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Marilyn Horne – A Profile
rec. 1994
Disc Format NTSC 4:3
Sound Format: LPCM Stereo
Narrative in English with subtitles in French and German
EMI CLASSICS 2165819 [50.35 + bonus 25.23]


Experience Classicsonline

I did not know what to expect on the arrival of this DVD. The situation was not helped by the lack of any insert or list of Chapter headings in my review copy. The fact that the mezzo Marilyn Horne (b. 1934) had recorded very little for EMI also made me wonder as to the contents. In fact the set owes its existence to the cooperation of RCA-BMG. Most of Horne’s audio recordings were made for RCA (now subsumed into BMG) and Decca now part of Universal. This Profile was made after Marilyn’s final performances at London’s Covent Garden, by which time she was not only recognised as one of the greatest singers of her generation but also as a major influence in the developing Rossini renaissance.

The contents of the set in twelve Chapters cover the life of the distinguished singer from her childhood in Pennsylvania to the period immediately after making her final appearance at Covent Garden. It is not a linear biography. It starts with Marilyn demonstrating her wide vocal range and commenting on the difference between mezzo and soprano. Chapters 1-3 bring in her work in bel canto and particularly in Rossini. Joan Sutherland also appears and sings with her in a too brief extract from the duet Miro o Norma from the opera of the same name. In more linear sequence the story moves Marilyn from Pennsylvania to Long Beach, California, where she joined the choir at St. Luke’s and where her vocal potential was recognised to go along with her mother’s encouragement (CH.4).

Marilyn’s first recordings were pirate issues where, as was common practice, she mimicked a more famous voice. For each of these she was paid forty dollars. The resulting discs sold in large numbers for fifty cents a go. More legitimate work came with the choir and being selected at twenty years of age as ‘Jackie’ Horne. to sing the sound-track Carmen to Dorothy Dandridge’s acting and miming. This was for the film Carmen Jones based on Oscar Hammerstein’s recreation of Bizet’s opera (CH.5). Marilyn claims she mimicked Dandridge’s voice. Certainly the actress is perfect in her miming of the adapted words. She pays tribute to the quality of musicians operating in America in the immediate post-Second World War period and recalls how Stravinsky encouraged her to pursue her career in Europe (CH.6). She joined the Gelsenkirchen Opera Company for whom she sang the likes of Mimi, and Musetta (La Boheme), Minnie (La Fanciulla del West) as well as the lower Giulietta (Tales of Hoffmann). In 1960 she made a big hit in Gelsenkirchen as Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck. It was a role she was reluctant to take, but it provided her ticket back home for a production at San Francisco where she substituted for the carded singer.

Back in the USA she married Henry Lewis. Her mother did not attend the wedding, as she did not approve of Marilyn marrying a black man (CH.7). Lewis was a consummate musician and worked Marilyn’s vocal development very hard. Her lower notes had started to develop after puberty and continued to do so even though she was still singing the soprano repertory. In 1961 she sang Agnese alongside Joan Sutherland as Beatrice in Bellini’s penultimate opera Beatrice di Tenda. She was soon in demand as a coloratura mezzo singing Adalgisa in Norma and Arsace to Sutherland’s title role in Semiramide. The birth of her daughter in 1965 caused her to withdraw from concert performances of Lucrezia Borgia. She was substituted by Montserrat Caballé and another renowned bel cantoist was launched! This bel canto repertoire was paralleled by her performances of the florid coloratura roles in Handel operas such as Rinaldo and Semele. She discusses voice types and Henry Lewis explains something of how she developed her vocal flexibility (CH.8).

As she moved into the Rossini repertoire in a big way, clips are devoted to her searching for the score of Semiramide in Los Angeles. There are also more tempting clips of her singing in that opera at Aix in 1980 (CH.9) as well as performing in pop shows as a means of bringing the thought of opera to a wider public. There are examples of her in recital with various accompanists including James Levine and Martin Katz as well as her singing at President Clinton’s inauguration (CH.10). Marilyn is shown conducting Master Classes and stressing the importance of breath support (CH.11). It concludes with a Chapter (12) entitled, appropriately, A life in music.

The bonus is sixteen show-reel extracts from the EMI DVD catalogue of operas and orchestral music. These include extracts of interviews with Callas. The latter features the diva’s rendition of Vissi d’arte from her last Tosca at Covent Garden in 1964, in black and white.

Robert J Farr


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