There is solace for those of us afflicted with the peculiar taste for this
sort of thing. Recently nine different half-hour television programs with
the incomparable Mari Lyn have surfaced, and they are - well, I think when
considered from certain standpoints, the single most incredible opera
performances ever caught on film or video. No fooling.
Now I have to qualify this, lest anyone who doesn't know who Mari Lyn was
think that she could outdo Tebaldi or Callas. No, the
qualities that Madame Lyn (really Marilyn Sosman) embodied were of a
different sort, for she was indeed the spiritual heiress of Florence Foster
Jenkins, and everyone must know about Jenkins.
In the mid 1980s Madame Lyn paid for a series of half-hour programs on New
York public access television. Snippets of a few selections from these
programs, fourth and fifth generation copies in grainy and indistinct
video, passed from hand to hand among the cognoscenti like samizdat in
Soviet days. I used the audio portion of her humbling performance of "Una
voce poco fa" on the "Muse Surmounted" CD, including a bit of her
commentary about other sopranos "overcadenzorizing" the work. There were
always rumors that someone somewhere had these programs in good sound and
good video. I could never locate them, and knew no one who had them.
Suddenly out of nowhere they have appeared, and they are treasures! Three
DVDs are now available, each with three half-hour programs. These are not
tacky jobs, but professional productions with chapters and everything
else one could want, very good sound and very good video. I feel like a
drunkard who has been presented with a cask of the finest wine - I am drunk
with amazement and gratitude! I am not connected with the outfit making
these available, but feel it my duty as producer of the Muse Surmounted to
alert the world.
Where to begin to describe the treasures contained on these three DVDs?
First, just hearing Mari Lyn does not do her art justice, for it was her
persona and her dramatic inability that was paramount. Despite the fact
that she was about sixty inches tall and ninety inches around the hips (she
had no waist), she delighted in getting up in various (homemade) costumes
that did nothing but accentuate the peculiarities of her, er, body. Then
her wig, always the same blonde mountain of hair, but each time styled in a
different fanfare manner, now snowcone bouffant, now twisted like a challah
bread. Of particular interest is Madame's figure when she turns sideways -
like Schumann Heink in her famous comment to Weingartner, she had no
sideways. Her face contained pounds and pounds of makeup, plied on with a
liberal hand, and often looks like mounds of pork chops coated with butter.
But as I said it was her dramatic inability that trumped all - her reading
of the letter in Traviata can only be compared to Muzio's recording -
whatever anyone has ever written or said about that immortal performance,
just turn it around 180 degrees. In the end it is Mari Lyn's iron
self-assurance and total unconsciousness of her immense lack of any talent
that is humbling, and somehow hypnotic.
There are highlights galore - especially the Southern program when she puts
on a Southern accent and dedicates a coon song to "Li'l Georgie" Wallace.
And the "Hosanna By Ebentide" program, where she is interrupted before performing
"Casta diva" to be presented with a giant loving cup, awarded as
the best new vocalist of the year by representatives of a "foundation" from
Palermo! I laughed so hard I cried.