George London: Between Gods and
A Film by Marita Stocker
Biographical Documentary and bonus of performances.
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, Subtitles: GB, DE, FR, ES, IT, Picture Format:
16:9/NTSC, Region Code: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 473
[60:00 + 95:00 bonus]
Readers interested in the life and art of George
London will be amply rewarded in this DVD. It’s in two parts. The first,
which runs to an hour in length, examines his life, whilst the second,
which clocks in at 95 minutes, presents London in performance.
That said, there are numerous clips of London in performance in the documentary first part, a few of which recur in the second. It might be best to put to one side the somewhat portentously subtitled Between Gods and Demons and instead to concentrate on the documentary narrative of talking heads, among them London’s own in archive interviews, and the footage of his concerts and stage performances. His widow says he was ‘tragic and funny at the same time’. It’s clear that he had a superior gift for languages. He introduces his German TV performances in German, for instance, but he was adept at French, Italian and Russian, and not simply one who learned phonetically or superficially. I don’t know whether this qualifies him for the title of ‘linguistic genius’, as one contributor describes him, but he was certainly highly adept in any language in which he sang.
The Canadian-born bass-baritone - of Russian-Jewish background - enjoyed a significant career in North America and Europe. He was also the first non-Russian Boris in Moscow. There was an intensity and fervour about him that prove compelling, and sometimes overwhelming, on stage. It’s clear, too, that this was part of his emotional make-up. He liked and understood women and had, it’s made clear, albeit discreetly, a strong erotic charge.
Both documentary segment and the footage section present rare archive material. We see his Figaro, Don Giovanni, Boris, Wotan (Rheingold) and his Scarpia. This last is the famous fourteen minute Act II duet with Callas, taken from the Ed Sullivan show, with Mitropoulos conducting, though in terms of the bass-baritone’s own career trajectory it’s just as interesting to watch his Mephisto (Gounod) and Iago (Otello). Similarly there are excerpts from musicals, spirituals and recitals and some examples of his lieder and song repertoire – principally Schubert and Mussorgsky, though there are also excerpts from Ibert’s Chansons de Don Quichotte.
He was without doubt a memorable singer, and his later travails make for sad viewing. As to what extent he was a singer-actor that must remain something of a vexed question. Like many a famed singer, he ‘acts with the eyes’ though sometimes the rest of the body fails him, dramatically speaking but at all times he certainly acts with the voice.
We hear from his widow, Nora, and from colleagues and critics; from Neil Shicoff, Catherine Malfitano, Deborah Polaski and a number of others. We don’t truly learn much about his student years and about his steady ascent of the international ladder until his great successes in Bayreuth and beyond. We can see that his singing and acting of spirituals was a touch problematic; he lacks Tibbett’s gravitas, for one thing. His Scots brogue in Lord Randall doesn’t convince as much as fellow Canadian John Vickers’ singing of similar songs.
London was nevertheless an admired colleague and artist and this portrait goes some way towards demonstrating how much he was liked. Importantly, most of the source material is in reasonable shape and there need be no worries on that score. I would say the second half is the more valuable, given its intrinsic artistic merit.