Lis­ten Up

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James M. Keller writes about the movie Mar­guerite and other di­vas with delu­sions

We all have our blind spots. Or our deaf spots, which would be the case with the singer Mar­guerite Du­mont, around whom swirls the new French film Mar­guerite, ar­riv­ing on Fri­day, April 8, at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts. Di­rected by Xavier Gian­noli (who also wrote the script in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mar­cia Ro­man), it tells the tale of a French baroness “of a cer­tain age” who, in the 1920s, ded­i­cates her­self to be­com­ing a con­cert singer, a woman whose mone­tary re­sources are in­cal­cu­la­ble and whose vo­cal abil­ity is nil. While se­curely en­sconced in the fairy­tale world of pre-De­pres­sion high so­ci­ety — a realm of price­less man­sions, snooty pri­vate clubs, and gilded con­cert halls — the film fol­lows Mar­guerite as she in­trepidly nav­i­gates her way into the less-cush­ioned realm of mu­si­cians who ac­tu­ally work for a liv­ing, even into the rau­cous en­vi­ron­ment of Dadaist artis­tic hap­pen­ings. You might think of it as what might have oc­curred on Down­ton Abbey if high-spir­ited Lady Rosamund had sud­denly swept in to dom­i­nate the well-man­nered pro­ceed­ings and de­cided to be­come an artiste.

Cather­ine Frot presents a nu­anced in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ti­tle char­ac­ter. She is bound­less in her ca­pac­ity to not com­pre­hend how un­suited she is to the pro­fes­sion of singing. And yet, she is surely not the only per­son at fault in the mat­ter. Sur­rounded as she is by syco­phants, some of whom are on her pay­roll, her van­ity is buoyed by con­stant re­in­force­ment. Chief among these pre­sumed en­thu­si­asts are a cyn­i­cal young jour­nal­ist, played with se­duc­tive ful­some­ness by Syl­vain Dieuaide, and Mar­guerite’s de­voted and pro­tec­tive but­ler — the won­der­ful Denis Mpunga, whose di­rec­tives no­body would dream of con­tra­ven­ing. When the baroness sets her sights on a pub­lic recital in a ma­jor con­cert hall, it is he who en­lists a fad­ing but still grandiose op­er­atic tenor (Michel Fau) to take her on as a voice pupil, con­vinc­ing him through an of­fer (only partly fi­nan­cial) he can­not refuse.

No­body who hears Mar­guerite sing can over­look how abom­inable her voice is, but she seems sin­cerely im­mune to any re­al­ity check on the mat­ter. Her sullen, pro­foundly em­bar­rassed hus­band (An­dré Mar­con) is the only per­son who tries to move things to a ra­tio­nal foot­ing, but he is too with­drawn to make any im­pact — and, in his way, he ap­pears to love her too much to bear punc­tur­ing the bub­ble of her fan­tasy. “The au­di­ence brings the mu­sic to life,” she ex­plains to him, an ob­vi­ously dis­hon­est ob­ser­va­tion that ex­empts her from what is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the

per­former. Her de­vo­tion to her art and her sin­cer­ity of pur­pose are unim­peach­able, yet she stead­fastly man­ages to ig­nore her ob­vi­ous de­fi­ciency.

The film weaves to­gether a good many threads, with the cen­tral sub­ject of Mar­guerite’s artis­tic am­bi­tions co-ex­ist­ing with rather weaker sub­plots in­volv­ing her alien­ated mar­riage, the go­ings-on among the voice teacher’s en­tourage (an as­sem­blage of cir­cus types who may ap­peal more to French than to Amer­i­can sen­si­bil­i­ties), and the bud­ding ca­reers of a young mezzo-so­prano and an artist who is a friend of the jour­nal­ist’s. In its dé­noue­ment, the plot de­scends into soap opera, with a sort of magic-re­al­ist turn of events on­stage dur­ing Mar­guerite’s big recital, a sub­se­quent health cri­sis, ex­per­i­men­tal psy­cho­log­i­cal treat­ment, and what seems to be a mo­ment of self-rev­e­la­tion. As the film creeps past the two-hour mark, one can not help feel­ing that it should have been wrapped up con­sid­er­ably sooner. Still, it is al­ways hand­some to watch (Pavel Tater’s art di­rec­tion, Véronique Mel­ery’s sets, and Pierre-Jean Lar­roque’s cos­tumes all merit ap­plause), and the scenes, some of which are quite ex­tended set-pieces, are in­ter­est­ing and de­tailed in and of them­selves. As is pretty much al­ways the case with clas­si­cal-mu­sic dra­mas, there are a few mis­steps that afi­ciona­dos will no­tice. For ex­am­ple, when Mar­guerite goes to hear her fu­ture voice teacher, who is pre­sum­ably so washed-up that the theater is re­mov­ing him from its pro­duc­tion of

Pagli­acci, the voice to which he lip-syncs (badly) is that of Mario del Monaco, singing so dra­mat­i­cally that no opera-house man­ager would dream of let­ting such a singer go.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter’s name is ob­vi­ously a play on Mar­garet Du­mont, the pi­geon-breasted grande dame of the Marx Broth­ers movies, who in fact did go by the name Mar­guerite in her early days as a soubrette. She mar­ried into wealth and re­tired from the stage; but af­ter her hus­band died, she re­turned to act­ing and de­vel­oped a niche ca­reer in com­edy roles. It was of­ten said that she was so air headed that she was clue­less about be­ing the butt of the Marx Broth­ers’ jokes — a bit of pub­lic-re­la­tions myth-mak­ing that Grou­cho in­vented and with which she was happy to play along.

But the char­ac­ter on which Mar­guerite is re­ally based is not Mar­garet Du­mont. It is Florence Foster Jenk­ins, an icon of over­ar­ch­ing am­bi­tion com­bined with op­er­atic in­com­pe­tence. Cognoscenti, a great many bach­e­lors among them, cheered her an­nual recitals in the ball­room of New York’s Ritz-Carl­ton Ho­tel, where she would ap­pear in a suc­ces­sion of out­ra­geous cos­tumes. But her as­pi­ra­tions reached their apex when she gave her sold-out Carnegie Hall de­but recital in 1944, at the age of sev­enty-six. The re­views were not uni­formly pos­i­tive. Two days later she suf­fered a heart attack, and a month later she was dead. Be­gin­ning in 1941, she had ex­panded her am­bi­tions to the air­waves through a se­ries of ra­dio broad­casts, and she also recorded nine se­lec­tions on the Melo­tone la­bel (a pur­veyor of low-bud­get records that dou­bled as a van­ity com­pany), in­clud­ing such col­oratura daz­zlers as the Queen of the Night’s sec­ond aria from The Magic Flute and the “Bell Song” from Lakmé. Like Mar­guerite in the movie, Lady Florence — as she liked to be called — never shied away from chal­leng­ing reper­toire and was not overly con­cerned about the ex­tent to which the notes she pro­duced might pos­si­bil­ity co­in­cide with those the com­posers wrote. RCA Vic­tor col­lected her Melo­tone record­ings onto an LP ti­tled The Glory ( ???? ) of the

Hu­man Voice, grac­ing its pur­ple cover with a win­some pho­to­graph in which Madame is wear­ing a shim­mer­ing satin gown, an­gels’ wings, and what looks like a minia­ture som­brero. It is prob­a­bly in as many opera-lovers’ col­lec­tions as is Maria Cal­las’

Tosca and Leon­tyne Price’s Aida. The al­bum re­mains in print as a CD, and the Melo­tone tracks have also been col­lected onto a ri­val record­ing, on the Naxos la­bel, ti­tled Mur­der on the High Cs.

IN 2007, a care­fully re­searched, re­spect­ful, and highly en­ter­tain­ing doc­u­men­tary was is­sued: Florence Foster Jenk­ins: A World of Her Own, di­rected by Don­ald Collup with his­tor­i­cal in­put from Gre­gor Benko. It presents an abun­dance of his­tor­i­cal back­ground that il­lu­mi­nates her re­mark­able ca­reer, and in so do­ing it puts to rest some of the in­ac­cu­rate as­sump­tions that nat­u­rally grew up in her wake. It is avail­able from www.vaimu­sic.com, although you can also view it on YouTube. Fas­ci­nat­ing in its own right, the doc­u­men­tary is par­tic­u­larly use­ful now, since Lady Florence is sud­denly hav­ing her mo­ment in the sun. The French Mar­guerite is now in the­aters, and May will bring the premiere of Florence Foster

Jenk­ins, a Bri­tish-Amer­i­can bio-com­edy-drama star­ring Meryl Streep, with Hugh Grant as her paramour and man­ager St. Clair Bay­field. In July, St. Martin’s Grif­fin will is­sue a new bi­og­ra­phy, Florence Foster

Jenk­ins, by Bri­tish jour­nal­ists Ni­cholas Martin and Jasper Rees, and that will be fol­lowed, in Septem­ber, by an­other book, from The Over­look Press, Florence Foster Jenk­ins: The Diva of Din: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer, by “writer, pub­lisher, and blog­ger” Dar­ryl W. Bul­lock.

For the mo­ment, though, the best writ­ten treat­ment of her life is to be found in the book­let ac­com­pa­ny­ing a re­mark­able re­lease from 2004 on the Ho­mo­phone la­bel: The Muse Sur­mounted: Florence Foster Jenk­ins and Eleven of Her Ri­vals. Ho­mo­phone was an ac­tual com­pany that pro­duced records from the turn of the cen­tury through 1925, but in this in­car­na­tion it looks very much like a one-off en­deavor of Marston Records, an es­teemed spe­cialty la­bel that re­leases metic­u­lously cu­rated col­lec­tions of supremely rare record­ings from long ago, mostly of singers but also of se­lected in­stru­men­tal­ists, with long, schol­arly liner notes that prac­ti­cally qual­ify as mono­graphs. Although the name Marston fig­ures nowhere on

The Muse Sur­mounted, the CD does ap­pear in the Marston cat­a­log and can be ac­quired from that com­pany di­rectly (www.marston­records.com). By the way, Marston presses a fi­nite num­ber of CDs, and once the stock runs out, that’s it: Al­most never does it print a sec­ond press run. You might want to browse the “En­dan­gered List” on its web­site to see if you spot some­thing else you sim­ply must have be­fore it dis­ap­pears.

The Muse Sur­mounted in­cludes notes on the artists by Benko, who was con­sulted for the 2007 doc­u­men­tary. Af­ter ex­plain­ing how Jenk­ins came to be viewed as “a slightly batty but charm­ing dowa­ger,” he lets loose to set the record straight: “Jenk­ins was a mon­ster of van­ity and self­ish­ness, but not crazy. She was cheap, se­cre­tive, su­per­sti­tious, mean, dowdy and a snob, with an ego com­pa­ra­ble to the great­est di­vas.” Here she is rep­re­sented by one of her Melo­tone discs, “Valse ca­res­sante,” writ­ten for her by Cosme McMoon, her ac­com­pa­nist. Her singing is up to her usual stan­dards, although she does get the last few notes right; but it has the added al­lure­ment of be­ing sup­ple­mented by an ob­bli­gato on the flute. Fol­low­ing it is a recorded rem­i­nis­cence by McMoon. “His char­ac­ter does seem to have been un­sa­vory,” Benko writes. “In his old age he was a con­stant fea­ture hang­ing around a par­tic­u­lar gym on Man­hat­tan’s West 42nd Street that was fre­quented by body-builders . ... This in­ter­course even­tu­ally blos­somed and led to McMoon’s change of ca­reer, when he be­came co-man­ager of a male bor­dello lo­cated in the same build­ing as the gym.”

This CD clar­i­fies that Jenk­ins was not alone in the path­ways of her par­tic­u­lar Par­nas­sus. All of the other singers whose achieve­ments are sam­pled here dis­play dis­tinc­tive artistry. An aria by Baroque com­poser Carl Hein­rich Graun, sung by Betty-Jo Schramm, is taken from a pri­vately pro­duced LP that was found posthu­mously among the ef­fects of the New York Times mu­sic critic Harold C. Schon­berg. She was, writes Benko, “an ‘un­sung’ pi­o­neer of the Early Mu­sic move­ment . ... Un­can­nily, the voice ap­pears nat­u­rally tuned to Baroque pitch. Ap­par­ently she was singing Early Mu­sic a half-tone flat long be­fore it be­came fash­ion­able to do so.” A vari­a­tion on this cop­ing mech­a­nism was part of the arse­nal of Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller, who un­der­takes “Dar­ling Nel­lie Gray” on a 1945 Melo­tone record; while her de­liv­ery is cer­tainly em­phatic, her range does not reach very high, invit­ing des­per­ate hoot­ing to sug­gest any pitches that lie above that al­ti­tude. Natalia de An­drade, once a Por­tuguese folksinger, re­de­fines the ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties of vi­brato in her in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “Je marche sur tous les chemins,” an evo­ca­tion of girl­ish del­i­cacy from Manon. It might not au­to­mat­i­cally oc­cur to you that Sari Bunchuk Wont­ner, the wife of a wealthy busi­ness­man, is singing La travi­ata, let alone in Ital­ian, since her wail­ing sounds like some­thing omi­nous that might waft up late at night through the air shaft of an apart­ment build­ing in a dodgy neigh­bor­hood. In fact, it was sur­rep­ti­tiously recorded by a friend who at­tended one of her recitals in the mu­sic room of her home in Las Ve­gas. Benko notes, “It was her last Travi­ata be­fore meet­ing her own tragic end, fall­ing over­board the Wont­ner yacht in the Caribbean.”

None of these singers is widely fa­mous, but a few of them may ring a bell with afi­ciona­dos of op­er­atic ex­ot­ica. In the mid-1980s, Mari Lyn shared her artistry ev­ery week on a pub­lic-ac­cess TV show in New York City. She also is­sued four LPs she had pre­cisely de­signed to mimic the high-class Philips la­bel, even putting its logo on the cover. On the first, she sang chest­nuts to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of a Mu­sic Mi­nus One pre-recorded or­ches­tra. In­tro­duc­ing her ren­di­tion of “Una voce poco fa” from The

Bar­ber of Seville, taken from one of her broad­casts, she pre­pares lis­ten­ers by ex­plain­ing, “In the golden age, con­duc­tors tore the hair out of their heads in big hand­fuls be­cause the col­oratura sang very few of the notes that were in the orig­i­nal aria.” She demon­strates this de­ci­sively, and quite a few of the notes she does sing you might not im­me­di­ately rec­og­nize as be­ing of hu­man ori­gin.

We meet Olive Mid­dle­ton, who had per­formed lead­ing roles at Covent Gar­den in her na­tive Eng­land be­fore im­mi­grat­ing to Amer­ica. She be­came a stal­wart of the La Puma Opera Workshop in New York, where we hear her singing a scene from Il trova­tore in 1966, cheered on by ador­ing fans. Benko quotes a de­scrip­tion from critic Ni­cholas E. Li­man­sky: “Her vo­cal art tran­scended the verismo ap­proach and ideal and cen­tered on re­al­ism com­bined with a vo­cal tech­nique that had been lost for many decades.” An ex­tra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion of the Tomb Scene from Aida, star­ring Nor­maJean Erd­mann-Chad­bourne and her hus­band, El­lis Chad­bourne (listed on the record as Thomas Gar­cia), will set off a Pavlo­vian re­sponse: Their ap­palling voices are the same ones that recorded what was pur­veyed as “The Faust Travesty,” which eked out RCA’s The Glory ( ???? ) of the

Hu­man Voice al­bum — but there they were iden­ti­fied as Jenny Wil­liams and Thomas Burns. Their records were pro­duced to ac­com­pany a book they wrote ti­tled The Art of Messa di Voce: Sci­en­tific Singing in which she de­clares: “You must re­mem­ber, I am past sev­enty years of age and have only re­cently dis­cov­ered the se­cret tech­niques of this so-called lost art. But you, who have many years be­fore you, can per­fect the art, and I hope to aid in restor­ing singing to its right­ful her­itage as the no­blest and high­est of all the arts.” You can’t say these artists didn’t do their part.

“Mar­guerite” opens on Fri­day, April 8, at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts.

A night at the opera: Cather­ine Frot

Mar­garet Du­mont and Grou­cho Marx

Florence Foster Jenk­ins

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