The Stingiest Man in Town
Munsel; Rathbone, Damone, Green, Weede, Wright; The Jerry Packer Chorus, orchestra, Camarata. VAI 4545, 81 mins., black and white, no subtitles
On December 4, 1943, eighteen-year-old soprano Patrice Munsel became the youngest singer ever to make a debut in a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera — a record that still stands today — and her performance as Philine in Ambroise Thomas's Mignon kicked off two fruitful periods with the company. In the first of these, under the aegis of Edward Johnson, Munsel was cast primarily in lyric-coloratura roles — Olympia (Les Contes d'Hoffmann), Gilda (Rigoletto), Juliette (Roméo et Juliette) and her favorite role, the heroine of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The second period, under the direction of impresario Rudolf Bing, found Munsel excelling as the Met's reigning queen of comedy in roles such as Despina(Così Fan Tutte), Adele in a new production of Die Fledermaus directed by Garson Kanin, and Périchole in a new production of Offenbach's operetta directed by (and costarring) Cyril Ritchard. Yet when Bing balked at Munsel's demand to perform more dramatic roles — he reluctantly offered her a single Mimì in La Bohème — the soprano walked away from the Met and segued into a new phase of her career that brought further stardom in the realms of musical theater, television and concert.
Last fall saw the DVD release of two Munsel rarities, the first being her one and only feature film, Melba (1953). Produced by S. P. Eagle — a pseudonym employed by Sam Spiegel, who also produced The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia — Melba is in no way a masterpiece. In fact, at times it is barely serviceable, due to its script, which takes more fanciful creative liberties than any MGM musical biopic. No one was more painfully conscious of this fact than Munsel herself, who was appalled when she read the final script and discovered that the life story of Nellie Melba had been transformed into an untrue and unrecognizably clichéd series of "dramatic" events. Having signed a contract that did not stipulate script approval, however, she was forced to go through with the filming. Other events — including the dismissal of the film's original director, Edmund Goulding, and Munsel's untimely discovery that she was pregnant with her first child — further complicated matters.
Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding its production and myriad script issues, Melba is a frothy, aria-laced concoction that extensively showcases Munsel in roles that she and Melba shared. Highlights include the first half of Lucia's mad scene (the now-famous cadenza was created for Melba); a brilliantly sung "Chacun le sait," from La Fille du Régiment; "Caro nome," from Rigoletto; and a gentle rendition of "The Melba Waltz," softly crooned in a spot-on legit musical-theater style that exemplifies Munsel's remarkable ability to tailor her vocalism to suit the requirements of any given piece.
This DVD release of Melba features a soft image that tends to blur somewhat toward the edges of the frame, though we may be thankful the film is finally available in color. The mono soundtrack is also a bit fuzzy, with limited fidelity and some distortion, yet always intelligible. This is probably the best treatment the film will receive unless original materials are located and the film can be restored to its original three-strip Technicolor and stereophonic glory.
Also recently released on DVD is The Stingiest Man in Town, a musical television adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol by composer Fred Spielman and lyricist Janice Torre, which wasbroadcast live on The Alcoa Hour on December 23, 1956. Long thought to be lost forever, the show has miraculously turned up in a kinescope that looks impressive considering its age and history. Munsel portrays the young Scrooge's sweetheart, Belle, and is joined in the cast by several other luminaries of stage and screen, including Basil Rathbone as Ebenezer Scrooge, "Most Happy Fella" Robert Weede as Jacob Marley, Martyn Green (of D'Oyly Carte fame) as Bob Cratchit and baritone Robert (Bob) Wright — who frequently partnered Munsel onstage in Kiss Me, Kate and other musicals — as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
As young Scrooge, Vic Damone duets with Munsel in an extensive musical sequence depicting the unraveling of Scrooge's relationship with Belle. While Damone's performance is awkwardly self-conscious, Munsel is at her best, looking lovely, singing gorgeously and projecting the innate charm and charisma that helped to make her a star. The lavish production comes off with nary a hitch, though the show does contain a bit too much music for its own good, with some numbers stopping the story's dramatic flow for little or no reason.
Munsel's fans will want to snap up both DVDs immediately, and those interested in light operatic entertainment of this vintage should do the same. Though neither release features pristine audio or video quality, the pleasure of watching Munsel at the peak of her talents far outweighs any technical limitations.