Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Crossing Over to Camelot

In reading Meg Bussert's notes to my new Camelot DVD, I've learned that the 1982 HBO production in which she starred as Guinevere wasn't just a live theatrical performance; it was filmed at the Winter Garden theater and based on a production there, but parts of it were also restaged for the benefit of cameras. So, it's basically a Broadway show remade for TV, to very good effect.

I noticed that there's a soundtrack on iTunes for a 1982 London production which also starred Richard Harris as Arthur, but with a different surrounding cast. I sampled a bit of Guinevere's "Before I Gaze at You Again," and immediately recognized the very light, breathy voice of Alice from a bizarre early 70's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland film that also featured the likes of Michael Crawford, Dudley Moore, and Ralph Richardson. We'd bought a copy for about a quarter at a dying Kmart on one of those incredibly cheaply produced slimline DVDs. My daughter actually enjoys that version a lot, although its trippiness kind of freaks me out. I once sampled the IMDB user comments and couldn't help but noticing that most of the viewers couldn't help mentioning that Fiona Fullerton (Harris' London stage Guinevere) made for an unexpectedly grown-up and comely Alice. I may or may not have noticed that, but that odd, breathy voice definitely stuck with me.

Anyway, even if Ms. Fullerton did go on to become a Bond girl, she's no Meg Bussert when it comes to Camelot. However, my teenage crush on Ms. Bussert aside, I have to admit that she's no Arleen Auger when it comes to "Before I Gaze at You Again." This is the last track on Auger's album, Love Songs, which may be one of the most perfect CD's ever issued (in spite of its cheesy cover). You can sample about half of her rendition here; it is absolutely heart-rending and, amazingly, she and Dalton Baldwin decided to record it only on a last-minute whim at the end of sessions devoted mostly to classical art songs. Her performance makes it clear that Frederick Loewe belongs in the company of Schubert, Schumann, Gounod, Poulenc, et al.

I happened to be making some repertoire suggestions to a soprano today and kept coming back to songs on that disc; it's funny because I took my first ever vocal rep class a year or so after it came out and I later realized that quite a few of its songs showed up in our class assignments. Of course, there are many old chestnuts there, but I feel sure my professor must have been inspired by these recordings as well. I especially recommend both Copland songs, Poulenc's Fleurs (my all-time favorite song), the impossibly slow Salley Gardens, Marx's Selige Nacht and even the two Roger Quilter songs. Her ability to make the sappy Quilter songs seem so profound reveals some of the same gifts for inflection and naturalness of phrasing that work wonders with Loewe.

Even though I'd always been a big Camelot fan, and even though opera singers crossing over into musical theater is usually a recipe for disappointment, hearing Auger sing "Before I Gaze At You Again" was completely disarming upon first encounter. Her ravishing voice never overwhelms the simplicity of the melody or the emotion of the text, which is crystal clear throughout. Those 2 1/2 minutes capture all the pathos of the doomed Camelot love triangle. The fact that Auger died of cancer not so long after recording this album make it all that much more affecting. "Beauty that hurts" describes both the song and the voice.

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