte, for the subtitles!
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” (British spelling) is a most difficult play to perform today, because it makes fun of euphuism, a way of writing that was both popular and much derided in Shakespeare’s day. Satire is fine, if the audience is familiar with what is being satirized. There are many Latin and Latinate words and phrases in the dialogue, making modern comprehension even more difficult. And many of the comic characters seem just silly to us.
Despite all this, a performance of LLL on an OpusArte DVD, as it was given by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015, is not only the best production of that play but possibly of any Shakespeare play I have seen.
Set at the beginning of World War I, it tells the tale of the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three of his friends—Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne—who vow to devote themselves to study and not to have contact with women for three years. Naturally, four women—the Princess of France and her three friends, Maria, Katherine, and Rosaline—arrive to discuss political matters; and the men are smitten. So much for vows.
Berowne is the most interesting of the men, cynical but just as much forsworn as his fellow scholars, and Edward Bennett makes him quite likable. His love Rosaline is played with an equally sharp tongue by Michelle Terry. (These two are the Beatrice and Benedict of “Much Ado About Nothing,” reviewed on this website.)
Among the whacky characters are Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), his servant Moth (Peter McGovern), a constable Dull (Chris McCalphy), a schoolmaster Holofernes (David Horovitch), and a curate Sir Nathaniel (Thomas Wheatley). The actors somehow make them human—and therefore funny. I feel that the Princess of Leah Whitaker lacks that command and elegance the role needs to distinguish her from the other three women.
Among the directorial triumphs is the scene in which each of the lovers overhears the others read love poetry to their sweethearts. Setting it on a small section of a roof works perfectly. So does presenting the pageant of the Nine Worthies as a musical in a Gilbert and Sullivan vein. (Some liberties are taken with the text, but no harm done.)
The mood change at the very end is beautifully done, and the lovely song about summer and winter is enhanced with additional lyrics about love.
The dialogue is read slowly and very clearly; and these DVDs have the added advantage of subtitles, which are pretty much essential for this play. The bonus material is, for a change, quite interesting.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is also on an OpusArte DVD with the alternate title of “Love’s Labour’s Won.” These two sets are available separately or together in a boxed set
I asked my contact at Acorn Media why “Midsomer Murders 25” was followed up by MM 17 and was told that the 25 referred to the season while 17 means the 17th series. All this because they decided to redo all of the episodes but using the series numbering. They did the same with the Poirot re-releases but no harm was done..
Again, I find the two leads—Neil Dudgeon as DCI John Barnaby and Gwilym Lee as DS Charles Nelson—simply uninteresting. The interesting Inspector Morse has a colorless assistant in his Lewis; Lewis has a very unusual assistant in his DS James Hathaway (who steals all the scenes from the star); George Gently has his funny DS John Bacchus; and John Nettles himself is so likeable that his many assistants seem equally pleasant if not deeply characterized.
With Dudgeon and Gwilym, I feel the plot alone has to carry the day. And giving the Barnabys a new baby does not help at all. Nor do frequent shots of their dog.
And the four stories in this 2-disc set do just that. One deals with a missing manuscript, one with a magician and a local group of cultists, one a folk festival, and the last with a winery. They are all new spins on old plots, but what else can one do without going into X-Files territory?
Each episode runs 93 minutes and there are very welcome subtitles.
I love songs from the far past for the beauty of some, the power of others, and the combination of both. Songs written and sung in times of war are particularly moving, all the more so because “the pomp and circumstance of glorious war” (as Othello puts it) are seldom celebrated by the men in the front lines. Songs of the American Civil War (or, as some prefer, the War Between the States) are particularly poignant because the “enemy” consisted of our own young countrymen.
There are many recorded programs of songs of that conflict—I even have a disc of songs sung by the Confederate Navy!—but an especially good one has come to my attention. It is a Harmonia Mundi CD titled “1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War” that features the Anonymous 4,whose names and pictures are cheerfully revealed in the program notes: Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Marsha Gehensky. They are joined by Bruce Molsky, who provides an occasional fifth voice, as well as accompaniment on fiddle, banjo and guitar.
The songs heard here were “originally intended for the stage and parlor” and are “stylized, versified, personal stories prized by so many men and women and children who lived through ‘This Cruel War’.” (From the program notes.) There is a strong feeling of authenticity about the arrangements which the group found in archives and which they perform in the “old time” style.
Among the familiar selections are “Darling Nellie Gray,” “Tenting on the old camp ground,” “Aura Lee,” “Home, sweet home,” “Abide with me,” “Listen to the mockingbird,” and “Shall we gather at the river.” “Among the not too familiar are “Weeping, sad and lonely,” “Sweet Evelina,” “Brother Green,” and “The true lover’s farewell.” Notice how many of songs are straight love songs that could be sung in any time of departure throughout history.
The booklet gives all the lyrics and program notes in English, French and German (for comparative linguists!)
Great listening for history majors, Civil War buffs, and lovers of songs from the past that still reflect what we feel today.
Some other CD sets of vocals from the Civil War in my collection may still be available. “The Civil War, Its Music and Its Sounds” (Mercury), “Civil War Naval Songs” (Smithsonian Folkway Recordings), “Songs of the Civil War” (New World Records), and “Civil War Songs with Historical Narration” (WEM Records). The narration makes the latter set the most valuable.
As the invaluable program notes for the Archeophone release, “Songs of the Night,” tell us, the first decade of the last century saw a change in dance music. Gone were the “innocent” dances of the late 19th century and in their place were the animal steps (fox trot, turkey trot, bear), the one- and two-step, and so on, of the new generation of pleasure seekers.
But this meant that new kinds of bands were needed to play these new sounds. Big brass bands and smaller banjo ensembles lacked the intimacy needed for dance floors—and for recordings. So it was the Victor Talking Machine Company that found at the Plaza Hotel Joseph C. Smith and his ensemble as a possible solution. He was. And the history of dance music took a double turn: a new kind of music and a new kind of band to play it.
The important things to note is that people could dance to these new recordings at home or venues other than dance halls. And we know with the advantage of hindsight that the jukebox was not far in the future!
With their usual diligence, the Archeophone people have gathered 47 of Smith’s recordings onto two CDs. They are taken from discs made from 1916 to 1925 and the sound is extraordinarily good. Among the familiar titles (well, familiar to those who remember or still play the music of those times) are “Poor butterfly,” “Missouri waltz,” “Smiles,” “Love nest” (theme music for the Burns and Allen shows), “Alice blue gown,” “Three o’clock in the morning,” “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” and “It ain’t gonna rain no mo!”
Some of the lesser known songs are “Songs of the night,” “Money blues,” “Rose room,” “That naughty waltz,” and “Driftwood.” The Archeophone website has the entire list of this set’s contents. Several have vocalists to add to the interest.
The 32-page booklet, as is usual with Archeophone products, gives copious notes about the times, the band, and each selection, along with plenty of photographs.
For those of us who remember the change in the big bands in the 1940s, it is sad to think how much of the swing of that era was played not to accompany the dancers (who could dance to the frenzied beat of that music?) but to show off before the crowds who went up to the podium merely to listen. I wonder what Smith would have thought.
Oh, yes. This set is a Grabbit for those who like the music and/or are interested in the history of popular music.