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Jessye Norman — A Portrait
27 Jan 2009

Jessye Norman — A Portrait

A sticker on the cover of the Decca DVD Jessye Norman a portrait describes the contents as "An intimate new film portrait of the great soprano."

Jessye Norman — A Portrait

Jessye Norman

Decca 074 3251 8 [DVD]

$27.98  Click to buy

And if the font were to be copied exactly, the words would be in all capitals, with “intimate” and “great soprano” twice as large as the other words. Make no mistake, Jessye Norman, as presented in this “film by André Heller,” is a larger-than-life figure, with no pun at all intended in regard to her physique. In filmed interviews, with the interviewer only briefly glimpsed at one point, Norman comes off as thoughtful, pretentious, down-to-earth, grandiose, sad, joyful, self-centered, insecure - the list could go on. In the end, your reviewer, after having his patience taxed, found his respect and endearment for the artist enhanced by this often silly but ultimately moving film.

The format is simple. Norman faces the camera, answering an unheard question. Every couple of minutes, the scene shifts to a studio where, in a bewildering array of hairstyles and gowns, Ms. Norman lip-syncs to some of her best recordings, with the sets around her designed by the director and others, including Brian Eno and the wonderfully named Mimmo Paladino. The focus in these filmed, MTV-style interludes remains Ms. Norman, with the studio design mostly consisting of lighting and background projection, usually an abstract pattern that hopefully doesn’t clash too much with whatever outlandish get-up Ms. Norman wears. Ms. Norman emotes energetically, and only for the briefest moments can a viewer notice that her lip movements don’t quite match the vocal production.

The booklet track listing bears titles for the interview segments such as “Childhood,” “Preparation,” and most poignantly, “Loneliness.” Although Ms. Norman does make a point of announcing her inability to understand why anyone should care what consenting adults do in the bedroom, she hasn’t much to say about her own personal life, other than that she has accepted that she will be - or needs to be - alone a great deal of the time. At a few points in the interviews, she grows quite passionate about her frequent disappointment in the professionalism of others, especially unprepared conductors. The fire in her eyes suggests that an unleashed expression of her frustration would be something to behold.

One quote from the director’s booklet essay should serve to establish his point of reference in regards to Ms. Norman: “In her mythical greatness, this prima donna can only be compared of Maria Callas.” Your reviewer assumes that the writer meant nothing ironic in using the word “mythical.”

Fans who wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Heller’s sentiment will cherish every moment of this DVD. But those who will chuckle in the first minutes as Ms. Norman ponders if there is singing on Jupiter should hold on. Listen as the “great soprano” (since so she wishes to be called) talks of her family, racism, and the cost of having a top-class classical singing career. Of course, most everyone can also relish the gorgeous vocalising heard in the musical interludes, not irreparably harmed if seldom enhanced by the studio settings. By the end of the film’s 90 minutes, the sticker’s proclamation of an “intimate” portrait proves accurate. Your reviewer, for one, would hate to have missed the moment when Ms. Norman speaks of her affection for Mr. Bean.

Brava Jessye. Mr. Heller, your mythical greatness can only be compared to Mr. Bean.

Chris Mullins

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