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CD and DVD Opera Reviews

By Frank Behrens
ART TIMES Online August 2011

As the reader can see, the amount of musical CDs and DVDs I received since last June is quite small. I have been reveling in British police and comedy series, but recorded operas (audio and video) have not come in their accustomed pace, probably because of the coming of Summer. Nevertheless, here are reports on the few that did arrive.


Billy Budd

BILLY BUDD   Iago in “Othello” (Act IV): “If Cassio do remain/He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly.” Master-at Arms Claggart in the opera “Billy Budd” (Act I): “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I ne’er encountered you.”

Claggart is certainly the most interesting character in both the Melville tale and the Benjamin Britten opera inspired by it. With a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, “Billy Budd” was first performed in four acts in 1951. It then underwent several major changes and it is the two-act version that was used for a production at Glyndebourne (England) in 2010. That production can now be seen in a double-DVD edition on the Opus Arte label.

The cast is a strong one, especially with the three major characters whose triad shapes the work as a whole. There is the highly educated and moral Captain Vere (truth) of the HMS Indomitable (John Mark Ainsley), who first appears as an old man recalling the incident that changed his life. There is Master-at-Arms Claggart (Phillip Ens), whose hatred of Billy is explained in the quotation that starts this essay. Ens is a small man, who can dominate the stage vocally. His monologue explaining his hatred of Budd bears comparison with Iago’s “Credo” aria in Verdi’s “Otello.”

Jacques Imbrailo plays Billy not as a saint (as Terence Stamp did in the film version) but as an innocent who thinks all men as decent as he is. His believing in Claggart’s friendship is quite in character.

What annoys me no end in this production is the main set. In a little bonus, it is explained that the Director (Michael Grandage) wanted a claustrophobic construction that mirrored the Royal Opera House, “like the inside of the belly of a whale.” So Designer Christopher Oran put the top deck into the bowels of the ship, so that the ocean is never seen and a suggestion of a mast is glimpsed only once. All it does is plunge everything into darkness so the Lighting Designer (Paule Roden) could play all sorts of games with the strained eyes of the viewer. (And perversely remind one of “Pinocchio.”)

Conductor Mark Elder knows what he is at with the score. But I must warn first comers to this work that very little melody will be heard in the declamatory vocal lines. Even the sea shanties are made lugubrious in the usual Britten way. The work, however, does have power and this Opus Arte release is very much worth the seeing.

Again, with total disdain for the viewer, the program booklet includes no tracking list at all, least of all timings. This diminishes the use of the album for educational purposes.


1914 The Phonographic Yearbook series of CDs

1914   After a considerable time from Archeophone Record’s last entry into its marvelous The Phonographic Yearbook series of CDs, “1914, Her Memory Haunts You” is now available. But first, a look at what was going on that year.

Woodrow Wilson began his term as President and was quickly accused of running things behind closed doors. (Sound familiar?) He was concerned with trouble in Mexico, but not with women who were strongly campaigning for the right to vote. Wilson did, however, respond in a way by establishing Mother’s Day. The first income tax payments were made (with the promise, I recall, that they would never rise over 3%). The Panama Canal was opened to commercial traffic. ASCAP was formed to protect the rights of those who created the songs America sang.           

Among the best sellers of the day were three “Penrod” novels, while some major poets were making themselves known: Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Joyce Kilmer, and Emily Dickenson (posthumously). On Broadway, Jerome Kern contributed a (now classic) song to “The Girl from Utah,” (“They didn’t believe me”).

On this new Archeophone CD, 24 of the popular songs of 1914 are gathered in their glorious acoustic (pre-electric) sound. Among those that many of us “old timers” will instantly recognize are “When you wore a tulip,” “Little grey home in the west,” “By the beautiful sea,” “The aba daba honeymoon,” “Ballin’ the Jack,” “He had to get under,” “An Irish lullaby,” and “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” “Cohen on the telephone” is a spoken vaudeville sketch acted by Joe Hayman, making fun of the accents of many immigrants who were still struggling with English pronunciation.

Those already familiar with this series will recognize vocalists Irving Kaufman, Nora Bayes, Henry Burr, Billy Murray, Ada Jones, and the American Quartet. All of these stars have anthologies of their own on Archeophone discs.

As always, the booklet of program notes is alone worth the price of the album. The pictures are very well chosen and present a visual context for the singing styles and lyrics heard on the CD.

I urge my readers to look at Archeophone’s website,, to see the entire catalogue. A really special treat is “Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama, 1910-1922.” She is something else!

IRWIN AND VANCE  One of the great ironies of musical history is the tale of Ernest Hogan, who wrote a song titled “All pimps look alike to me.” The publisher objected to the second word and Hogan sought a one-syllable substitute. Recognizing the superior intelligence of the raccoon, he took the second syllable as a compliment to his race. He regretted that choice for the rest of his life.

So the minstrel shows and vaudeville became inundated with highly racial numbers known and catalogued as “coon songs.” They are painful to hear today but are part of the history of the American popular song and should not be ignored, any more than “The Merchant of Venice” should be banned from the stage for its own racial references. (Many will disagree and I can see their case.)

There were ladies in vaudeville who specialized in these songs. May Irwin and Clarice Vance were the best known. Using their respective billboard nicknames, Archeophone Records has produced a CD titled “The High Priestess of Jollity & the Southern Singer.”

Irwin is given 6 numbers, while Vance is heard on the remaining 15. All 21 appeared in 1907-09, one of them on a cylinder, and the sound is quite good on this CD transfer.

Few of the selections are well known today. However, titles like “It looks to me like a big night tonight” look forward to Mae West.

Both performers sing in a conversational way—after all, most of these numbers tell a story—now and then adding a legato touch. Irwin was what we call today a “belter.” It is interesting that she belonged to a genre of singers known as “coon shouters,” a projection skill needed more in the large vaudeville houses than on recordings.

Vance was more of an actress, having gotten her start in farce, and she handled regional accents with great skill. The abrupt end to her career is a mystery. It is almost certain that she died in an insane asylum in the 1950s.

So this CD contains invaluable historical examples of a genre of songs that happily died out in the decades that followed. A treasury of information and fabulous photographs is included in the booklet accompanying the CD, a booklet that (as I always say with Archeophone) is alone worth the price of the album.

HOW TO SUCCEED…  Any show in which the male lead sings a love song to himself is for that alone a notch above the rest. The 1961 “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” ran 1,417 performances, buoyed by its clever plot, memorable melodies, Rudy Vallee doing a superb parody of Rudy Vallee, and above all the repulsively endearing J. Pierpont Finch of Robert Morse.

Finch, by the way, stands next to Pal Joey in the Rodgers and Hart play of the same name; they are utterly immoral but irresistible, in completely different ways. Recall that a suave Gene Kelly played Joey in the original show.

There are three CD versions of “H2$,” as it was called in the 1995 revival.
The original cast, available on a Victor disc, is a must for any collection. The show itself is contained on 17 tracks with 11 bonus tracks. The running time of the score of the show per se is about 1 hour.

The 1995 version on the RCA Victor label has a very disappointing Matthew Broderick. Like most “revivals,” it takes liberties with the original orchestrations and adds a song, “Paris Original,” in this case. There are 29 tracks and no bonuses, with a running time of 1 hour. This is the weakest of the three.

The gimmick with the 2011 revival is casting Daniel Radcliffe as Finch. Like Sean Connery, he has to shed his most famous role and get on to other things. This Decca disc has more of the show, giving it a 70-minute running time, not including a single bonus of an extended dance number, heard earlier on the disc. It even includes the curtain calls and exit music. Why didn’t they simply record the entire show, dialogue and all?

Radcliffe is no singer. Neither was Morse, but Morse’s voice conveyed all the slime and charm of Finch. Radcliffe is not bad but suffers in comparison. That is probably not fair, but on a CD it is the voice alone that counts. Yet more changes are wrought upon the score. Not exactly “La Boheme” played as if it were “Gotterdammerung,” but getting close to that. Just when does “revival” become “adaptation”?

However, this is the most complete version of this wonderful show and should stand next to the original.


DAVID FRAY   Virgin Classics has released a DVD titled “David Fray Records Mozart.” The disc is divided into 3 parts, the first 2 of which show for the better part of an hour each Fray sitting at a piano talking with conductor Jaap van Zweden, at first in French and then in highly accented English. Each is pretentiously subtitled “A Film by Bruno Monsaigeon,” but each is merely the kind of after-concert “bonus” found on many classical DVDs.

The pieces involved are Mozart’s “Piano Concerti No. 22 and 25.” Fray’s remarks and questions during the conversations point out how different a pianist’s approach to any work can be from that of others. It all depends on his finding what to him is the best of many choices of how to play each and every passage or even every phrase of the Mozart score.

In the half of the DVD that shows the actual recording, Fray slouches so far over the keyboard as to nearly have his nose in contact with his hands, while his face shows what I can only interpret as gritty determination to get what he wants out of the concerto. The visual ambience is that of a recording studio and the shots show either his fingering (which is always interesting) or some uninspired looks at the players.

The producers, following the usual Virgin Classics lack of concern for the purchaser, have the program notes (which are comments by Fray about Mozart) in white print on black and give no timings at all for the track listings.

So this product is for fans of Fray and students of interpretation of music for the keyboard. I honestly cannot recommend it to any one else.

MONSTER MUSIC   In the past, I have reported on several Marco Polo and Naxos CDs that contained incidental music from the memorable monster films of the 1930s and 1940s (with a few more recent efforts). Composed mostly by Europeans who found their homelands less than politically congenial, these scores were far above the quality of the films and still deserve hearing on their own.

Now Naxos has gathered 6 of them into a box set titled “Monster Music.”

While Max Steiner (1888-1971) gained fame for his score to “Gone With the Wind,” he did notable work for at least three horror films. “King Kong, Complete 1933 Film Score” on its own CD answers the question of how does one bring a symphony orchestra onto a jungle island. (Start with drums and sneak the rest in!) “The Son of Kong” and “The Most Dangerous Game” share a disc.

Hans J. Salter (1896-1994) and Paul Dessau (1894-1979) collaborated on “House of Frankenstein, Complete Score 1944.” Being “complete,” it includes several musical moments lasting only a few seconds. On the CD “Monster Music,” 9 selections from “Son of Frankenstein” by Frank Skinner (1897-1968) open the program. Then some short selections from Skinner and Salter’s scores for “The Invisible Man Returns” and “The Wolf Man” are heard.

So far, all of these scores were reconstructed from the film studio archives and played by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conducted by William Stromberg.

“Curse of the Werewolf and Other Film Music by Benjamin Frankel” introduces a new composer. Frankel (1906-1973) is represented by the not too bad werewolf film with Oliver Reed, a medley from “So Long at the Fair” (a good mystery but not a horror film), a theme from “The Net,” and 11 selections from the political film “The Prisoner” with Alec Guinness. Here Carl Davis conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Some really weird modern horror music is found in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Other Film Music,” which spotlights selections from Wojciech Kilar’s scores for the title film, “Koenig der letzten Tage,” “Death and the Maiden,” and “Pearl in the Crown.” The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Antoni Wit.

The program notes for all of Naxos sets are excellent. And having seen these films will one help appreciate the scores all the more.