The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins And 11 Of Her Rivals

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 3

This has to be heard to be believed, and believe me, it has to be heard. Most opera fans–and classical music lovers in general, over 40–might recall “party” records by a statuesque woman named Florence Foster Jenkins (RCA eventually picked up the vanity records she made, thus making her talent available to the world), a vain, wealthy, self-deluding character who saw herself as an opera diva and went so far as to hire Carnegie Hall one evening in 1944 to showcase her gifts. It was a sell-out event and even included her singing folk songs in nationalistic costumes.

Jenkins apparently was quite an awful person as well as a very special singer, and this present CD is the sine qua non of a passion for her type of art: it features other, less well-known crackpots in song and opera, recorded between 1920 and 1987 in various (mostly unknown) venues, mostly in utterly awful sound. It’s worth fighting through the sonics, however. This is priceless as a study in aberrant behavior, the history of opera, and sociology.

Not that everything recorded here isn’t a highlight, but particularly special excerpts to be on guard for are: the vaguely decrepit Betty-Jo Schramm’s performance of an aria from Graun’s Artaserce, a lesson in Baroque singing-style, complete with embellishments, that would be fine if any of it were being sung in the same key as the orchestra; two selections by Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller (I’m not making up these names) that introduce us to a voice of such epic ugliness that we can only wonder; Sari Bunchuk Wontner wailing away at Violetta’s grand first-act scene at tempos nowhere near what’s accompanying her; the Tomb Scene from Aida, abominably sung (in English) by Norma-Jean Erdmann-Chadbourne, but not nearly as ridiculously as her tenor-partner, whose name is either Thomas Burns, Ellis Chadbourne, or Thomas Garcia (if you don’t start to laugh the moment you hear his voice, check your pulse); Natalia de Andrade, about whom even the annotator knows little, singing a lovely ditty from Manon in good French, but sounding well over 100 years old, with a wobble in her voice so wide that any single tone can be off by almost a third; mezzo Olive Middleton singing Leonora’s “Miserere” from Trovatore dementedly (and with an optional high-C that actually gets applause from the audience!), accompanied by a chorus that is actually worse than she is. And I’ll let you discover for yourself Vassilka Petrova’s capsule Tosca and Mari Lyn’s “Una voce poco fa” (with an absolutely priceless spoken introduction/history lesson).

You may have noticed that the name of the CD label is “Homophone”. It’s not original–a Wagnerian tenor named Ernst van Dyke started it for himself in 1905 when he was past his prime–but it has been cleverly borrowed. There are also a couple of purely instrumental passages–from Carmen and Samson et Dalila–played by the Homophone Orchestra. Mme Jenkins also offers an invaluable selection, followed by an interview with her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, who not only attempted to steal her estate, but is pictured in the booklet being lifted up by Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you think I’m lying or kidding, buy this. In fact, buy it anyway: it will give you decades of delight. The brilliant, sardonic booklet notes are an added bonus. [2/16/2005]



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Recording Details:

Album Title: The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins and 11 of her Rivals

Various composers and works (Plus: Cosme McCoon Remembers Lady Florence) -

  • Florence Foster Jenkins, Rosalina Mello, Alice Gerstl Duschak, Betty-Jo Schramm, Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller, Natalia de Andrade, Olive Middleton, Norma-Jean Erdmann-Chadbourne, Sylvia Sawyer, Vassilka Petrova, Mari Lyn, Sari Bunchuk Wontner, (singers)
  • Homophone Orchestra; other unidentified orchestras & conductors


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