Art documentary on DVD sheds light on the Dark Ages



Dark Ages -- In 2007, I reported on a Koch Vision DVD titled "The Barbarians," which showed how the "barbarians" were far more civilized than the disdainful Romans who wanted them to be part of the Roman Empire.

Now what I might call a subset of that theme is available in an Athena Learning set of four episodes of 60 minutes each titled "The Dark Ages, an Age of Light." Here narrator Waldemar Januszcak points out how the artists of the Dark Ages (which he defines as the period between and including the fall of the Roman Empire and the Norman invasion) illuminated the dark with great works of art -- pictures secular and religious, brilliant pieces of jewelry, even weapons and boats, and architectural masterpieces. That each of the latter examples was based on earlier models should surprise no one.

But the very painted and inlaid portraits of Jesus and Mary just might raise a few hackles on those who think that what is now has always been the same. According to the narrator, for about 300 years after Christ, no picture of him appeared for the simple reason that no one knew what he looked like. The earliest attempts had him resembling the statues of Apollo, young and charming, appealing to men and women alike. But when a sterner version was needed, the old statues of Zeus and Jupiter were imitated, and the feminine side was lost. I will leave it to to the viewer to consider the origin (according to Junuszcak) of pictures of Mary and the Christ child on her lap.

I particularly liked the evolution of houses of worship, both Christian and Moslem. And the closeup shots of jewelry are breathtaking, my favorites being Celtic pieces. A highlight is a quick demonstration of how to set up those complex intertwined bands one sees in the margins of old books.

Among the "barbarian" tribes mentioned are the Huns, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Moors and Vikings. A time line in the booklet is most helpful to keep track of the chronology of events as the art of these "horrible invaders" (and they were) shows of what they were capable in times of peace.

My only objection is the overly enthusiastic delivery by Januszcak as he sets forth the facts and his opinions of the examples of bright art. So many other narrators of documentaries feel they have to hammer every little point home when they should let the visuals make their own statements to a less aggressive vocal delivery.

The four chapters are an hour each and the subtitles are most helpful.

Zigeunerliebe -- ArtHaus Musik is certainly dipping into the archives of film versions of German operettas made for television and coming up with some very unusual items on DVD. Following two rarities, "The Circus Princess" and "The Dollar Princess," they have given us "Gypsy Love" or, as it appears on the cover, "Zigeunerliebe" (1910).

Franz Lehar planned this as an opera, but was convinced that it would better serve as an operetta. Fully aware of the German and Austrian passion for Gypsy music, he set the plot in the Hungary of the early 1800s, near the Romanian border. The plot, all in all, is thin. Engaged to the young Jonel (Adolph Dallapozza), the beautiful Zorika (Janet Perry), finds herself attracted to the Gypsy violinist Jozsi (Ion Buzea).

Spurred on by the wealthy and self-liberated Ilona (Colette Lorand) and to the disgust of her father, she refuses her fiance the traditional engagement kiss. Zorika has an extended dream in which she foresees that life as a Gypsy, especially as the wife of Jozsi, would be no bed of roses. So all ends as middle-class morality demands.

There is very little comedy, at least in this 1974 television version, and the score might suffer only in contrast with that of "The Merry Widow." It also assumes that all Gypsies are thieves, while the feminist slogans have certainly lost the shock value they had 112 years ago.

But it is pleasant going and certainly worth the watch. The subtitles are in German, English and French, the picture is in full-screen 4:3 ratio, and running time is 88 minutes.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays.


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