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L. E. Cantrell (Vancouver, British Columbia Canada)
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Verdi: Aida
Verdi: Aida
Offered by worldcollectabilia
Price: £9.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine historic recording, well-conducted with major voices and decent sound, 9 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Verdi: Aida (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
This "Aida" is one of a series broadcasts and subsequent phonographic recordings issued on the Italian CETRA label and commissioned by Italy's state-owned RAI (at the time, Radio Auditione Italiane; now, Radiotelevisione Italiana) to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi. It was recorded in Rome on June 12, 1951.

SOUND:
The phonograph recordings of the Italian company, CETRA, are direly remembered for their acidic sound, inadequate documentation and sheer indifference to both distribution and sales by those few of us in North America who managed to lay hands on them in the 1950s and 60s. This CD set, however, presents an entirely different face to potential buyers. The Fonit remastering removed much of the acid to reveal very good 1950s mono sound that displays the solo voices particularly well, as was the style in those days.

CAST
Aida, a captive from Ethiopia, now a slave to Amneris, in love with Radamès, and secretly the daughter of Amonasro - Caterina Mancini (soprano)

Radamès, initially Captain of Pharoah's Guard, later the successful general of the Egyptian army, loved by Amneris but in love with Aida - Mario Filippeschi (tenor)

Amneris, Pharoah's daughter, who loves Radamès and harbors suspicions about Aida - Giulietta Simionato (mezzo-soprano)

Ramfis, the High Priest of Egypt - Giulio Neri (bass)

Il Re, Pharoah of Ancient Egypt - Antonio Massaria (bass-baritone)

Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, Aida's father, a wily, aggressive and indomitable enemy of Egypt - Rolando Panerai (baritone)

Un Messagero, the messenger who brings news to Memphis of Amonasro's depredations in Upper Egypt - Salvatore Di Tommaso (comprimario tenor)

A Priestess - Unidentified (soprano)

CONDUCTOR:
Vittorio Gui, with Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI.

TEXT:
I have not compared the text of this CD set with a score of "Aida," but in common with the CETRA recordings and, indeed, virtually all other opera recordings of the early 1950s, I am willing to hazard a guess that it observes all the standard cuts of the period. This is a matter of vast concern to those fussy creatures, the true-blue completists, but has nothing to do with the enjoyment of a fine performance of the opera.

DOCUMENTATION;
Typical operatic bargain package: Track list with timings that identifies characters singing in each track and a brief summary of the plot by act. In addition, there is a photograph of a visibly good-humored Vittorio Gui conducting cerca 1950, as well as a list of the CETRA collection of eighteen complete (more or less) Verdi operas recorded from 1949 to 1954.

COMMENTARY:

This CETRA Aida CD set has had the peculiar fate on Amazon UK of attracting a reviewer who comments on the opera's visual aspects before denouncing the sound of the recording for reflectings its time. More than that, an additional review quoted from Amazon US (but written in Spanish) refers to an entirely different set, the Maria Callas Mexico City performance.

The particu;ar "Aida" under consideration here is a splendidly Italianate recording of one of the great Italian operas with a strong all-Italian cast under the baton of one of the best Italian opera conductors of the day. It is of the verismo-era and not only authentically but proudly in the verismo style.

The cast was just about as strong an ensemble of Italian singers as could be assembled in 1951.

Caterina Mancini (1924 - 2011) made her operatic debut in 1924. She became a leading Italian spinto soprano in the 1950s and, sadly, began to wind down her stage career due to health reasons in the early 1960s. In her brief time, she was a full peer to such formidable ladies as Renata Tebaldi, Anita Cerquetti and Magda Olivero. Here, she sings a perfectly straight-forward, no-nonsense Aida in which her very occasional departures from strictest accuracy are more than made up by the overall rightness of her approach to the role.

Mario Filippeschi (1907-1979) was a popular lead tenor of the day with a big voice and ringing top notes. He was, to say the least, not renowned for subtlety but he certainly could be exciting. He was, as his films of Italian operas show, a big, bluff, handsome guy who looked like the slightly more dissipated older brother of Errol Flynn. His "Celeste Aida," I must admit, is much more a ringing war cry than the quiet revery its words and written music suggest, but that is hardly uncommon and--what the heck!--it is a great war cry.

Giulietta Simionato (1910 - 2010) made her operatic debut in 1923. From the late 1940s to her retirement from the stage in 1966, she was regarded as one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of her era. She was particularly associated with the role of Azucena in "Il trovatore," recording it once with Mario Del Monaco and twice with Franco Corelli. Eight years after this "Aida," she recorded the role of Amneris again with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi under conductor Herbert von Karajan. She died just a week short of her hundredth birthday.

Giulio Neri (1909-1958), alas, was not of Simionato's long-lived stock. He fell victim to a heart attack in the dreaded 49th year which has claimed other such operatic luminaries as Enrico Caruso, Jussi Bjorling and Leonard Warren. As Ramfis in this recording, he provides a terrific example of the true, dark-voiced, big Italianate basso sound.

Rolando Panerai (1924 - ) was for many years a leading Italian baritone. He was particularly associated with the Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, a role he performed in public as recently as 2011. To my particularly idiosyncratic taste, his Amonasro doesn't quite have all the angry bite for which I might hope, but it is a solid, musical performance nonetheless.

Vittorio Gui (1885 - 1975) made his professional debut as a conductor in 1907. From the 1920s and thereafter, he was regarded as one of the top European opera conductors. In 1933 he was the founder of the Maggio Musicale Fiorintino. His "Aida," captured here, gives proper emphasis to the singing voices and is a model of the clean clarity, expressing the very essence of the Italian style.

Overall, this is an "Aida" for which I would have stood and cheered in an opera house. It is a no-frills, head-down and straight ahead performance with strong singers and no particular interest in subtlety. It offers a fine conductor, an orchestra that has Verdi in its DNA and the whole thing is captured in acceptable sound. It probably shouldn't be anyone's first or only copy of "Aida," but it would be first-rate second or back-up copy.

I think that makes it worth a five grand old Egyptian stars.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 3, 2015 10:06 AM GMT


Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera)
Price: £16.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid Met broadcast from 1972, 25 Feb. 2013
SOURCE:
Live recording of the January 15, 1972 Saturday afternoon broadcast of New York's Metropolitan Opera..

SOUND:
The original analogue tapes were digitally restored for this Sony issue in 2010 by I-Hua Tseng, Brian Losch and Andreas Meyer; the remastering engineer was Charles Harbutt. The result of their combined work is acceptable mono for those who choose to listen with a bit of goodwill, although there is no doubt that what is on these disks is a live performance with concomitant footfalls, bangs, booms and thumps, not to mention the occasional minor drop-off. Had this recording been made in 1952 rather than 1972, all that could easily be taken in stride by anyone able to embrace the notion of "historic" sound. However, in this case, one is left to to puzzle over what imbecilic Luddite at the Met was responsible for recording in long out-of-date mono in 1972, for Pete's sake!

CAST:
Hans Sachs,* cobbler, poet and philosopher - Theo Adam (bass-baritone)
Walther von Stolzing, a knight with musical aspirations - James King (tenor)
Eva Pogner, daughter of the town goldsmith and prize of a singing contest - Pilar Lorengar (soprano)
Sixtus Beckmesser,* town clerk and marker extraordinaire - Benno Kusche (baritone)
Veit Pogner,* goldsmith - Ezio Flagello (bass)
David, apprentice cobbler and would-be suitor of Magdalena - Loren Driscoll (character tenor)
Magdalena, Eva's nurse - Shirley Love (mozzo-soprano)
Fritz Kothner,* baker - Donald Gramm (baritone)
Kunz Vogelgesang,* furrier - Charles Anthony (tenor)
Konrad Nachtigall,* tinsmith - Robert Goodloe (bass)
Balthasar Zorn,* pewterer - Robert Schmorr (tenor)
Ulrich Eisslinger,* grocer - Rod MacWherter (tenor)
Augustin Moser,* tailor - Gabor Carelli (tenor)
Herrmann Ortel,* soap maker - Russell Christopher (bass)
Hans Schwarz,* stocking weaver - James Morris (bass)
Hans Foltz,* coppersmith - Louis Sgarro (bass)
Nightwatchman - Clifford Harvuot (bass-baritone)

* Member of the Guild of Master Singers

CONDUCTOR: Thomas Schippers with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

FORMAT:
Disk 1 - Act I, 20 tracks; Act II, 1 track. 78:20
Disk 2 - Act II (continued), 12 tracks; Act III, 6 tracks. 77:50
Disk 3 - Act III (continued). 19 tracks. 77:19
Total running time 233:29

DOCUMENTATION:
Bargain issue barebones. Track list providing timings and identifying principal singers. Two page summary of the plot of the opera by act. Photos of Adam, King and Lorengar in character. There is a little note to the effect that the 1972 production was financed by Mrs. John D. Rockerfeller, Jr. (--ah, those were the days.)

COMMENTARY:
The notion of doing a comedic money-maker based on the Master Singers of Renaissance-era Nuremberg bubbled quietly at the back of Richard Wagner's mind for quite a long time. It first appeared as a form of relief shortly after the heavy drama of "Tannhauser," the earliest draft of the libretto being dated July 1845. Events, however, such as the extended period of writing the libretti for "The Ring" and then the laborious composition of "Das Rheingold," and bits of "Die Walkure and "Siegfried" shoved the little comedy aside. By the mid-1850s, though, even the nearly indefatigable Wagner almost ran out of steam. He set aside the gigantic "Ring" and focused first on an airy little ditty called "Tristan und Isolde," then he finally got down to his small-scale comic profit-maker. He began serious work on "Die Meistersinger" in 1861. His eye still sharply on the financial bottom line, he conceived of the Overture as an interim cash cow, first performing it in public in November 1862. By this time, of course, the original concept of a small, lightweight comedy was long dead. "Die Meistersinger" had grown to the elephantine--no, apatosaurian dimensions we now know so well, and in that form it was premiered to great success in 1868.

Producing an opera with the scale and scope of "Die Meistersinger" is a huge and daunting task. I have never encountered a performance that was without some greater or lesser flaw. Overall, I regard this performance as a good, solid piece of journeyman work. In the theater on that Saturday afternoon, I would have applauded loudly and walked out feeling that the price of the ticket had been well-spent.

I would also have departed the Met tallying up the ways in which this wholly acceptable performance had diverged from the "perfect" "Meistersinger" I carry around in my head. Theo Adam is the first problem. He sings well enough and hits all the main points of the comedy-drama, but his Sachs seems to me to be a sketch of Wagner's complex, wise, and no little tortured character--a mere lay figure where someone of near-Shakespearian depth ought to be. James King was as good a version of Heldentenor-light as was to be found in the 1970s. But just listen to the music. Walther von Stolzing is not a heroic tenor, he is a lyric tenor. All right, I'll grant you that he has to be a loud lyric tenor, but his music is unequivocally lyric in nature and should be sung with long-breathed legato phrasing, not the three- and four-syllable Heldentenor barks we have here and with virtually all other Walthers. The Beckmesser, Benno Kusche, is more musical than some comedy-obsessed character baritones who have essayed the role, but just once I'd like to hear a Beckmesser ("kein besser") who just might have an actual chance of winning the hand of the fair Eva with his own song. The younger pair of lovers, David and Magdalena, as almost always, jarringly sound like the oldest members of the cast. Ezio Flagello as Pogner is competent but no more. Based solely on his performance, one would never guess that Pogner can become the star of the opera, as he did when sung by Josef Greindl under the direction of Furtwangler in a wartime broadcast.

After all this nitpicking, I am happy to say that Pilar Lorengar is a welcome discovery as a surprisingly girlish Eva, so very different from the sad, dignified and much put-upon Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro," the role in which I remember her best.

Schippers keeps things moving at a good pace, although he does not extract all the marrow from the bones of the piece as Furtwangler did so unexpectedly with the first appearance of the Master Singers, or with the big choral spectaculars in Act III.

The Met Chorus is generally satisfactory but not as brilliant as some European choruses in other recordings of "Die Meistersinger."

With a total running time of under four hours, it is clear that there are some cuts, as pointed out by previous Amazon reviewers in the US. Speaking for myself, that does not bother me in the slightest, for I hold the notion that a "Meistersinger" running about two-and-a-half hours would be the true comic masterpiece that Wagner originally envisioned..

This is a good recording of Wagner's comedy. While it is not the best recording on the market, it is far from the worst. It's price is attractive and it is a good choice for a second or back-up "Meistersinger" in a collector's audio library.

But it should have been recorded in stereo.

Four stars.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2013 8:18 AM GMT


Saving Grace: Season 3 - The Final Season [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Saving Grace: Season 3 - The Final Season [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Offered by RAREWAVES USA
Price: £14.07

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ludicrous, fascinating, dismally inept and bitingly clever, 19 Aug. 2012
The television series "Saving Grace" appeared on the US cable television network TNT. It ran for three seasons, from July 23, 2007 to June 21, 2010. The series was canceled by TNT because of poor foreign sales prospects and unimpressive performance in the DVD market. I believe this premature cancellation of the series will come to be regarded as an amazingly stupid decision on the part of TNT, almost as boneheaded as that of CBS in the early 1970s to shoot itself in the foot by wiping out its near-clean-sweep slate of top-rated prime-time shows because they skewed toward an older demographic.

The basic idea of the series is about equally straight-forward and ludicrous: Detective Grace Hanadarko, a member of the Oklahoma City Police Department has, for reasons never explained been assigned a "Last-Chance Angel" in order to divert her from the multiple paths toward self-destruction upon which she habitually travels. The angel in question, huge, gauzy, luminous wings and all, is a craggy-faced, folksy guy. His name is Earl. Of course.

In the first (and better) two seasons, each week Grace devoted her time about equally between solving simple-minded crimes--master criminals of the class of Professor Moriarty apparently being in short supply around Oklahoma City--and wrestling with the notion of being specifically chosen for something-or-other by a God in whom she generally disbelieves and of whom she strongly disapproves in her odd moments of passing belief.

The star of the show is the small-in-stature but huge in talent Academy Award winner, Holly Hunter, as Detective Hanadarko. Charismatic as she is, not even Hunter can hold an hour-long (well, a bit more than 43 minutes, actually) show together all by herself, so Grace is surrounded by an inner circle of friends and acquaintances consisting of three rather Neanderthaloid, practical joking detectives, a criminalist who was a childhood friend and remains Grace's bff, the detective squad captain(s), Grace's young nephew and Grace's brother, a Catholic priest. Ranged around the inner circle are various additional relatives and acquaintances, many of whom are from time-to-time granted the narrative spotlight at center stage--for a few minutes.

That being said, this review will now focus on the nineteen shows of the third and final season. Anyone glancing at the US Amazon reviews currently in print for the third season will rapidly realize that 2010 shows were widely perceived to have slipped in quality. I, alas, entirely agree. The final season figuratively climbed on several hobbyhorses at once and rode off wildly in all directions toward the horizon. The crime-solving element for all intents evaporated. Grace's inner struggles between faith and unfaith came to the fore. Sort of. Some of the nineteen shows were simply time-fillers. Some were props for poorly articulated philosophical points, most of them irrelevant to the specific show at hand. Some, particularly the final handful, probably driven by knowledge of the inevitable cancellation of the series at the end of the season, were breathless and frazzled attempts to round off a three-year philosophical arc.

From the question so clearly implicit in most reviews of the final season, to wit, "What the heck was all that about?" it is clear that the writers failed. Spectacularly! But, ah, let it here be clearly noted that "Saving Grace" over its three-year run crashed and burned with a tattered magnificence and a lovely flame. How many other US television series, I ask you, have even semi-seriously grappled with the great questions of faith and unbelief, of free will and God's hidden plans, of the impotence of good intentions, of the manner in which even the mightiest hero (or heroine if you will) crumbles before overwhelming pressure?

Yes, the final season was a failure, but let me address that question, "What the heck was all that about?" for I think that what was broadcast was not quite as hopelessly incoherent as many people believe. I make no claims of having seen actual truth, but I perceive a pattern that may reflect at least some of what the creators of the show had in mind.

Consider the unusual name of the the protagonist: Grace Hanadarko. Of "grace," Paul had this to say: "And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work." (2 Corinthians 9:8) You may agree with the apostle or not as you choose, but there it is, the deeply-imbedded notion in western civilization that there is a potential for "abundance for every good work."

Now for Hanadarko, a wonderful name. (For those who care about such trifles, some of the following comments can at a stretch be regarded as spoilers. Consider yourself alerted.)

About mid-way in the series, the curiously impotent Last-Chance Angel, Earl, talks to God (apparently), reminiscing about his former clients. One of them in particular, a certain Joan, had offered no end of troubles but in the end she had honored God among the flames. In midsummer of the year 1424, a twelve year-old girl heard what she regarded as heavenly voices. By 1430, she, a poorly educated woman born of low, coarse and hardy stock, had reversed the fortunes of a war lasting more than three generations, led armies in desperate battle and received life-threatening wounds. On May 23, 1430, she was captured in battle, As a celebrity and potentially very profitable prisoner she was restrained but allowed some small freedom of movement. She took advantage of this in November 1430 by attempting an escape by jumping off a tower at the Castle of Drugy. By the best available estimates, she fell 60 to 70 feet. She was found unconscious at the base of the tower and by her own account suffered no more damage than loss of appetite for two or three days. Soon after that, she was handed over to the implacably merciless hands of her enemies. She was placed under enormous pressure to deny her voices and her earthly military mission. In the end, she cracked. She submitted to her oppressors, denied her voices, abandoned her mission. She even agreed to wear clothes regarded as appropriate for an innocuous young woman rather than those of a general of armies both earthly and heavenly. This must surely have been touching the depths of her despair. Then she turned around. Off went the feminine clothes as again she donned man's attire. She spoke openly of her heavenly voices and defied her captors. She was brought to trial, the unlearned girl more than holding her own against the theological arguments of her priestly judges. She was convicted of witchcraft and burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431. Nineteen years after her death, the surviving witnesses against her at the trial were re-examined as the first step of her rehabilitation. Twenty-five years after her death, the sentence against her was overturned by the Pope. 489 years after the flames, she was canonized as a saint.

She was surely that very Joan whom Earl remembered. In English, she is Joan. However, in the few documented cases in which she referred to herself, she used the title "La Pucelle" (The Maiden) or the name, "Jehanne la Pucelle." She was born in an insignificant village called Arc, so the French call her Jeanne d'Arc. In Italian, though, the name takes the form "Giovanna d'Arco." Joan ... Jehanne ... Jeanne d'Arc ... Giovanna d'Arco ... Hanadarko, I really don't think we're looking at a co-incidence here.

But wait, as TV pitchmen say, there's more. Detective Hanadarko is decidedly not a girly-type dresser. Her normal outfits consist of distinctly masculine-appearing jeans or shorts, a shirt and boots--not to mention her service weapons. Whenever the teams of detectives go into the field Hanadarko is clearly in charge, assigning tasks and marshaling forces. She is the acknowledged field commander. Even her ostensible superiors, the two consecutive captains, are curiously disinclined to issue orders to her or to countermand any that she has already issued. It's all very like the relationship of the king and nobility of France to the peasant Jehanne. Like Joan, Hanadarko not only leads her own little army, she is wounded in battle, and like the girl from Arc before her, without significant long-term damage. If Giovanna fell sixty or seventy feet from her tower, Grace Hanadarko doubles up on her, falling off a twelve-story building. Both are found unconscious at the bases of their respective diving platforms. Neither suffers the almost certainly fatal consequences of their falls. And not long after the falls, both women publicly proclaim that they are receiving heavenly guidance. This assertion is presented by both women as fact, with neither ambiguity nor equivocation.

Finally, take the last episode of the series, on its surface, the weirdest of the lot. Here, just as Jehanne before her, Hanadarko cracks. By reason of her capture and delivery into the hands of the English and the Inquisition, the French peasant must have believed that she had failed in her mission. To symbolize her failure, she put away her male clothing, exchanging it for a woman's ensemble. Hanadarko, too, has her mission, not to rehabilitate the wounded French nation, but to guard and rehabilitate a single very slippery meth-head junkie. She conspicuously fails at that task. More than that, she, the designated heroine of whatever story God has cast her into, has overwhelming reason to hold herself responsible for the death of a child. Hanadarko breaks under the strain. She withdraws from Oklahoma City, to find herself in Mexico. There, she abandons her jeans, shirt and boots for a white party dress overlayed with red roses. She is no longer a male-dressed general of field operations but simply an anonymous guest at someone else's party, with no identity, no mission, no heavenly voices ... with nothing.

And then, for no rational reason save for her absolute internal necessity, she turns like Joan 579 years before her. She has a new mission. Though all else might fail, she still has her defiance, flaming hotter than any other that can do no more than burn her physical body. She will seek out her enemy and hurl her defiance in his face without fear or hesitation. The final confrontation comes soon enough. She meets with an enemy, an embodiment of evil worthy of her attention. Like Joan centuries ago before with the trial judges, she demolishes the smooth arguments offered by her enemy. If it is beyond even her powers to destroy evil, she can at least frustrate its plans. Like Giovanna, she dies in bright flame. And also as with Jehanne, those left behind immediately realize that something extraordinary and wonderful has departed the world.

This long-labored striking of an analogy between Grace Hanadarko and Saint Joan seems sound enough to me, but there are things in the final season that do not fit the plan. It's my guess--and no more than that--that the writers let their eyes drift off the Joan story while they crammed extra stuff onto Hanadarko's plate. I think they tossed in links, possibly without even intending to do so, to a still-greater redeemer figure than Jeanne d'Arc.

In Episode 9 of the final season, the lesbian-themed show, Grace makes a highly-charged pass at a gay woman police officer in order to goad that officer's lover into attacking her. Grace is severely and repetitively beaten by the woman. This is a thing as out of Grace's established character as it is unanticipated. Toward the end, the morally and physically collapsing Hanadarko is shown stealing rocks of crack cocaine from her meth-head neighbor and then smoking it. Why? Later yet, she is shown demanding higher payment for an act of prostitution that she has just completed. Again, why? All these things are totally at variance with evverything that we have learned about Grace. And that rose-covered white dress she wears to a party? The party, it must be remembered, is a wedding reception. Finally, there is the scene in which she walks into the ocean, not to drown, but to return from the waters somehow transfigured into someone new, a person not quite the old, familiar Detective Grace Hanadarko.

From all that, I think that the writers made our Grace into a sin-eater. She is absorbing the sins of the world in order to become not merely a warrior-saint, but a Lamb of God, suitable for sacrifice to bring about a redemption of mankind. I think that party in Mexico must have been at a place called Cana. At the party, Hanadarko gives away a bracelet. There is not a word to support the notion in the script and not an image on the screen, but I am convinced that that otherwise inexplicable gift-giving must have some transformative effective, just as water was changed by Jesus to wine at Cana in what appears to have been His first miracle. The trip into the sea: the waters we are shown may be wide and waves may be rolling onto the beach, but that body of water cannot be the mundane Gulf of Mexico; it is in some greater sense the Jordan River and Hanadarko has been baptized, to be reborn as someone or something greater than the Grace Hanadarko we have known.

And back to that beating, in show after show we have seen diminuative Hanadarko manhandle men half-again her height and over twice her weight. But in that cop bar washroom she takes blow after blow without so much as rasing her hands to protect herself. This is wholly inexplicable, save for the well-established notion that a redeemer shall suffer scourging and torment.

In short, is Grace Hanadarko making her way along the stations of her own truncated via dolorossa? The answer seems clear to me.

The greatest strength of the show is the terrific Holly Hunter as Grace Hanadarko. Her tiny form is an absolute magnet for the eye from start to finish. It certainly does not hurt that her boyish body is in great physical shape, for she, like the similarly great Helen Mirren, is an actress who throughout her career has manifested no qualms about displaying her sexuality and nude form on a regular basis, while still maintaining all her impressive acting chops. (In Series Two, I think, there is one really quite ... er ... remarkable scene in which she goes from fully dressed to stark naked in about two seconds, and all this before the opening credits!)

Leon Rippy is, in his own way, almost as good. His role is much more limited, but he plays the benevolent, if almost impotent good old boy Last Chance Angel to something like perfection.

Laura San Giacomo is a fine actress in a woefully underwritten role. She is Grace's Old-Friend-Who-Has-oblems-at-Home. Her role in the script is the written equivalent a lay figure. She is a better performer than the writers have ever allowed her to be.

I can't say that I am overly impressed by Kenny Johnson as Detective Ham Dewey, the primary object of Grace Hanadarko's fiery and inevitably self-destructive sex addiction, His slurred and mumbled diction is appalling. Next to him, the notoriously mush-mouthed Marlon Brando might seem at one with the likes of Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.

"Saving Grace" was a television series that was at once ludicrous, fascinating, dismally inept and bitingly clever in equal parts. Its final season, by attempting too much, delivered too little. Compared to what it might have been, "Saving Grace" must be accounted a failure--but it is a noble and glorious wreck and worth a solid four stars to anyone willing to invest a little staying power and some thought.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 6, 2016 12:00 PM GMT


Cardillac
Cardillac
Price: £11.25

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars As good as we're likely to get in the foreseeable future, 16 Jun. 2012
This review is from: Cardillac (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Radio broadcast from 1968.

SOUND:
Decent 1960s broadcast mono. There is nothing here to make a serious audiophile rejoice, but the set is perfectly listenable nonetheless. The voices seem to me to be a bit too far forward, while the orchestra and sometimes especially the chorus are correspondingly recessed--but that is a matter of purely personal taste. (On track 4, disk 2, however, from about 1:03 to 1:58, there is a stretch of orchestral music with a distinctly different and very boxy soundscape. I have no idea whether this is a fault in my own disk or some sort of patch in the original.)

CAST:
Cardillac, goldsmith and murderer - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Cardillac's Daughter - Leonore Kirschstein (soprano)
A Gold Merchant who gets set up for a big fall - Karl Christian Kohn (baritone)
An Officer who seeks the hand of Cardillac's daughter, perhaps too zealously - Donald Grobe (tenor)
A Courtier who is fatally attracted to a certain Lady - Eberhard Katz (tenor)
A Lady with very material tastes - Elisabeth Soderstrom (soprano)
A Provost-Marshal, a public servant who attempts to calm the terrified and hence bloodthirsty Parisian mob - Willi Nett (baritone)

CONDUCTOR:
Joseph Keilberth with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

DOCUMENTATION:
My own version of this performance is the barebones Opera d'Oro with the usual perfunctory package: a brief history of the opera, plot summary and commentary by Bill Parker (whose only fault is the woefully limited space allotted to him by the publishers); track list identifying the major cast character singing but without timings. This is the Od'O "Grand Tier" version. Based on experience with other GT versions, this set comes with pretty much the same stuff as listed above plus a bilingual libretto.

TEXT:
"Cardillac," which premiered at the Dresden Opera on November 9, 1926, was Paul Hindemith's (1895-1963) first opera. The piece achieved considerable success and served to make the composer's name well-known in Europe. At the time, Hindemith was still using traditional musical forms but with twentieth century harmonies (or lack thereof). It seems that he was dissatisfied with the opera, feeling that he may have created, in the words of Od'O annotator Parker, "something of a disconnect between story and music." In any case, on June 20, 1952 he premiered a version of the opera with a revised libretto and a more traditional musical approach. From 1952 to 1961, the composer authorized only the revised version for performance.

Joseph Keilberth (1908-1968) was a strong advocate of Hindemith's music. In this, one of his last major performances before his unexpected death on July 20, 1968 while conducting Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," he returned to his greatly preferred 1926 version of the opera.

COMMENTARY:
The plot of "Cardillac" deals with a goldsmith working in renaissance Paris who is ... heavily ... fixated on his golden creations. Fixated, indeed, to the extent that each time he reluctantly sells one of his works of art, he is irresistibly impelled to hunt down any unfortunate purchasers and murder them. This, not unexpectedly, proves to be upsetting to the people of Paris. Cardillac has a daughter (to which he seems rather less attached than he is to his art works) and this daughter, in turn, has a suitor, an officer. Of course, the officer buys a gift for the daughter from her father and, of course, the older man goes on the hunt for the younger man. Cardillac finds the officer but manages no more than to wound him before he runs off. The officer, who knows perfectly well the identity of his attacker, chooses not to implicate the father of his beloved, so he lays a false accusation against a poor schnook of a gold merchant. Cardillac, a mad murderer, but apparently a more honorable man than his potential son-in-law, refuses to lie about the gold merchant. This infuriates the mob who threaten to destroy his precious creations. To prevent that, the goldsmith admits his own guilt and is promptly attacked by the mob. The officer intervenes before the goldsmith is quite dead, praising the older man for his dedication to his art. Pleased at this attempted public vindication, the killer-goldsmith dies with a smile on his face.

Now, as anyone can tell, this sort of plot could have come from only two sources: Roger Corman in the days of his C-movie glory at about the time of the original "Little Shop of Horrors" or from E.T.A. Hoffmann. As it happened, Hoffmann was the guilty party. His original story was called "Das Fraulein von Scuderi."

I know no more about this opera than what I have been able to make out after a handful of hearings. I have certainly never encountered a printed score for any of its music. Accordingly, it's somewhat difficult to asses the true quality of the work. My initial and still tentative impression is that "Cardillac" is one of the better self-consciously "modernist" operas of the twentieth century --and heaven knows that is not high praise. It has the not-inconsiderable virtue of being a compact, straight-forward setting of a libretto that actually has a plot, however lurid, and even a point, however lunatic. It, alas, shares two failings of its twentieth century modernist peers. First, the composer resolutely disdains any attempt to create the sort of memorable--even hummable--tunes or orchestral passages that serve so effectively to sell tickets for subsequent performances. The second failing is endemic to the tribe and much worse: neither the libretto nor the score allow for even a single moment of repose or reflection. The effect is very like a room in which everyone is out of sorts and constantly shouting at one another. In "Cardillac," for example, this makes the two tenors into a pair of the least romantic wooers ever to appear on any stage. And goldsmith Cardillac seems always to be foaming at the mouth, so that one can only wonder why the Parisian mobs had not done away with him years before. Still, there are worse examples of these faults to be found in other twentieth century works, so I give Hindemith's first operatic work a fairly high grade.

As to the singers, I give the two women the highest marks. Elisabeth Soderstrom, unexpectedly in a small comprimaria role, builds an unpleasantly convincing character out of virtually nothing. Leonore Kirschstein (b. 1933) was something of a favorite of Keilberth. She appears on his recorded broadcasts of "Hans Heiling" and "Cardillac," as well as his studio recordings of "Der Freischutz" and excerpts from "Mathis der Maler." Here, she seems rather hard-edged, but I am inclined to attribute that more to the composer than to the singer.

Among the men, the most famous by far was the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Not a speck of his justly famous charm and elegance comes across in this performance. It's all rave, snarl and shout from beginning to end. However Hindemith laid the notes down on paper, I'm astonished that such a renowned and subtle song interpreter couldn't find even a moment to inject a hint of warmth or sympathy for Cardillac, that hell-driven madman. The other baritones, Nett and Kohn (another Keilberth regular) are perfectly adequate and perfectly forgettable. Eberhard Katz has the thankless task of portraying a noble horndog in pursuit of a grasping woman. He doesn't bother to make him likable. Donald Grobe was a famous lyric tenor who is here at his very least lyric. He is by far the winner of the most annoying shouter sweepstakes for this opera.

Keilberth keeps things moving briskly and so far as I can tell the orchestra and chorus are fully up to snuff.

I have done quite a lot of nitpicking here, but I cannot escape the fact that I was impelled to listen closely to this unfamiliar opera over and over in rapid succession. Nitpicking to the contrary, there is something of worth in this opera by Hindemith. I wish it were better--or perhaps more approachable. But it is what it is ... and that's pretty good, all things considered. I could hope for a better performance, or at least a differently focused performance, but this one, I suspect, is as good as we're going to get for years to come.

That being the case, I give it the benefit of a doubt along with four stars.


Cardillac
Cardillac
Price: £11.71

4.0 out of 5 stars As good as we're likely to get in the foreseeable future, 16 Jun. 2012
This review is from: Cardillac (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Radio broadcast from 1968.

SOUND:
Decent 1960s broadcast mono. There is nothing here to make a serious audiophile rejoice, but the set is perfectly listenable nonetheless. The voices seem to me to be a bit too far forward, while the orchestra and sometimes especially the chorus are correspondingly recessed--but that is a matter of purely personal taste. (On track 4, disk 2, however, from about 1:03 to 1:58, there is a stretch of orchestral music with a distinctly different and very boxy soundscape. I have no idea whether this is a fault in my own disk or some sort of patch in the original.)

CAST:
Cardillac, goldsmith and murderer - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Cardillac's Daughter - Leonore Kirschstein (soprano)
A Gold Merchant who gets set up for a big fall - Karl Christian Kohn (baritone)
An Officer who seeks the hand of Cardillac's daughter, perhaps too zealously - Donald Grobe (tenor)
A Courtier who is fatally attracted to a certain Lady - Eberhard Katz (tenor)
A Lady with very material tastes - Elisabeth Soderstrom (soprano)
A Provost-Marshal, a public servant who attempts to calm the terrified and hence bloodthirsty Parisian mob - Willi Nett (baritone)

CONDUCTOR:
Joseph Keilberth with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

DOCUMENTATION:
Usual perfunctory Opera d'Oro package: a brief history of the opera, plot summary and commentary by Bill Parker (whose only fault is the woefully limited space allotted to him by the publishers); track list identifying the major cast character singing but without timings.

TEXT:
"Cardillac," which premiered at the Dresden Opera on November 9, 1926, was Paul Hindemith's (1895-1963) first opera. The piece achieved considerable success and served to make the composer's name well-known in Europe. At the time, Hindemith was still using traditional musical forms but with twentieth century harmonies (or lack thereof). It seems that he was dissatisfied with the opera, feeling that he may have created, in the words of Od'O annotator Parker, "something of a disconnect between story and music." In any case, on June 20, 1952 he premiered a version of the opera with a revised libretto and a more traditional musical approach. From 1952 to 1961, the composer authorized only the revised version for performance.

Joseph Keilberth (1908-1968) was a strong advocate of Hindemith's music. In this, one of his last major performances before his unexpected death on July 20, 1968 while conducting Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," he returned to his greatly preferred 1926 version of the opera.

COMMENTARY:
The plot of "Cardillac" deals with a goldsmith working in renaissance Paris who is ... heavily ... fixated on his golden creations. Fixated, indeed, to the extent that each time he reluctantly sells one of his works of art, he is irresistibly impelled to hunt down any unfortunate purchasers and murder them. This, not unexpectedly, proves to be upsetting to the people of Paris. Cardillac has a daughter (to which he seems rather less attached than he is to his art works) and this daughter, in turn, has a suitor, an officer. Of course, the officer buys a gift for the daughter from her father and, of course, the older man goes on the hunt for the younger man. Cardillac finds the officer but manages no more than to wound him before he runs off. The officer, who knows perfectly well the identity of his attacker, chooses not to implicate the father of his beloved, so he lays a false accusation against a poor schnook of a gold merchant. Cardillac, a mad murderer, but apparently a more honorable man than his potential son-in-law, refuses to lie about the gold merchant. This infuriates the mob who threaten to destroy his precious creations. To prevent that, the goldsmith admits his own guilt and is promptly attacked by the mob. The officer intervenes before the goldsmith is quite dead, praising the older man for his dedication to his art. Pleased at this attempted public vindication, the killer-goldsmith dies with a smile on his face.

Now, as anyone can tell, this sort of plot could have come from only two sources: Roger Corman in the days of his C-movie glory at about the time of the original "Little Shop of Horrors" or from E.T.A. Hoffmann. As it happened, Hoffmann was the guilty party. His original story was called "Das Fraulein von Scuderi."

I know no more about this opera than what I have been able to make out after a handful of hearings. I have certainly never encountered a printed score for any of its music. Accordingly, it's somewhat difficult to asses the true quality of the work. My initial and still tentative impression is that "Cardillac" is one of the better self-consciously "modernist" operas of the twentieth century --and heaven knows that is not high praise. It has the not-inconsiderable virtue of being a compact, straight-forward setting of a libretto that actually has a plot, however lurid, and even a point, however lunatic. It, alas, shares two failings of its twentieth century modernist peers. First, the composer resolutely disdains any attempt to create the sort of memorable--even hummable--tunes or orchestral passages that serve so effectively to sell tickets for subsequent performances. The second failing is endemic to the tribe and much worse: neither the libretto nor the score allow for even a single moment of repose or reflection. The effect is very like a room in which everyone is out of sorts and constantly shouting at one another. In "Cardillac," for example, this makes the two tenors into a pair of the least romantic wooers ever to appear on any stage. And goldsmith Cardillac seems always to be foaming at the mouth, so that one can only wonder why the Parisian mobs had not done away with him years before. Still, there are worse examples of these faults to be found in other twentieth century works, so I give Hindemith's first operatic work a fairly high grade.

As to the singers, I give the two women the highest marks. Elisabeth Soderstrom, unexpectedly in a small comprimaria role, builds an unpleasantly convincing character out of virtually nothing. Leonore Kirschstein (b. 1933) was something of a favorite of Keilberth. She appears on his recorded broadcasts of "Hans Heiling" and "Cardillac," as well as his studio recordings of "Der Freischutz" and excerpts from "Mathis der Maler." Here, she seems rather hard-edged, but I am inclined to attribute that more to the composer than to the singer.

Among the men, the most famous by far was the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Not a speck of his justly famous charm and elegance comes across in this performance. It's all rave, snarl and shout from beginning to end. However Hindemith laid the notes down on paper, I'm astonished that such a renowned and subtle song interpreter couldn't find even a moment to inject a hint of warmth or sympathy for Cardillac, that hell-driven madman. The other baritones, Nett and Kohn (another Keilberth regular) are perfectly adequate and perfectly forgettable. Eberhard Katz has the thankless task of portraying a noble horndog in pursuit of a grasping woman. He doesn't bother to make him likable. Donald Grobe was a famous lyric tenor who is here at his very least lyric. He is by far the winner of the most annoying shouter sweepstakes for this opera.

Keilberth keeps things moving briskly and so far as I can tell the orchestra and chorus are fully up to snuff.

I have done quite a lot of nitpicking here, but I cannot escape the fact that I was impelled to listen closely to this unfamiliar opera over and over in rapid succession. Nitpicking to the contrary, there is something of worth in this opera by Hindemith. I wish it were better--or perhaps more approachable. But it is what it is ... and that's pretty good, all things considered. I could hope for a better performance, or at least a differently focused performance, but this one, I suspect, is as good as we're going to get for years to come.

That being the case, I give it the benefit of a doubt along with four stars.


COAL & COCA-COLA: Small Town USA 1949 (Short True Story w/Photos)
COAL & COCA-COLA: Small Town USA 1949 (Short True Story w/Photos)
Price: £1.49

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There are 3,685 stories in the Town. This is one, 18 Feb. 2012
This is a simple little memoir of hardscrabble times, of a hard-working Colorado coal mining town, of trials and triumphs ... that go unsung and largely unremembered.

The hardscrabble:
"Her father and seven brothers were coal miners."

The town:
Florence, Colorado (pop. 3,685.) The main street is Main Street, of course. Its anchor and landmark back in the 1950s was the Rialto Theater. (Was a bingo wheel drawn out between double features, the grand prize a bag of groceries? Was Thursday the Rialto's Free Dish night?) Trailing away to the west along Main were lesser attractions: The Malt Shop, The Florence Creamery, the old bakery, maybe a small, self-consciously Roman temple that pompously did business as the First National Bank of Florence. The only other street worth mentioning is Santa Fe. That's where the buses parked.

The trials:
"Marge's father had spent the last few years of his life bedridden with crippled knees from working coal in standing water much of his life". "Marge's days began at 4:00 a.m. during the week, 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, and ended sometimes at 5:00 p.m. sometimes at 10:00 p.m. when The Malt Shop closed."

The triumphs:
"[B]y some reports, he brought in the first power line which later fed many South Fields mines in Fremont County, Colorado." "He knew that `tunnel' would hold up; he had supported it just like his dad had taught him in the mine". And this, "I lasted 22 years!"

The language of the memoir is flat and familiar: "Whenever he was in Denver, Charlie would stop by his friend Billy Wilson's famous supper club, The Tally Ho, on Wadsworth & Alameda. The main purpose of the stop was to deliver a standing order of several loafs of Marge's French bread." Just as it is in this: "Several restaurants in Pueblo and Denver also wanted Marge to sell bread to them. But she had all she could handle providing for Malt Shop customers, the Belvedere in Canon City, and Safeway and the Capri in Florence." Or here: "At some point, Marge's husband had followed her to The Malt Shop and lived there for a while."

These are the words and the tone that my own older relatives used to describe the grim, dark days of the Depression and even earlier days of darkness. "One Monday in 1918," my father once said, "two of my brothers went out in the mornin' to work in the fields. By sunset they were feelin' poorly. On Wednesday they were dead of the flu." This is the voice of verbal history, straight ahead, no polish, no striving for effect, no histrionics. My father felt no need to name his brothers, that they were his two brothers was sufficient for the telling of his tale. This is the voice the author uses here, the voice of straightforward truth. Or is it?

Consider this passage: "My pride was overflowing as I returned to the table and sat. I searched through pages quickly to the one I wanted. The whole book of poetry was for him. All that I had done was for him. That morning, when he heard me read the poem, I felt I had expressed myself completely for the first time. I wanted to read the whole book to him without stopping. He didn't seem to be in the mood for that much expression at once. I would wait. All the feelings I had for him were in this poem, anyway. He would feel them, again, now...I began reading..." That is the voice of Linda Shelnutt, romantic, in her novel, "The Rose and & the Pyramid."

And this one: "CATSKILL's ending was amazing, one of the best in the series, as far as achieving literary clarity and finesse of a seasoned novelist's skill. As per this whole series, however, ethical considerations on each page, including the riveting denouement, reached a high of surging questions and contemplations of actions that we usually condemn, placing them in the hands of the heroes. I couldn't put this one down, then automatically move my mind onward, to whatever was next in my life." That is Shelnutt, enthusiast, reviewing right here in Amazon, typically seeking out and finding merit in a novel. (A novel that I dismiss as an odious example of an even worse series, by the way.)

Linda Shelnutt's natural style is, as you can see, very far from the artless, flat, directness of this memoir. Her artlessness here is, in fact, very artful indeed. She writes not as the contemporary Linda Shelnutt, but as the fifteen year-old Linda Hudnall, mine town girl. Miss Hudnall doesn't look on the past with any golden glow or romantic glitter. No Gatsbys, no Scotts, no Zeldas for her, not yet, but she sees the specific and tangible realities of her daily life: "heavy equipment, including a donut fryer, another mixer, a giant refrigerator, an 8' x 7' x 7' free standing oven capable of cooking 50 loafs of bread at a time, a 6' X 6' X 4' wooden steam box, a few 7' tray racks with a few dozen stainless-steel 4' x 3' trays, a half-ton, bread-working butcher-block table, 7 stainless steel mixing bowls 4' in diameter, 4 oak and glass display cases". She needs no more, it is sufficient for the telling of her tale.

This is an artful little memoir of hardscrabble times, of a hard-working Colorado coal mining town, of trials and triumphs that go unsung and largely unremembered. Buy it. Read it. Enjoy it.

Five indomitable stars.


Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann
Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann
Price: £27.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very traditional "Hoffmann". Not perfect but still good, 16 Feb. 2012
SOURCE:
Studio recording made at EMI Studios, London, during July and August 1972 and originally released in Lp form by ABC Records.

SOUND:
Good 1970s analogue stereo that on its initial release received some criticism for having a somewhat "churchly accoustic." This CD version was remastered by Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg, in 2002. I have no interest in approaching this or any other recording as a querulous audiophile; it sounds fine to me and without a hint of any intruding churchliness.

CAST:
Hoffmann, a poet, a composer, a fantasist and a drunk - Stuart Burrows (tenor)
Olympia / Giulietta / Antonia / Stella, a dancing doll / a Venetian courtesan / a singer in dubious health / a prima donna at the opera house next door to Luther's saloon - Beverly Sills (soprano)
Lindorf / Coppelius / Dapertutto / Dr Miracle, a Councillor / a purveyor of magic spectacles / a practitioner of the dark arts / a lethal physician, all in hot pursuit of the ladies listed above - Norman Treigle (bass-baritone)
Nicklausse / La Muse, a companion / a literary-minded minor goddess - Susanne Marsee
Crespel, Antonia's father - Robert Lloyd (bass)
La voix, the voice of poor Antonia's dead mother (or maybe not) - Patricia Kern (mezzo-soprano)
Hermann / Schlemil, a heavy-drinking student / an ardent admirer of Giulietta unfortunately lacking a soul - Raimund Herincx (baritone)
Andres / Spalanzani / Pitichinaccio / Frantz, a servant / a maker of dancing dolls / a Venetian servant / a stone- and tonedeaf servant in Crespel's house - Nico Castel (tenor)
Nathanael / Cwith the London Symphony Orchestra and the John Aldis Choir.

ochenille, another heavy-drinking student / Spalanzani's servant - Bernard Dickerson (tenor)
Luther, a saloon-keeper - John Noble (baritone)

CONDUCTOR:
Julius Rudel DOCUMENTATION:
Libretto in French and English. Track list with timings. Brief summary of the plot by act. Short histories of the opera and Offenbach. Admiring sketch of the life and times of Beverly Sills. Photographs of the principal singers and the conductor.

TEXT:
This performance follows the traditional form the opera assumed for its original production shortly after the composer's death. It has sung recitatives provided by Guiraud (who performed the same task for Bizet's "Carmen"). Listeners are free to regard the recitatives as a spurious blot on the recording or as a blessed relief from long blocks of French spoken by manifest non-Francophones. The opera is presented in the traditional--some would say spurious--order: prologue in Luther's tavern, Act I with the dancing doll, Act II in Venice, Act III at the home of Crespel and Antonia, epilogue once more at Luther's joint. The original play on which the opera is based had the Venice scene for Act III and Antonia's scene as Act II. That ordering does, indeed, make more since of the libretto text; however, it has generally been held that the Antonia scene makes a far stronger musical statement upon which to end the opera--and I, for one, entirely agree with that notion. This performance also includes the traditional interpolations of bits from other works of Offenbach, by far the most important of which is Dapertutto's "Scintille, diamont" in the Venice scene--and a good thing, too!

COMMENTARY:
Some operas are happy in recordings. I can name five or six "Trovatores," a handful of "Don Giovannis" and two or three "Rigolettos" that I'd unhesitatingly recommend to anyone. Finding the ideal recorded "Hoffmann," though, is like finding the flawless "Traviata" or "Fidelio." It is something of an endless quest. The 1948 Cluytens version is as authentically French as a Citroen automobile, but it follows the traditional form---which some find an unforgivable flaw--is in quite terrible sound, and suffers from some of the most Gawdawful supporting players I have ever heard. The later Cluytens version with Gedda, Schwarzkopf and de los Angeles is spoiled from front to back by the utterly mad casting of a baritone as Nicklausse. Some recent recorded versions have bloated up to Wagnerian length by scholarly incorporation of material that Offenbach, a true creature of the theater, would have tossed out at the first rehearsal.

This performance has its enthusiastic fans, as may readily be determined by glancing at the earlier Amazon reviews. And, really, as an example of a traditional presentation of "Les Contes d"Hoffmann" it is quite good. I would have few qualms about recommending it to someone who simply wants to hear an enjoyable "Hoffmann."

On the other hand, I feel obliged to point out what I, on a purely personal basis, regard as faults that prevent this recording from being an outstanding "Hoffmann." Some of the smaller roles are performed in a manner that is markedly inferior to those on competing recordings. This is particularly true of the mezzo-sopranos. Suzanne Marcee is a particularly lackluster Nicklausse, while Patricia Kern simply isn't up to the fireworks and drama of the big trio in the Antonia scene. Nico Castel is no better. The best that can be said of his attempt on Frantz's comic gem of an aria is that it is unfortunate. On hearing Castel in that piece, for the first time in my life I began to appreciate the artfulness of the Frantz on Cluytens' 1948 recording.

The lead singers, admittedly good ones, still depart from what I regard as ideal for "Hoffmann." Some time ago, a well-known Amazon US reviewer, the Santa Fe Listener, acutely pointed out that the performer of Hoffmann should either be a true French tenor or a charismatic tenor. A few moments of hearing Stuart Burrows will demonstrate that for all his considerable merit, he was neither.

Norman Treigle was a man who drew passionate admirers. I could never quite understand why. Admittedly, he had the dark rasp of an eastern European basso--but during his time, there were half a dozen real eastern European basses who were still better at it. To my own personal notions, I do not find enough differentiation between his Lindorf, Dapertutto and the rest. In any case, I certainly do not believe that those characters are best served by a Slavic snarl. Ideally, there should be an elegant purr of purely Gallic malice and contempt running through poor Hoffmann's fourfold nemeses.

Finally, there is Beverly Sills at the very heart of the recording. That she was a great singer, wonderful vocal technician and fine performer is a given. But when she arose to international fame, it was her fate to have mighty rivals on stage and on record: Callas, Sutherland and Caballe. While Sills was very much in their class, I cannot rank her any higher than fourth among her peers. In this recording, Sills attempts all four of Hoffmann's loves. The role of Stella is both short and colorless; it really doesn't count for much. Sills is very good as Olympia, the dancing doll, and by all accounts she was terrific while doing the role on stage. I'll give her that one. As Giulietta, the ultra-treacherous Venetian courtesan, she was dead wrong. That's a part that calls for the personality of a Mae West and the voice of a Renata Tebaldi at her peak. By comparison, Sills sounds like a schoolgirl at a county pageant. Then there is Antonia, who should be all desperate, yearning lyricism. Sills makes an admirable attempt at the part, but that particular sound just doesn't seem to be in her voice--or at least, not to my ear.

All this nitpicking aside, this version of "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" on the whole is on a par with its strongest rivals and better than some more recently recorded efforts. It's not perfect, but then, no recording of "Hoffmann" is.

I think it is worth four stars.


Glorious 39 [DVD] [2010]
Glorious 39 [DVD] [2010]
Dvd ~ Romola Garai
Price: £3.99

8 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A dismal film desperately in need of Hitchcock, 30 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Glorious 39 [DVD] [2010] (DVD)
I stumbled across this thing on the "New British Shelf" at my nearby video rental shop. I read the back-cover blurb, saw the familiar names of the cast members, got a whiff of the general subject matter and said to myself, "Ah, just the thing!"

I could not have been more wrong. What I found was a typically Hitchcockian story of charming, upper-class villainy directed by a man who clearly didn't have a clue as to what he was about and a cast of high-powered actors, all of whom were sleepwalking.

Other reviewers have accurately pointed out the lack of internal consistency and logic. The same charges can equally be laid against Hitchcock's works--but Hitchcock was a master of filmic magic and misdirection. This film's Poliakoff absolutely is not. Hitchcock, in storyboarding this film, would have used more than a few closeups to focus the drama directly on the heroine in what is at bottom a damsel-in-distress plot. Poliakoff, on the other hand dotes on medium- and long-shots to inundate us in pretty views of candy-box-sweet landscapes. Hitchcock would have realized that the screenplay was full of pointless bloat and cut the running time by a good fifty percent. Poliakoff clearly doesn't appreciate that little problem. And finally, Hitchcock would have provided the film with a real ending rather than the dull thud we get here, which improbably manages to be simutaneously ultra-whispy and a kick in the viewer's teeth.

There is just one reason to See this film: to hone your appreciation of Hitchcock's art.

One grudgingly-given star.


Norma (Rome 1958)
Norma (Rome 1958)
Price: £12.50

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars La Cerquetti hits the big time with a 1958 triumph in Rome, 6 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Norma (Rome 1958) (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
In January 1958, Maria Callas was contracted to sing four performances of "Norma" at the Rome Opera. The first performance was the gala opening night of the season and the president of Italy would be present. A day or two before the performance, Callas seems to have experienced some significant vocal difficulties. This caused consternation. Callas was convinced (bullied in her own mind) to take the stage on opening night. She sang very badly. At the end of Act I, the audience expressed its displeasure with such comments as "Go back to Milan!" and "You've cost us a million lire!" The Manager of the Rome Opera, Antonio Ghiringhelli, applied to the Prefecture of Rome to ban Callas from singing in the three remaining contracted performances and flew in up-and-coming soprano Anita Cerquetti to sing in them.

This was the central scandal of Callas' stormy career and La Divina seems to have taken it very hard, indeed.

This recording captures the second performance on January 4th, and Anita Cerquetti's triumphant performance as Norma.

SOUND:
This recording bears the hallmarks of an off-the-air capture made with far from state-of-the-art equipment. Even by the modest standards of 1950s mono broadcast recordings it is fairly awful. The voices of the soloists are not too bad but the orchestra and chorus sound much as they might over two tuna fish cans connected by a string. In short, to hear this "Norma" is very like listening to an AM broadcast over the radio of a clapped-out Chevy while driving through a tunnel.

Audiophiles, turn away right now, this recording is not for you. The virtues of this "Norma"--and they are substantial!--are in the performers, not in the mechanical recording of their sound.

CAST:
Norma, Gaulish high priestess and seer, mother of Pollione's children - Anita Cerquetti (soprano)
Pollione, Roman pro-consul of Gaul, a hound-dog in character - Franco Corelli (tenor)
Adalgisa, a young Gaulish priestess who is infatuated with Pollione (mezzo-soprano)
Oroveso, Archdruid and father of Norma - Giulio Neri (bass)
Clotilde, a priestess and confidant of Norma who oddly bears a Germanic name - Gianella Borelli (soprano)
Flavio, a Roman officer - Piero De Palma (tenor)

CONDUCTOR:
Gabrielli Santini, with the Rome Opera Orchestra and the Rome Opera Chorus.

TEXT:
This performance contains the standard cuts customary for its time.

DOCUMENTATION:
No libretto. Short summary of the plot. Nothing on the performers or the circumstances of the recording. Track list that identifies principal singers and provides timings.

FORMAT:
Disk 1 - Overture and Act 1 to "Ah si, fa core e abbraciami (Norma and Adalgisa), 15 tracks, 78'40".
Disk 2 - Act 1 (continued); Act 2 (complete), 16 tracks, 72"23".

COMMENTARY:
This recording is as notorious as it is famous, for it is a permanent memorial to the greatest crisis in the career of Maria Callas.

That said, let us turn to the merits of the recording itself. Antonio Ghiringhelli was clearly determined to open his 1958 season at the Rome Opera House with a splash. He chose to present Bellini's masterpiece "Norma," one of the very few bel canto operas that had never fallen out of the standard repertory and the leader of the then new revival of the bel canto works. His stars were to be the biggest box office name of the day, Maria Callas, the popular and handsome Franco Corelli, the first-rate bass Giulio Neri and the superb Fedora Berbieri. As it happened, Berbieri had to cancel out, but her replacement, Miriam Piazzini was very good and well-known to the Roman audience.

The best-laid plans of mice and managers of opera houses gang aft aglay. Ghiringhelli's plan positively blew up in his face when on January 2, 1958, Callas wheezed through Act 1 and refused to come out for Act 2. The working relationship of the star and the manager had been iffy, to say the least. Ghiringhelli fired Callas and flew in the 27 year-old Cerquetti who had already made a name for herself among the cognoscenti but was not yet famous with the general public. Cerquetti came, sang and conquered. If you have any doubts about that last, just listen to the storm of applause she earned for her rendition of "Casta diva." (Yes, some of that was a calculated slap by the audience at Callas. but most of it was for a terrific bit of singing. The audience did it again in Act 2, following one of the duets with Adalgisa, and that time I doubt that their minds were on Callas at all.)

Anita Cerquetti (b. 1931) had a career that was effectively confined to a single decade. She retired from the stage in 1960 at the age of thirty for reasons that have never been made entirely clear. In her few short years, she made it abundantly clear that she was a full peer of her great contemporaries, Callas, Caballe, Gencer, Olivero, Sutherland and Tebaldi.

Franco Corelli (1921-2003) was certainly one of the great tenors of his generation. There are those today who strongly argue that he was the best of the bunch. He was also a slave to nerves and exasperatingly likely to cancel performances at the last moment. I am not one of his greatest fans, but it is clear that he was very much on his game that January evening in Rome. His Pollione is full, passionate and very, very Italian. You have to be impressed.

Giulio Neri (1909-1958) was a great bass whose career was mainly confined to Italy. He offered a big, dark sound. That Roman audience gave him his own triumph in Act 2. He suffered a heart attack four months after this performance and died just short of his 47th birthday.

Miriam Pirazzini (b. 1918) made her operatic debut in 1944. She can be heard on a number of complete opera recordings from the 1950s. She sang often with Callas and Olivero. As Adalgisa she sounds a bit matronly for my taste, more suited for Azucena, one of her standard roles. Nevertheless, she is fine in the part and obviously much appreciated by the audience.

The two comprimario parts, Clotilde and Flavio are skillfully handled. Giannella Borelli did not do much in the way of recording. It may be that she will be best remembered as the teacher of soprano Sumi Jo. Piero De Palma was the leading comprimario and character-tenor in Italy. He is likely to appear and just about any opera recording made in Italy during the 1950s and 60s. On this recording, he holds his own nicely against the full-fledged vocal onslaught of Corelli.

Conductor Santini and the orchestra and chorus he commands do well enough but the limitations of the recording do them no favors.

This "Norma" should be no-one's first or only version of Bellini's opera. As good as the performance is, it has to be downgraded because of the poor sound quality. Nevertheless, for Cerquetti fans--and I certainly am one of them--and for people who love full-out, uninhibited Italian singing, this set is a must have.

Four poorly, alas, recorded stars.


Fadeaway Girl
Fadeaway Girl
by Martha Grimes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.08

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grimes' feral child gets her own series, 29 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Fadeaway Girl (Hardcover)
I came upon this book quite by accident at my local branch of the Public Library. The sight of the familiar image of one of Coles Phillips' "fadeaway girls" on the dust jacket was irresistible, even though I'm fairly sure that it is reversed from its original appearanceon on the cover of the old Life Magazine.

The book isn't bad either--not great, but certainly not bad, and definitely a couple of notches better than the latest handful of the author's Richard Jury series of whodunits.

I gather that "Fadeaway Girl" is the fourth in a series of tales about what must undoubtedly be regarded as an incident-filled summer of a twelve-year-old girl, Emma Graham, who lives in semi-rural Maryland. Martha Grimes has become an author who shuns resolution. This book ties off a lot of plot lines that plainly originated in the three predecessor volumes, but just as plainly lays out a tangle of loose ends to be taken up in Emma's subsequent adventures.

In scanning over earlier Amazon U.S. reviews, I noticed that readers have been advised to read the books in order or warned that the amount of background information to be absorbed is a substantial barrier to enjoying this book. Having entered in medias res, so to speak, I find that I don't agree. Starting with Chapter 1, it is clear that a lot of stuff has already happened around Emma, fine, and then more stuff starts happening, equally fine as far as I was concerned.

This is a book of textures not often found in series whodunits. One such texture has to do with place. Emma's world seems to consist of a rough circle of perhaps a dozen miles in radius around her home town, which is by no means the largest of the small towns in her narrowly circumscribed universe. Virtually none of the background chatter that we all endure seems to enter Emma's cloistered world, not sports, not politics, not even weather.

There is the matter of time, another texture. When is this summer of wonders taking place? Innocently opening the book, I had no reason not to assume that Emma's time was my time--until Emma gives a cab driver a fifteen-cent tip. Emma is clearly not residing in my twenty-first century! Emma tells us that a kidnapping took place over twenty years earlier, at a time when Veronica Lake was a major Hollywood star and occupying.a prominent space in Photoplay Magazine. Emma also lets us know that she is a fan of the Perry Mason TV series. Using those two fixed points, Emma's floreat must be somewhere between 1962 and 1966, a very curious time-period for even a twelve-year-old to be so entirely oblivious to the world at large.

And why am I so sure that it is summertime? Well, the weather is pretty good in Emma's Maryland and neither she nor her brother nor her young acquaintances are in school, nor does anyone expect them to be there. Summertime, and the livin' is easy.

The final texture I'll mention is Emma herself. Emma is the central figure in the four published novels in this series. But it should be plain to anyone who has read the Richard Jury series that Emma has appeared in every book. She appears under a different name each time and very occasionally as a boy, but she's always there: a wise-beyond-her-years, undisciplined, unregimented, food-and-drink-handling feral child. Emma-of-the-thousand-masks. In the current series, the ubiquitous child has even divided amoeba-like into the front-and-center Emma Graham and her slightly older, theatrically-inclined brother, a background figure--so far.

Like all of Grimes' feral children, Emma is effectively without family ties. I assert this even though Emma's mother quite regularly turns up on the pages of the book. But just consider those appearances. Emma's unnamed mother is almost always distantly called "my mother." Emma's mother is always working as a cook in the hotel where they live. Her comments to Emma as limited entirely to matters of food preparation and serving. Emma praises her mother's cooking, but nothing else. The mother-daughter relationship is expressed in strictly pro-forma terms.

The appearance of a feral child in a book is of no significance in itself. The repeated appearance of that child in book after book, culminating in a lengthy series built around her strongly suggests that she represents a matter of huge importance to Martha Grimes. On the one hand, I am curious as to what it might be; on the other, I hope I never find out.

If your taste runs to character-driven mysteries with a leisurely--to say the least--attitude toward tying up loose ends, this is the book for you. For myself, I enjoyed the book and I'll read the next entry in the series when it comes out, although I don't think I'll bother with the earlier books.

Four feral, undisciplined, yet oddly fascinated stars.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 23, 2012 9:24 AM GMT


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