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L'homme de la Mancha

DRG has reissued the French language recording of Man of La Mancha starring Jacques Brel and Joan Diener -- and you've gotta hear it to believe it.

By New York City
TheaterMania doesn't usually offer reviews of foreign language cast recordings of American musicals, partly because such items would definitely have to classified as esoterica. Also, it seems that the majority of foreign cast recordings were never issued or reissued on compact disc and/or have long been out of print. But DRG has just released on CD the Barclay recording of Man of la Mancha (excusez moi, L'homme de la Mancha) that features the cast of the show as performed in French at the Theatre de La Monnaie in Brussels and, later, in Paris.

The album is noteworthy in that it stars the legendary singer-songerwriter Jacques Brel as Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana/Miguel de Cervantes. Playing opposite him as Aldonza/Dulcinea is Joan Diener, who had created the role in New York and then recreated it in London. Here, Diener gives what is hands down the worst performance I have ever heard on any cast album of any show -- be it in English, French, Spanish, German, or Swahili.

Before we go any further, let me establish the criteria for what I consider to be a truly terrible performance. When an artist fails in a role because he or she is unequal to the assignment, that's an unfortunate occurrence, but the blame lies more with whoever cast the hapless individual than with the individual him/herself. Happily, this sort of thing doesn't happen very often. (The only examples I can immediately think of are the performances of John Weiner as Jean-Michel and Frances Ruffelle as Eponine in the original Broadway productions of La Cage aux Folles and Les Misérables, respectively). On the other hand, when someone with extraordinary talent comes a cropper in a particular role through flagrant, shameless overacting, they deserve to be excoriated in the harshest possible terms.

Few careers have misfired more completely than Joan Diener's. When she played Lalume in Kismet in 1953, Diener caused a sensation with her physical beauty and her phenomenal singing voice. Here was a woman who could fearlessly switch back and forth between a powerful chest register and a full operatic soprano extension when putting over her songs. Diener again thrilled audiences with this unique talent when she played Aldonza in La Mancha, and her performance on the original cast album will never be equalled. Just listen to her fierce, raw belting of the line "One pair of arms is like another, it's all the same" at the end of her first number, then marvel as she scales the soprano summit for the repetition of "it's all the same," capping the phrase with a breathtaking high A. Mind-boggling!

Because Diener had such a triumph in the original La Mancha -- and because her husband, Albert Marre, directed the show -- she seems to have decided that she owned the role lock, stock, and barrel. Thus, she went on to play Aldonza in London opposite Keith Michell, again under Marre's direction. Sadly, the two-LP cast album of that production reveals her performance to have already become awfully self-indulgent.

After that, things only got worse. According to Thelma Blitz's notes in the booklet accompanying DRG's reissue of the French language La Mancha, Marre -- who also directed the 1968 Brussels/Paris production -- insisted that his wife play the role yet again, this time, en Français. Though Diener's French pronunciation on the recording is largely excellent if overemphatic, her outsized emoting is vulgar beyond description. Even if you don't understand a word of French, her inflections -- whether she's singing or speaking -- will strike you as either hilarious or horrifying, depending on your mood when you listen. And when Aldonza realizes that Quixote (i.e., Quijana) has died, Diener emits a noise that sounds like some horrible creature dying a slow, agonizing death in a monster movie. If you don't believe me, click here.

On top of all this, the tempi for Diener's songs on the album are ludicrously slow; in the middle section of "It's All the Same," you can practically hear the guitar players struggling to find the beat and stay together. One might argue that this isn't Diener's fault because she presumably didn't set the pace for her songs, but maybe she did; her showcase numbers are the only ones on the album that are inordinately slow. (François Rauber is the conductor.) Post script: The 1992 Broadway revival of La Mancha, directed by -- guess who! -- Albert Marre, opened with Sheena Easton as Aldonza opposite the Quixote of Raul Julia, but Easton 's replacement was....Joan Diener, then somewhere in the vicinity of age 60! (Various sources list Diener's birth date as February 24, 1933, but that would mean she was not yet 21 when she co-starred in Kismet, so you tell me if you believe it.)

As for the rest of the cast of the French La Mancha: Though Brel's voice is not remotely comparable in terms of beauty to that of the original Don Q., Richard Kiley, many listeners will appreciate his full commitment to a role that he obviously loved playing. Brel himself translated Joe Darion's lyrics and Dale Wasserman's book for this production, and he did a wonderful job of it. One of the most successful cuts on the album is "Vraiment, je ne pense qu'à lui" (the French version of "I'm Only Thinking of Him"), well performed by Constance Arnaud, Marguerite Paquet, and Louis Navarre. Also very listenable is "Sans Amour" (i.e., "Little Bird"), sung by the male chorus of muleteers.

The stirring La Mancha overture is not included on this recording but, in recompense, we get the entire "Knight of the Mirrors" sequence. Also missing are both of Sancho Panza's solo numbers, "I Like Him" and "A Little Gossip." This is presumably because, again according to Thelma Blitz's notes, "Dario Moreno, contracted to Phillips -- the label Brel had abandoned -- was spitefully denied authorization to record on Brel's new label (Barclay), which left Sancho Panza to be recorded by understudy Jean-Claude Calon." At that, Calon is only heard in three of the album's tracks: the title-song duet, the "Golden Helmet of Mambrino" sequence, and the death scene.

Some people may wish to purchase L'homme de La Mancha as a supplement to the original cast recording if only because it allows one to enjoy Mitch Leigh's music without having to endure the occasional grammatical infelicities of Darion's English lyrics; but if that's the criterion for purchase, you'll honestly do better with the original Mexico City cast recording in Spanish, starring Claudio Brook and the amazing Nati Mistral. If you do get your hands on the French language CD, prepare to be simultaneously repelled and fascinated by tracks #2, #7, #11 -- i.e., Joan Diener's big numbers. Thanks to DRG for reissuing a recording that's essential in preserving two peformances of great historical value: a bona-fide musical icon's intriguing take on the title role and, on an entirely different level, a performance by the leading lady that fully demonstrates what can happen when rampant ego takes the place of artistic integrity.


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