Over at Our Word we run an occasional feature called Opera Wednesday, which is appropriate inasmuch as it runs on Wednesdays and deals with opera.
Now, I’m not starting a TV version of Opera Wednesday, especially since this isn’t Wednesday.
But I would like to point out a couple of DVDs of note that deal directly with television and, specifically in the case of one, opera.
The opera in question is Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, broadcast on the April 29, 1960 Bell Telephone Hour, and it’s not being released because it’s the definitive recording of the opera – The Mikado has a running time of nearly three hours, and this broadcast is 60 minutes minus commercials. No, there’s only one reason to watch this production, and that’s because of the star: the one and only Groucho Marx.
Groucho was apparently quite passionate about Gilbert and Sullivan, which in retrospect isn’t particularly surprising, given the patter quality of many of the Marx Brothers’ vocal routines. And playing Ko-Ko in The Mikado was, according to the buzz, one of his life’s ambitions.
The cast recording of The Mikado has been around almost since the broadcast, so we’ve known what the production (and Groucho) sounded like, but until now we haven’t had a chance to see it. It’s in black and white rather than the original color, but beggars can’t be choosers.
It’s important to know that while the idea of Groucho Marx singing G&S seems irresistible, especially given the picture on the DVR cover, the reviews at the time were decidedly mixed (the Times critic Jack Gould remarked that “Mr. Marx's lack of qualifications in this regard was merely embarrassing. To hear ‘I've Got a Little List,’ ’A How-de-do’ and ‘Tit Willow’ subjected to a layman's flat chanting was not exactly enthralling. Moreover, the score was adjusted to Mr. Marx' faltering tempo, and this showed up the entire show.”).
Nonetheless, with a superb supporting cast, and some fine extras, I think this is a prime example of the kind of entertainment one could expect on television even as late as the 60s. As one contemporary critic remarked, it “is indicative of how far we've come, that such a program would be considered high-brow entertainment were it presented today.” I’d suggest that it’s more indicative of how far we’ve fallen.
The second program, which has been out for some time, just popped up in my viewscreen recently, courtesy of Opera News – which qualifies it for an opera update as far as I’m concerned. It’s the almost mythic December 23, 1956 live broadcast (on the Alcoa Hour) of The Stingiest Man in Town, a musical version of A Christmas Carol starring the great Basil Rathbone. (It’s worth noting that Martyn Green, who adapted and directed Groucho’s Mikado broadcast, appears here as Bob Cratchit.)
The Stingiest Man in Town, long thought to have been lost, is considered the “Holy
Grail” of lost Christmas Carol adaptations by no less an authority than Fred Guida, author of the
appropriately-named A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations. (Which is a wonderful book, by the way – Guida covers every adaptation you could think of, from movies to TV to the theater. It’s almost as much fun as watching one of the productions yourself.)
As was the case with The Mikado, the cast album of the show has been around for a long time, so there’s no mystery about how it sounds. But with the exception of portions available at the Library of Congress, very few people could actually have said they’d seen it. This is, again, an epic example of live television in TV’s Golden Age, a time when the “spectacular” was really must-see TV. I don’t know why I didn’t hear about this last fall when it came out, but you can bet it will be part of our Christmas retrospective this year.