Thursday January 10, 2013

A Clear Look at Mythology in the Old Style

KEENE, N.H.

Classical Mythology -- Among the many Teaching Company sets in my collection, there are a few that I can hear time after time with increasing enjoyment. And among those are four of the sets featuring the Classical scholar Elizabeth Vandiver. The one I chose to introduce to my readers is the DVD set 243, "Classical Mythology."

Vandiver spends the first of 24 lectures with a general introduction to the subject and the next two defining "myth" and exploring the use of myths in different cultures. Her most telling point is that the "truth" of a belief is simply a myth to an outsider and a fact to the insider. (She uses a certain church ritual as a familiar example.)

Talks 4-11 concentrate on specific myths (as we might as well call them) about Creation, the Olympians, various immortals and mortals, Demeter, Persephone, views of Death, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Dionysos, and Aphrodite. Talk 12 is about the much-debated "Great Goddess."

The 12 talks on the second DVD are about several heroes and half-gods, Theseus, myth and history, the Trojan War, the highly dysfunctional House of Atreus, the change of eye-for-an-eye vengeance to courtroom justice, the Furies, Oedipus, and various monsters. The last three talks consider the Roman version of some Greek tales, especially those of Ovid, and a general conclusion.


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Now this could be heavy stuff, but Vandiver pulls it off nicely with a good sense of humor that she does not overdo and clear explanations. My only complaint is a lack of visuals, which would have been so helpful to the viewer.

The most valuable aspect of this set, other than knowing and understanding the tales that form the basis of so much of our literature, is that it leads to better understanding of where our own beliefs have originated. Such enlightenment just might create a respect for beliefs other than our own.

Toscanini -- Those who know a bit about the accomplishments of Arturo Toscanini might enjoy a 63-minute documentary about his private life as it is recorded on a Concerto DVD titled "Toscanini Unreleased." That adjective means "never before seen images and momentos," as the cover puts it.

I found it less than compelling, mainly because there were too many talking heads, and they did go on for some time. One can choose the original Italian version of this film or the English. The latter has English voices superimposed over the Italian, German and even the English speakers. Most viewers will choose the English version. However. this voice-over leads to a certain lack of dynamism and hence lack of interest.

There is no particular chronological order followed, except that the Maestro’s funeral does take place at the end. But then it is followed up by some clichéd and unnecessary afterthoughts, all of which have been stated earlier in the documentary. This is pretty much for Toscanini specialists and those who grew up loving the man.

Operettas on Film -- Throughout 2012, I have been reviewing individual DVDs on the ArtHaus label. Each contains an infrequently performed German operetta as it was filmed for German television.

These works included Franz Lehar’s "Zigeunerliebe" (Gypsy Love), "Paganini" and "Der Graf von Luxemburg" (The Count of Luxemburg); Leo Fall’s "Die Dollarprinzessin" (The Dollar Princess); Emmerich Kalman’s "Die Zirckusprinzessin" (The Circus Princess); and Richard Heuberger’s "Der Opernball" (The Opera Ball).

The first three are in a sentimental vein, the others in the Offenbach comic vein. All of the songs (forget the plots) will be unfamiliar to most of my readers, except for those who might have seen a production of any of these in Europe,. Those familiar with "Die Fledermaus," however, will spot its influence in "Der Opernball," in which three males do not recognize their women at the masked ball.

The downside is that these films are somewhat abridged versions of the originals, and the songs that do remain are occasionally presented out of order (which should bother only those familiar with the originals).

Some of the songs in the comic works sound quite modern (for the early 1900s) and seem to be influenced by the British Music Hall and American Vaudeville. The others abound in lush romantic tunes that certainly influenced Victor Herbert and later Sigmund Romberg. Give them a try.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.