Anna Russell has always been ahead of her time. She invented the psychiatric folk song ("Jolly Old Sigmund Freud") long before it was discovered by the rest of the music industry. She was the first to perceive and formulate the underlying problem of Wagner's "Ring" Cycle after it had eluded generations of critics and scholars: the fact that "It opens in the River Rhine -- in it" compounded by the fact that Wotan is "a crashing bore." She perfected the one-person show long before it became fashionable, and she brought musicology to the masses even before television was discovered by Leonard Bernstein.
The problem was that she made all of her recordings before the era of home video -- most of them before the era of television. Much came across, to be sure, in the sound-only medium -- her division of the orchestra into "the scrape section, the bang section and the blow section," for example. Or her advice that to be an opera singer, "You don't need to be especially musical or, for that matter, particularly intelligent."
But something was missing without the picture. Her one-woman Gilbert and Sullivan operetta isn't quite the same if you don't see her changing from one funny hat to another to tip you whether she is currently singing as the tenor, the patter-singer, the soprano or the chorus. The folk-song segment in which she plays an imaginary Irish harp is pointless if you can't see her plucking thin air to the sound of perfectly coordinated piano notes. Her lecture on "Wind Instruments I Have Known" is all right if you get just the words, but something is definitely added if you can see her holding a French horn at arm's length and glaring at it while telling the audience, "The French horn is a German instrument and not to be confused with the English horn, which is French."
A whole generation of music-lovers listened to its Anna Russell records with what W.S. Gilbert called "modified rapture." It was a generation yearning for video recording without quite knowing what it wanted.
That yearning has now been fulfilled, thanks to Maryland Public Television, which presented Anna Russell last year at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Video Arts International, which is marketing the program for home viewing under the title: "Anna Russell: The (First) Farewell Concert" (VAI-16, Beta hi-fi or VHS). The program includes "How to Become a Singer," "Wind Instruments I Have Known" (the French horn sequence), "A Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta," "The 'Ring' Cycle" and the Folksong lecture as well as a monologue on the "indestructible" pink chiffon dress in which she performs.
During the G&S segment, she apologizes that "My quartet singing isn't as good as it used to be," and in fact she probably would have been even more vigorous 20 or 30 years ago. But this videotape contains most of the Anna Russell that most of her fans want to have about the house, and the performance is unique, precious and significantly enhanced by its visual dimension.
"I hope she keeps on retiring for 20 years," says a member of the audience in the introduction to the show, and Russell fans will warmly agree. If she does, someone should keep the video cameras rolling, because she has more to offer (the bagpipe demonstration, for example) that is not in this production.
Other new releases from VAI: *Maria Callas: Medea, a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini (VAI-17, Beta or VHS). This (like so much of Pasolini's work) is fascinating and irritating: unevenly paced, enigmatic, sometimes eloquent in its simple, striking images but often inarticulate. The words "Callas" and "Medea" are in the biggest type on the cover, but this product really has nothing to do with the opera by Cherubini that gave her one of her greatest roles. It is a retelling of the whole story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, which the opera treats only at its tragic conclusion. Still, it will intrigue hard-core Callas fans as well as those who wonder about the strange appeal of her stage presence. As a speaking actress, she shows promise more often than fulfillment. Pasolini treats the story in a highly primitive style that sometimes calls "Road Warrior" to mind. In spite of flaws, this probably belongs in any serious Callas collection.
*The Glory of Spain: Music & Masterpieces filmed at Madrid's El Prado Museum (VAI-14, Beta or VHS). A good idea well worked out, this 54-minute color program shows three of Spain's greatest musicians -- Andres Segovia, Alicia de Larrocha and Victoria de los Angeles -- performing music of their country (Falla, Albeniz, Granados and others) in the museum that is one of the focal points of Spain's national pride. While the guitar, piano or voice fills the sound track, the camera frequently wanders through the visual images of El Greco, Goya and Vela'squez, who should be given equal billing with the musicians. This is an intriguing approach to the challenge of blending music and visuals for the video medium, and it should inspire imitations. It was filmed, incidentally, in 1967, when Segovia and de los Angeles both had musical powers that have since withered away.
*Toscanini: The Maestro (VAI-18, Beta or VHS). This is an outstanding documentary on one of the most influential and charismatic musicians of the 20th century, covering both his public and his private life and showing him at work or relaxing with some of his musical peers. It uses expertly the limited available film documentation on Toscanini. The sound track seems to dwell rather obsessively on Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino" -- no doubt because it's what happened to get filmed. In any case, Toscanini's treatment is compelling. Also on the tape is a performance of Verdi's "Hymn of the Nations," a potpourri of national anthems filmed (presumably for morale-building purposes) during World War II, with Jan Peerce as tenor soloist. One might like to have instead the finale of Beethoven's Ninth or something from Verdi's Requiem, but let's be grateful for what is available.
*Renata Scotto: Prima Donna in Recital (VAI-13, Beta stereo hi-fi or VHS). Unlike many of her operatic colleagues, Scotto is also an intelligent and stylistically accomplished recitalist. This program, taped in Tokyo last year, is superbly selected and interpreted -- unfortunately with a voice that is not always completely under control.