Lotte Lenya and Gisela May – Theater Music of Brecht & Weill

by | May 20, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Lotte Lenya and Gisela May – Theater Music of Brecht & Weill

Studio: Creative Arts TV/VAI
Video: 4:3 Color/B&W, no region code
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 77 minutes
Rating: ****

This program will be absolutely fascinating to fans of Brecht and
Weill’s theater music and the unique Lotte Lenya. Others may not think
it warrants a four-star rating. The sources are various arts programs
from early network television, back when commercial channels actually
produced excellent music programs – even though they shunted them to
times such as early Sunday mornings. That’s when the superb CBS Camera
Three aired in1958, and Lenya just moves thru an empty theater seating
area and simple sets singing the songs written for her by husband Kurt
Weill. There’s a small ensemble off-camera accompanying her. The source
is a contrasty kinescope but it’s great to see Lenya and hear her
emotional, definitely non-operatic voice – which sounds as lived-in as
did Billie Holiday’s, but in a different manner. She does five songs,
some in English and some in the original German. Unfortunately, English
subtitles are not one of the extras provided; it is obvious the meager
Camera Three budget didn’t allow for anything like that.

Several performers have continued the Lenya tradition, of which the
hottest at the moment is of course Ute Lemper, but none sound as much
like the original as the Lenya herself. Gisela May made a good try in
l972 on another network arts program and this time the source is in
color and with a bit more lavish sets and even a second singer in one
number. She sings five Weill songs, followed by five with the composer
Brecht used after Weill left for the U.S. – Paul Dessau. She ends with
a song by Tucholsky and Heymann in the same general style of highly
political and satirical lyrics to “people’s music” – simplified
melodies and harmonies – but not lacking in a catchy quality and
appropriate to the lyrics.

The last items on the program are two songs by yet another would-be
Lenya: Jewish folk song specialist Martha Schlamme. She has a rather
odd solution to the lack of English subtltles on the Bilbao-Song: She
stands in the crook of the grand piano and tells us verbally the entire
lyrics of all the verses. Fine, we think, that’s a creative way to
present the piece since the usual approach to it is a sort of “sprech
stimme” anyway. But then she goes on to really sing the entire thing!
Since we already heard Lenya do that song an hour ago, this may be
Bilbao-de-trop. On the second Schlamme song, Weill’s Tango-Ballade from
The Three Penny Opera, folk singer Will Holt joins her and the lyrics
are in English – communicating a good impression of Brecht’s cynical
take on the war between the sexes.

Songs: Lenya: Alabama-Song, Surabaya Johnny, Bilbao-Song, Pirate Jenny,
Ballad of the Drowned Girl; May: Moritat, Pirate Jenny, Alabama-Song,
Surabaya Johnny, In Potsdam Under the Oak Trees; Solomon Song, Song of
Mother Courage, Song of the Great Capitulation, Song of the Eighth
Elephant, Kleines Lied, The Guards Regiment; Schlamme: Bilbao-Song,
Tango-Ballade.

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