We all have our blind spots. Or our deaf spots, which would be the case with the singer Marguerite Dumont, around whom swirls the new French film Marguerite, arriving on Friday, April 8, at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Directed by Xavier Giannoli (who also wrote the script in collaboration with Marcia Roman), it tells the tale of a French baroness “of a certain age” who, in the 1920s, dedicates herself to becoming a concert singer, a woman whose monetary resources are incalculable and whose vocal ability is nil. While securely ensconced in the fairy-tale world of pre-Depression high society — a realm of priceless mansions, snooty private clubs, and gilded concert halls — the film follows Marguerite as she intrepidly navigates her way into the less-cushioned realm of musicians who actually work for a living, even into the raucous environment of Dadaist artistic happenings. You might think of it as what might have occurred on Downton Abbey if high-spirited Lady Rosamund had suddenly swept in to dominate the well-mannered proceedings and decided to become an artiste.
Catherine Frot presents a nuanced interpretation of the title character. She is boundless in her capacity to not comprehend how unsuited she is to the profession of singing. And yet, she is surely not the only person at fault in the matter. Surrounded as she is by sycophants, some of whom are on her payroll, her vanity is buoyed by constant reinforcement. Chief among these presumed enthusiasts are a cynical young journalist, played with seductive fulsomeness by Sylvain Dieuaide, and Marguerite’s devoted and protective butler — the wonderful Denis Mpunga, whose directives nobody would dream of contravening. When the baroness sets her sights on a public recital in a major concert hall, it is he who enlists a fading but still grandiose operatic tenor (Michel Fau) to take her on as a voice pupil, convincing him through an offer (only partly financial) he cannot refuse.
Nobody who hears Marguerite sing can overlook how abominable her voice is, but she seems sincerely immune to any reality check on the matter. Her sullen, profoundly embarrassed husband (André Marcon) is the only person who tries to move things to a rational footing, but he is too withdrawn to make any impact — and, in his way, he appears to love her too much to bear puncturing the bubble of her fantasy. “The audience brings the music to life,” she explains to him, an obviously dishonest observation that exempts her from what is the responsibility of the performer. Her devotion to her art and her sincerity of purpose are unimpeachable, yet she steadfastly manages to ignore her obvious deficiency.
The film weaves together a good many threads, with the central subject of Marguerite’s artistic ambitions co-existing with rather weaker subplots involving her alienated marriage, the goings-on among the voice teacher’s entourage (an assemblage of circus types who may appeal more to French than to American sensibilities), and the budding careers of a young mezzo-soprano and an artist who is a friend of the journalist’s. In its dénouement, the plot descends into soap opera, with a sort of magic-realist turn of events onstage during Marguerite’s big recital, a subsequent health crisis, experimental psychological treatment, and what seems to be a moment of self-revelation. As the film creeps past the two-hour mark, one can not help feeling that it should have been wrapped up considerably sooner. Still, it is always handsome to watch (Pavel Tater’s art direction, Véronique Melery’s sets, and Pierre-Jean Larroque’s costumes all merit applause), and the scenes, some of which are quite extended set-pieces, are interesting and detailed in and of themselves. As is pretty much always the case with classical-music dramas, there are a few missteps that aficionados will notice. For example, when Marguerite goes to hear her future voice teacher, who is presumably so washed-up that the theater is removing him from its production of Pagliacci, the voice to which he lip-syncs (badly) is that of Mario del Monaco, singing so dramatically that no opera-house manager would dream of letting such a singer go.
The central character’s name is obviously a play on Margaret Dumont, the pigeon-breasted grande dame of the Marx Brothers movies, who in fact did go by the name Marguerite in her early days as a soubrette. She married into wealth and retired from the stage; but after her husband died, she returned to acting and developed a niche career in comedy roles. It was often said that she was so air headed that she was clueless about being the butt of the Marx Brothers’ jokes — a bit of public-relations myth-making that Groucho invented and with which she was happy to play along.
But the character on which Marguerite is really based is not Margaret Dumont. It is Florence Foster Jenkins, an icon of overarching ambition combined with operatic incompetence. Cognoscenti, a great many bachelors among them, cheered her annual recitals in the ballroom of New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where she would appear in a succession of outrageous costumes. But her aspirations reached their apex when she gave her sold-out Carnegie Hall debut recital in 1944, at the age of seventy-six. The reviews were not uniformly positive. Two days later she suffered a heart attack, and a month later she was dead. Beginning in 1941, she had expanded her ambitions to the airwaves through a series of radio broadcasts, and she also recorded nine selections on the Melotone label (a purveyor of low-budget records that doubled as a vanity company), including such coloratura dazzlers as the Queen of the Night’s second aria from The Magic Flute and the “Bell Song” from Lakmé. Like Marguerite in the movie, Lady Florence — as she liked to be called — never shied away from challenging repertoire and was not overly concerned about the extent to which the notes she produced might possibly coincide with those the composers wrote. RCA Victor collected her Melotone recordings onto an LP titled The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, gracing its purple cover with a winsome photograph in which Madame is wearing a shimmering satin gown, angels’ wings, and what looks like a miniature sombrero. It is probably in as many opera-lovers’ collections as is Maria Callas’ Tosca and Leontyne Price’s Aida. The album remains in print as a CD, and the Melotone tracks have also been collected onto a rival recording, on the Naxos label, titled Murder on the High Cs.
IN 2007, a carefully researched, respectful, and highly entertaining documentary was issued: Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, directed by Donald Collup with historical input from Gregor Benko. It presents an abundance of historical background that illuminates her remarkable career, and in so doing it puts to rest some of the inaccurate assumptions that naturally grew up in her wake. It is available from www.vaimusic.com, although you can also view it on YouTube. Fascinating in its own right, the documentary is particularly useful now, since Lady Florence is suddenly having her moment in the sun. The French Marguerite is now in theaters, and May will bring the premiere of Florence Foster Jenkins, a British-American bio-comedy-drama starring Meryl Streep, with Hugh Grant as her paramour and manager St. Clair Bayfield. In July, St. Martin’s Griffin will issue a new biography, Florence Foster Jenkins, by British journalists Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees, and that will be followed, in September, by another book, from The Overlook Press, Florence Foster Jenkins: The Diva of Din: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer, by “writer, publisher, and blogger” Darryl W. Bullock.
For the moment, though, the best written treatment of her life is to be found in the booklet accompanying a remarkable release from 2004 on the Homophone label: The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven of Her Rivals. Homophone was an actual company that produced records from the turn of the century through 1925, but in this incarnation it looks very much like a one-off endeavor of Marston Records, an esteemed specialty label that releases meticulously curated collections of supremely rare recordings from long ago, mostly of singers but also of selected instrumentalists, with long, scholarly liner notes that practically qualify as monographs. Although the name Marston figures nowhere on The Muse Surmounted, the CD does appear in the Marston catalog and can be acquired from that company directly (www.marstonrecords.com). By the way, Marston presses a finite number of CDs, and once the stock runs out, that’s it: Almost never does it print a second press run. You might want to browse the “Endangered List” on its website to see if you spot something else you simply must have before it disappears.
The Muse Surmounted includes notes on the artists by Benko, who was consulted for the 2007 documentary. After explaining how Jenkins came to be viewed as “a slightly batty but charming dowager,” he lets loose to set the record straight: “Jenkins was a monster of vanity and selfishness, but not crazy. She was cheap, secretive, superstitious, mean, dowdy and a snob, with an ego comparable to the greatest divas.” Here she is represented by one of her Melotone discs, “Valse caressante,” written for her by Cosme McMoon, her accompanist. Her singing is up to her usual standards, although she does get the last few notes right; but it has the added allurement of being supplemented by an obbligato on the flute. Following it is a recorded reminiscence by McMoon. “His character does seem to have been unsavory,” Benko writes. “In his old age he was a constant feature hanging around a particular gym on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street that was frequented by body-builders. ... This intercourse eventually blossomed and led to McMoon’s change of career, when he became co-manager of a male bordello located in the same building as the gym.”
This CD clarifies that Jenkins was not alone in the pathways of her particular Parnassus. All of the other singers whose achievements are sampled here display distinctive artistry. An aria by Baroque composer Carl Heinrich Graun, sung by Betty-Jo Schramm, is taken from a privately produced LP that was found posthumously among the effects of the New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg. She was, writes Benko, “an ‘unsung’ pioneer of the Early Music movement. ... Uncannily, the voice appears naturally tuned to Baroque pitch. Apparently she was singing Early Music a half-tone flat long before it became fashionable to do so.” A variation on this coping mechanism was part of the arsenal of Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller, who undertakes “Darling Nellie Gray” on a 1945 Melotone record; while her delivery is certainly emphatic, her range does not reach very high, inviting desperate hooting to suggest any pitches that lie above that altitude. Natalia de Andrade, once a Portuguese folksinger, redefines the expressive possibilities of vibrato in her interpretation of “Je marche sur tous les chemins,” an evocation of girlish delicacy from Manon. It might not automatically occur to you that Sari Bunchuk Wontner, the wife of a wealthy businessman, is singing La traviata, let alone in Italian, since her wailing sounds like something ominous that might waft up late at night through the air shaft of an apartment building in a dodgy neighborhood. In fact, it was surreptitiously recorded by a friend who attended one of her recitals in the music room of her home in Las Vegas. Benko notes, “It was her last Traviata before meeting her own tragic end, falling overboard the Wontner yacht in the Caribbean.”
None of these singers is widely famous, but a few of them may ring a bell with aficionados of operatic exotica. In the mid-1980s, Mari Lyn shared her artistry every week on a public-access TV show in New York City. She also issued four LPs she had precisely designed to mimic the high-class Philips label, even putting its logo on the cover. On the first, she sang chestnuts to the accompaniment of a Music Minus One pre-recorded orchestra. Introducing her rendition of “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, taken from one of her broadcasts, she prepares listeners by explaining, “In the golden age, conductors tore the hair out of their heads in big handfuls because the coloratura sang very few of the notes that were in the original aria.” She demonstrates this decisively, and quite a few of the notes she does sing you might not immediately recognize as being of human origin.
We meet Olive Middleton, who had performed leading roles at Covent Garden in her native England before immigrating to America. She became a stalwart of the La Puma Opera Workshop in New York, where we hear her singing a scene from Il trovatore in 1966, cheered on by adoring fans. Benko quotes a description from critic Nicholas E. Limansky: “Her vocal art transcended the verismo approach and ideal and centered on realism combined with a vocal technique that had been lost for many decades.” An extraordinary rendition of the Tomb Scene from Aida, starring Norma-Jean Erdmann-Chadbourne and her husband, Ellis Chadbourne (listed on the record as Thomas Garcia), will set off a Pavlovian response: Their appalling voices are the same ones that recorded what was purveyed as “The Faust Travesty,” which eked out RCA’s The Glory (????) of the Human Voice album — but there they were identified as Jenny Williams and Thomas Burns. Their records were produced to accompany a book they wrote titled The Art of Messa di Voce: Scientific Singing in which she declares: “You must remember, I am past seventy years of age and have only recently discovered the secret techniques of this so-called lost art. But you, who have many years before you, can perfect the art, and I hope to aid in restoring singing to its rightful heritage as the noblest and highest of all the arts.” You can’t say these artists didn’t do their part. ◀
“Marguerite” opens on Friday, April 8, at the Center for Contemporary Arts.