Jessye Norman, a Portrait (2008)
Produced by Danny Krausz and Kurt Stocker
Directed by Andre Heller
Studio: Decca 074 3251 [Distr. by Universal]
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: English DTS 5.1 surround and PCM stereo
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish
Length: 90 minutes
It’s hard to believe that Augusta, GA native Jessye Norman is now 67 years old. This film, begun in 2004, shows interviews from a setting of the tropical gardens of Marrakech, though we never hear or see the interviewer. But a wide variety of topics are disclosed, from Jessye’s stage fears (none) to her fears of what is happening in the world today (many), her confidence in vocal technique (great) to her impatience with unprepared conductors and short rehearsal times (enormous). Her accent has always stunned me considering where she is from; its regal bearing and near-perfect diction almost smack of the contrived.
But then I remember hearing an interview from very early in her career where she sounds just the same, and so it is clear that her voice patterns are the result of an enormously probing mind and unique intelligence. Vocally she is perhaps the greatest dramatic soprano of the age, early on deciding to skip the more populist roles afforded in Verdi and Puccini for the meatier German fare, and her excursions into Poulenc and Schoenberg have provided some of the most thrilling performances of the last 50 years, her five Grammy’s also a testimony to her popularity.
There is not a dull moment here, and all is quite fascinating. But the video quality is rather grainy while the sound, especially the DTS, is oddly balanced and somewhat underwhelming. This is most felt during the 12 different music selections offered to stunning visuals by Arnulf Rainer, Peter Kogler, and Brian Eno, though they were obviously not live recordings but dubs. Nevertheless they do provide a varied perspective on her art, and are for the most part rewarding. Those who count themselves fans will find this peek into her inner world most ingratiating, and find a softer side to an artist whose “Diva” appellation still carries some weight among the general public.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.