Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Opera

Brain Bits for a Delayed Spring

It’s March 24th and the weatherman is predicting a snow storm starting tomorrow afternoon, just in time for tomorrow evening’s commute. Mother Nature must be fuming.


Rise StevensI never heard Risë Stevens sing at the Met—her operatic career ended in 1962—but her artistic reputation was the gold standard for American singers for years. She was a cross-over artist decades before the term was coined, what with her many appearances on radio and television, not to mention her film career, which included “Going My Way,” in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald.

Her voice was indeed unique. Although she succeeded as a mezzo-soprano, her contralto beginnings were always evident in that dark, rich sound. Not many singers have the distinction of being the go-to artist for two such wildly divergent roles as the 17 year-old Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier” and the ultimate seductress, Carmen, but she was, for two decades.

If you’d like to hear her at her best, I’d recommend the live 1952 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Carmen.” This was the peak of her career, and while she made two studio recordings of the opera, neither match the intensity of the broadcast. Richard Tucker is incredible as Don José, and when he and Ms. Stevens have their final confrontation, your hair stands on end. I just love what she does with the role—she’s as far removed from cliché as you can possibly get. Unlike other Carmens who tend to snarl the line, her “Non, je ne t’aime plus” is delivered in a dismissive monotone. Her indifference fuels José’s rage, which she knowingly triggers in fulfillment of the fate she had learned during the Card Scene. It’s a wonderfully unified portrayal, something that more than a few Carmens of today could learn from.

Many thanks, Risë Stevens. Rest in peace.


Speaking of live performances, I was recently listening to and bowled over by “Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute”, the first in a much too long line of galas, celebrations and performances dedicated to his work (For the record, I like a number of his shows, but his worshippers are in a league of crazy all their own). The recording marks a 1973 benefit, and the talent could not have been better.

The standouts are all “Follies” alumnae who reprise their songs from that show, but with the knowledge and zest that comes when a performer has lived with a role for a while. Once of the downsides of original Broadway cast albums of that era is that they were usually recorded on the Sunday following the show’s opening. Actors like Alexis Smith, for whom singing was a bit of a stretch, were short-changed by the process—comparing her “Could I Leave You?” on the original cast album with her rendition at the Sondheim tribute two years later is an eye-opener. She had had the benefit of months of performances and she nails the song cold, both musically and dramatically. While you would expect Dorothy Collins, a singer by trade, to perform well on the Sondheim album, she exceeds your highest expectations. Though it sounds like she had a slight cold at the time, she delivers a searing “Losing My Mind” in addition to a delightful “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which opens the gala. The lady certainly knew her stuff.

And then there’s Ethel Shutta, singing “Broadway Baby.” Her presence is a reminder that the distance between “Follies,” perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s best achievement, and its genesis will continue to grow, to the detriment of the work. You see, Ethel Shutta had been featured in the Ziegfeld Follies back in the 20’s, and when she, along with a number of other actors, was cast in Sondheim’s “Follies,” she brought a performing style to the show that was genuine and true to the era. These performers are all gone now, of course, and the best we can hope for whenever the show is revived is an educated imitation. Most likely, though, we’ll end up with some “Glee”-like shtick. Yuck.


Variety is not only the spice of life, it saves your sanity. New York’s classical station, WQXR, is in the midst of drowning itself in Bach for ten days. I thought their annual “Beethoven Month” in November was enough, but “Bach 360” is camped on my last nerve. One more cantata, one more passion, and I’ll be losing my mind. Not a good idea, folks.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

Faking It


I had been looking forward to seeing “A Late Quartet” for quite some time. Yaron Zilberman’s 2012 film with its double-edged title referring to both Beethoven’s Opus 131, his last string quartet, and the uncertain future of this group of musicians, has an intriguing premise, not to mention a great cast. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat disappointing.

As the film opens, the Fugue String Quartet is rehearsing for the start of its 25th anniversary season. In instrument order the musicians are Daniel, first violin (Mark Ivanir), Robert, second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette, viola (Catherine Keener) and Peter, cello (Christopher Walken). We immediately sense that Peter is suffering some type of physical problem, and indeed, within the first few minutes of the film he’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Where does the quartet go from here?

Headfirst into a vat of soap, to be sure. During the course of the movie we encounter (or endure, as the case may be) a number of issues. In no particular order: (1) Daniel and Juliette had a thing during their student days at Julliard (2) She then hit on Robert, got pregnant and married him in record time (3) Daniel is a martinet and perfectionist who runs the quartet as he sees fit, only to turn skeevy when he has an affair with Alexandra, Juliette and Robert’s conservatory student daughter and (4) Robert, having literally played second fiddle to the other three throughout his entire career, gets thrown out of the house after a one-night stand that only happened because Juliette connived with Daniel to turn thumbs-down on his request to play first violin from time to time. Are you still with me?

At this point you may laugh when I say “A Late Quartet” is still worth seeing. Why? Because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is phenomenal. His Robert is the most open character in the movie, the guy who started his career as everybody’s afterthought (he was the last player invited to join the quartet) and has remained so ever since in the eyes of his three cohorts. He’s never been certain of Juliette’s feelings for him, and when he finally confronts her, you want to cry along with him. When Robert discovers he’s the last to learn of Daniel’s affair with his daughter, his frustration level hits red on the meter, and you cheer when he finally hauls off and belts him. No character ever deserved it more.

I wish better use had been made of Anne-Sofie von Otter, who appears only too briefly to sing a few bars of “Marietta’s Lied,” as Peter’s late wife and frequent collaborator. But more than that, I had hoped that the actors could have done a better job of appearing to be real musicians. While there’s been a fair amount of publicity as to how intensely the actors had been coached, the results were somewhat poor to my former violinist’s eyes. To be fair, it’s tough to fake violin and viola playing because everything is so visible. Nevertheless, the violinists are both too stiff (the director wisely hides Catherine Keener behind a music stand most of the time). Although cello is easier to fake due to the size and position of the instrument, I think Emily Watson in “Hilary and Jackie” did a better job than Christopher Walken does here.

Too nit-picky? I don’t think so, because a bad fake job in a film about musicians is so distracting that it undermines what you’re watching. In contrast, you can see a real musician-actor at work in “Topsy-Turvy,” Mike Leigh’s 1999 tribute to the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” There’s a scene in which Allan Corduner, as Sullivan, accompanies three “Mikado” actors in a patter trio, and you have the privilege of experiencing the real deal, an actor performing as a musician (Corduner studied to be a concert pianist before he became an actor). His crisp nod as he accents the music, his turning the page of the score while still playing with one hand—this is how it really happens, and it’s a total joy to watch.

Too bad “A Late Quartet” never reaches that level.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Elmer Gantry

"Sin! Sin! You're All Sinners!"
“Sin! Sin! You’re All Sinners!”

In this year’s edition of its “31 Days of Oscar” marathon, Turner Classic Movies managed to save one of the best for last. I’m referring to 1960’s “Elmer Gantry,” which won Oscars for Burt Lancaster (Best Actor), Shirley Jones (Best Supporting Actress), and Richard Brooks (Best Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium). But anyone who savors good acting can tell you that little gold man should have been ripped out of Shirley Jones’s hands and bestowed upon Jean Simmons. Yet Ms. Simmons, who gives one of the best performances on film as the evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer, wasn’t even nominated (In the “Can You Believe This?” category, it was Greer Garson in “Sunrise at Campobello” who filled the slot, and Elizabeth Taylor’s tracheotomy won the Best Actress Oscar for that snoozefest, “Butterfield 8”).

Based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel, “Elmer Gantry” is an uncommonly smart movie, even if what it takes seriously is what Lewis made a career of satirizing. Set during the 1920’s, this story of a divinity student turned appliance salesman turned revivalist shows the flip side of the Jazz Age. We’re in Bible Belt America, culminating in a religious crusade in Lewis’s Zenith, his prototypical Midwestern city. It’s the old-time religion brought to life, with a dash of Aimee Semple MacPherson and peppered with booze and other vices, not to mention hypocrisy and corruption. Truly a tasty meal.

Burt Lancaster is energy personified as Elmer Gantry.  As expected, he’s wonderful in Gantry’s showier scenes, doing a baseball slide for Jesus and mocking evolution to the faithful with a chimpanzee at his side. Yes, a good part of his performance involves a lot of teeth and a salesman’s “just us boys” laugh, not to mention the fact that his pompadour should have received its own billing in the opening credits. But he’s tremendously moving in Elmer’s quieter moments, showing us the emptiness of his salesman’s life—the Christmas phone call home to his weeping mother, being stuck in a town where even a married woman pal can’t spare half an hour for him. He studiously works his way into Sharon’s inner circle, first by seducing music director Sister Rachel (Patti Page). By the time he finagles a private talk with Sister Sharon, feeding her a lot of malarkey based on information he gleaned from Rachel, we’re as charmed as she is.

But we’re even more charmed by Sister Sharon’s delight in him. She calls him “outrageous,” takes issue with his style and methods, but enjoys his relish in utilizing them as well as the success they bring to her crusade. Jean Simmons had played a woman of elmer_gantry_jean_simmonsreligious bent before (Sister Sarah in “Guys and Dolls,” where, among other talents, she memorably displayed a wicked throwing arm, pitching cocoanuts during that melee in Havana), but Sister Sharon is in quite a different league. She feels she’s been called by God, yet in discussion with the Zenith ministers’ committee, she can talk the dollars and cents of religion with the best of them. At times she surprises you with her reactions. When Gantry pounces for that first kiss, she’s shocked, but Simmons also shows us the character’s disappointment (“So that’s the only thing you really wanted?”). The spirituality is certainly there, but so is the earthiness of Katie Jones from Shantytown, the girl who became Sister Sharon. And from time to time Simmons make us feel Sharon’s uncertainty with the truth of her calling as well as her ability to cut through the hucksterism. Which makes the ultimate confirmation of both at the end of the film that more poignant.

Gantry’s counterbalance is Jim Lefferts, a skeptical Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who follows Sharon’s crusade from the sticks to Zenith. His articles raise the sort of questions about her, religion and revivalism that to this day still anger a lot of people. In one of the film’s best scenes, we see him in the press room, dictating a review of Sharon’s opening night in Zenith. A typist bangs out his words on an old upright, the room growing quieter by the moment as Lefferts gathers steam, painting what he’s just seen as simply another fad. “What is a revival?…Zenith is the heart of the Bible Belt. [But] this is an age that likes noise and whoopee. We’re a fertile land for corn, beans, squash, rumble seat sex and revivalism. Hallelujah, brother.” Being the screenwriter’s mouthpiece is always a tricky role, but Arthur Kennedy turns in a marvelous performance as Lefferts, showing us the doubter as well as the cynic. He’s a pleasure to watch.

Not so Shirley Jones as Lulu Baines, the dean’s daughter whose seduction behind the altar on Christmas Eve resulted in Gantry’s expulsion from divinity school. Richard Brooks, who directed the film in addition to writing the script, evidently thought it a great coup to cast the pretty, sweet Laurie of “Oklahoma!” as a prostitute showing off her rack. But shock value is short-lasting (though, as in this case, it usually results in an Oscar). What makes matters worse is that nearly every one of Jones’s line readings goes thunk. Lee Remick would have been perfect casting for the role, and better still, her talent would have kept the Lulu Baines story line from sinking into a soppy mess. A badly missed opportunity.

Aside from Shirley Jones, “Elmer Gantry” boasts one of the best supporting casts around. Dean Jagger, as Sharon’s manager, and especially Edward Andrews, as George F. Babbitt (“Kee-rect!”), are wonderful, as are John McIntire and Hugh Marlowe as two Zenith ministers who doubt the long-term worth of revivalism. As can be expected for a movie made in this era, there are some bumps in the road with respect to period hair and costuming,  Sister Sharon’s Jackie Kennedy sunglasses being the loudest example.

“Elmer Gantry” is a film I never tire of seeing. Richard Brooks’s unusually thoughtful script and the vitality of both story and acting make this film a classic. Given what’s been going on in this country during the last 30 years, it’s more relevant now than when it was made. Enjoy.