"The Muse Surmounted"
Performances by Rosalina Mello, Alice Gerstl Duschak, Betty-Jo Schramm, Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller, Natalia De Andrade, Olive Middleton, Norma-Jean Erdmann-Chadbourne, Ellis Chadbourne, Sylvia Sawyer, Vassilka Petrova, Mari Lynn, Sari Bunchuk Wontner and Florence Foster Jenkins
HOMOPHONE 1001 (ADD) TT: 78:24.

"The World's Favorite Cluckoratura Arias" - Arias from The Magic Flute, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, The Tales of Hoffman, Dinorah, The Daughter of the Regiment and Mozart's Exultate Jubilate
Orriel Smith, coloratura soprano (?); L'Orchestra d'Eggstraviganza

If you happen to have a bizarre sense of humor (as I do) you surely will get much pleasure from both of these CDs devoted to vocal art gone wrong. The Muse Surmounted is a compilation by Gregor Benko who appropriately states this is "an ultimate survey of those whose involvement and undeviating sincerity transcends things auricular. It is a document of something otherwise intangible: consummate dedication." After an acoustic recording of a medly from Carmen, we hear the traditional Fado Celestial sung by Rosalina Mello(dates unknown) recorded about 1920, which appropriately sets the stage for what is to follow. We get into high gear with Reigen by Weber sung in German recorded in 1987 by Alice Gerstl Duschak (1904-1994) who was 83 at the time. Duschak was a highly successful teacher at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory for nearly a half-century, with many prize-winning students including Jessye Norman. Called "a bit dotty" in her late career, she wore a black wig which most of the time was askew—a real character indeed. Betty-Jo Schramm (dates unknown) is heard in a private recording with orchestra of Artaserce's Va tra la selve, which Benko describes as a pioneering example of Early Music with its florid ornamentation—saying her voice was "naturally tuned to Baroque pitch...she was singing Early Music a half-tone flat long before it became fashionable to do so." Compared with other singers on this CD, Schramm is quite good.

Tryphosa Bates-Batchelloer (1876-1952) is the only performer heard twice on this CD, first in a Melotone private recording made about 1945 of Canzonetta by Margita. Bates-Batcheller wrote five books about her meetings with royalty and famous teachers/musicians of the time. Her voice is quite similar to Florence Foster Jenkins, who also recorded for the Melotone label. Her second selection is an American folk song, Darling Nelly Gray. Natalia De Andrade (dates unknown), "sings" Je marche from Massenet's, one of the funniest tracks on the CD, and the better-known Olive Middleton sings Miserere from Il trovatore recorded during a 1966 LaPuma Opera performance in which the chorus is almost as bad as she is. Norma-Jean Erdmann-Chadbourne (1899?-1975?) and her husband, Ellis Chadbourne, do their bit for opera in English with a performance of the Tomb Scene from Verdi's Aida. This pair can also be heard on RCA's out-of-print Florence Foster Jenkins CD (61175) (identified as Jenny Williams and Thomas Burns) in their unique performance, also in English, of excerpts from Gounod's Faust ending with the final trio sung as a duet.

Sylvia Sawyer (ca. 1920-?) is heard in an excerpt from Act 4 of Aida ("abridged for your enjoyment") which originally appeared on both Capitol and Allegro LPs, which seems to be a vanity recording paid for by the mezzo. While Sawyer is bad, she isn't as awful as other singers in this collection, particularly Vassilka Petrova (ca. 1914-?) who is heard in eight minutes of highlights from Tosca (also "abridged for your enjoyment") recorded in 1951 (but, strangely, not including Vissi d'Arte) originally issued on Remington Records. It isn't often one can hear an assembledge of sqwaks and inappropriate soprano sounds such as heard here—a hoot indeed! Mari Lyn (1907-1989) sings Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville, with a campy introduction by the "soprano." Sari Bunchuk Wontner (ca. 1935-1981) was another soprano married to a wealthy man. She hired orchestra, chorus, conductor and other singers for her private performances before friends. On this CD we hear Violetta's big first act scene from La traviata recorded in 1980 on a cassette in the audience, her last performance of the role before her death shortly thereafter when she fell overboard while in the Caribbean on the Wontner yacht. The final two tracks on the CD are devoted to the Grand Dame of the genre, Florence Foster Jenkins. We hear her singing a work written for her by her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, Valse Caressante, in which the flute obliggato is played by Louis Alberghini, who should get a medal for his perseverance. The final track is a commentary by McMoon in which he talks of some of his experience when accompanying Mme. Jenkins. The last photo in the booklet dates from 1974 taken at the Mr. Olympia competition showing McMoon being lifted by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu, who was Schwarzenegger's training partner and won the Mr. Olympia title two years later. Columbu later became a chiropractor and was best man at the wedding of Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver in April 1986.

This is a fascinating CD; it gave me more pleasure of one kind or another than most CDs I've heard lately. Let us hope this is only one of a series of CDs.

The major difference between the above and Orriel Smith's chicken-style CD is that the latter has, truly, a remarkable voice and is trying (successfully) to be funny. Classically trained, Smith specializes in folk music, has toured extensively in concerts, appeared as an actress on TV, and even was on the Johnny Carson show as a singer with a "voice higher than Yma Sumac" performing The Russian Nightingale. For the last two decades she has been teaching presentation skills for major companies while continuing her performing career. These seven well-known coloratura arias all receive the same imaginative treatment, and stratospheric high notes remind us that Smith does, in fact, have a fine voice. This is another CD that inquiring vocal collectors should investigate. The only negative feature is that the playing time is rather short (22 min).Cluckoratura Arias can be ordered from this address: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/orriel The CD is a hoot, or should I say a "cluck"?

R.E.B. (December 2004)