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The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven of Her Rivals
Georges Bizet, Carl Heinrich Graun, Benjamin R. Hanby
The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven of Her Rivals
Genres: Special Interest, Pop, Classical
  •  Track Listings (16) - Disc #1


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For lovers of mal canto, this is without equal.
Rick Robertson | Roanoke, Alabama, USA | 11/10/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

""Homophone" was originally the name of a record label inaugurated in 1905, its first release being a disc by the Wagnerian tenor Ernest van Dyck. At this time Van Dyck was far past his prime, and Gregor Benko continues this tradition (that of "singers in decline") with his new incarnation of the Homophone name.

"The Muse Surmounted", Homophone's first offering, is an uproariously funny excursion into what I would label "mal canto". Each singer in this collection set her own substandard for vocal art, and each one is presented in transfers that allow the holes in one's technique to shine through. Brightly.

The disc opens with an "overture" of sorts, a "Carmen" potpourri by the original Homophone Orchestra. If you like your Bizet with slap-tongued baritone saxophones and your Toreadors to boast to a fox-trot beat, this one's for you.

Next in line is a certain Rosalina Mello, in a "fado portugues" that is rendered in a tone reminiscent of a cat in heat. She also approaches several high A's in this piece with a long-discarded vocal technique known as "portamentissimo". Better put Garfield outside before giving Mme. Mello a listen.

Next we encounter Alice Gerstl Duschak, a long-time teacher at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. Benko's (excellent, I might add) program notes state that she was a teacher of Jessye Norman, and I might add that Gerstl Duschak's voice, as represented here, had no sideways.

The name Betty-Jo Schramm was hilarious enough for me - before hearing the track, I could picture her in pigtail and poodle skirt. According to Benko, she was a pioneer in the early-music movement, singing the music a half-tone lower than we normally hear it today. However, she failed to cue the orchestra in on her innovation.

Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller, another favorite of the producer, cut her precious few discs at the same Melotone studio where her more famous predecessor, Florence Foster Jenkins, sought to perpetuate her art. And what an art it is. She is represented with a Meyer-Helmund song and an American folk song. Edith Helena at 81 sang better than this.

My favorite - at least for now - is Natalia de Andrade, a rather interesting character, who imposes upon the role of Manon a rather distinctive tritone tremolo reminiscent of the dearly departed Mrs. Elva Miller. It takes a life of its own, creating a somewhat minimalist rhythmic shift and will cause you to reach for the tequila. Perhaps she already had.

Olive Middleton, beloved diva assoluta of the La Puma Opera Workshop, is represented with her beloved "Miserere" from "Trovatore" her alleged high C ringing rather clearly through the speakers.

A lovely surprise was the discovery of Norma-Jean Erdmann-Chadbourne, who is in fact the "Jenny Williams" of the Victor "Faust Travesty". If you thought her final trio from Faust (sung as a duet) with her partner "Thomas Burns" (actually Ellis Chadbourne, listed here as Thomas Garcia - he had to change his name a lot) was simply the living end of opera finales, just you wait until you hear their Tomb Scene from Aida.

A certain Sylvia Sawyer, who evidently actually filled in a few mezzo-soprano roles on some early-fifties opera LPs, offers an Aida excerpt (Amneris) that, although shows no gross lapses of pitch, taste, or intonation, is a precious textbook example of bland mediocrity combined with indifferent attention to the peculiars of Italian pronunciation. One wonders if the Capitol label thought to check the Yellow Pages under "mezzo-sopranos" when casting for this Aida album.

From the lamented Remington label comes the "Tosca from Hell", an infamous performance by Vassilka Petrova.

Madame Mari Lyn (although the program notes claim that she was a woman, and a widow to boot, I swear I think this person was a drag queen!) gives her special vocal rendition of "Una voce poco fa". [Later research on the part of this writer revealed that she was, in fact, a she. Mea culpa.]

The most disturbing performance on the disc is a 1980 performance by socialite and trophy-wife Sari Bunchuk Wontner, who gave staged performances of "Traviata" in her home - with full casts and orchestra. (One hell of a Tupperware party, don't you think?) Of course, art imitates life, and she was Violetta. Secretly taped from a live performance (presumably by a "former friend"), this first-act scene defies description. She is often several beats ahead of or behind the orchestra, she may be as much as a third off of the key in either direction, and the whole affair sounds as if she had a flask of Cuervo hidden behind each prop. A year after this performance, she fell overboard from her yacht. Perhaps she was rehearsing for a future Tosca.

Surely the best-known name included is that of Florence Foster Jenkins, arguably the most famous of the daffier divas. The track, a Cosme McMoon decomposition entitled "Valse Caressante", is not included in the Victor reissue of dear Flofojen's legendary Melotone discs; in fact it is not included in the Jenkins discography in the magazine "The Record Collector". This rather long affair seems to find the diva, the pianist, and the flautist all on a bad day, with the result being a performance that is cheaper than a home perm and twice as curly on your hair.

The last track is a recording of Jenkins' accompanist, Cosme McMoon, reminiscing about his musical life with our dear Flofojen. Benko also clears the air, after careful research, about the "Cosme McMoon was actually Edwin McArthur" rumor. Buy the CD to find the answer.

This is also a first-class prodution, with attention to quality in presentation. The program notes alone are worth the price of the CD. Benko has carefully researched these singers, often waiting years for leads to information. In fact, a picture of Natalia de Andrade arrived after the disc went to press, and it is posted on the Homophone website. Our poor Manon looks for all the world like trailer trash showing up for a Jerry Springer taping.

Another picture of interest to many will be the penultimate photo - a picture of Cosme McMoon, radiant in a 70s combover, flanked by ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER at the 1974 Mr. Universe Contest, during the time he had given up his music career and was managing a male bordello.

This will be The Party Album of the New Millenium. Buy it.