Opera and musical theatre worlds collide in South Pacific and Hooray for Hollywood
Two contrasting evenings of familiar and less-familiar repertoire – but which fared best?
They say familiarity breeds contempt but, when it comes to music, surely that’s not the case? I doubt I'm alone in finding that, as I get to know a piece of music more intimately, the experience of hearing it is enhanced on repeated listening. The songs from South Pacific are a case in point. I attended the Barbican production of the recently transferred Broadway show last Friday, and was looking forward to hearing ‘I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair’, ‘There’s nothing like a dame’, ‘Bali Ha’i’ and, of course, the schmaltzy ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Having never seen the film in its entirety, and having only attended one stage production previously (many moons ago), I wasn’t prepared for recognising all the other songs as well. Who knew South Pacific had embedded itself so firmly into my psyche? Pretty much everyone in the audience knew the songs, too – most evidently my neighbour, who insisted on singing along to every one. But something happens when the opening bars of a song unfold and the audience, en masse, realise what it is. There’s an almost tangible surge of synchronised recognition, a united feeling of unadulterated pleasure and ‘comfortableness’, akin to snuggling under a blanket on the sofa and watching the opening credits roll in your favourite film.
And that, in a nutshell, was my experience of South Pacific. Not too taxing, not too controversial – just pure enjoyment from beginning to end. The cast was strong, particularly Loretta Ables Sayre, the original Bloody Mary from Broadway, Alex Ferns as cheeky chappy Luther Billis and Samantha Womack as Nellie Forbush (who knew she could sing so well? I just wish she hadn’t looked so apologetic). But the standout for me was Paulo Szot, Broadway’s original Emile De Becque. The Brazilian baritone has appeared at the Met, Carnegie Hall and Paris Opera, and forthcoming engagements include Figaro at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and A Dog’s Heart at La Scala. Opera singers don’t always transfer easily to musicals – they can look a little awkward on stage, and their delivery can seem too refined compared to those around them. But Szot was a natural actor – even playing for laughs with his impersonation of Nellie singing ‘I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair’ – and I could have heard him sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ all night (wait a minute – I just did).
Speaking of the worlds of opera and musical theatre colliding, soprano Sarah Fox and tenor Charles Castronovo were the two token opera singers at last night’s 'Hooray for Hollywood' Prom, celebrating film musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s. Accompanied by the splendid John Wilson Orchestra, they were joined by veteran musical stars Caroline O’Connor (whose ‘There’s no business like show business’ and ‘The man that got away’ brought the house down) and Annalene Beechey (her ‘Jolly Holiday’ from Mary Poppins was my personal favourite). Also making an appearance were jazz singer Clare Teal – ‘Secret Love’ from Calamity Jane was her best performance, along with ‘Clap Yo’ Hands’ from Funny Face, in which she was joined by big band singer Matthew Ford.
Fox and Castronovo held their own, particularly in their exquisite duet ‘One Hand, One Heart’ from West Side Story, and Fox gave it her all with Ford and O’Connor in ‘Triplets’ from The Band Wagon. It was only in the finale featuring the whole cast that they had a slightly bemused, embarrassed look, suggesting that they had been transported from a world they knew very well into one that was great fun yet ever so slightly scary.
But I return to my original point. Of the 30-odd musical numbers comprising last night’s performance, I only knew five or so really well. Others were vaguely familiar; most, however, I had never heard before. Did that hinder my enjoyment? If I’m honest, yes. I could appreciate the orchestra, the soloists, the wonderful Maida Vale Singers – but I felt myself yearning for a repeat performance of last year’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Prom, where I could sing along to every song in my sleep. Having said that, perhaps it’s all about balance. At the recent Proms performance of Verdi’s Requiem – a piece I know intimately, having performed it as a flautist several times – I found myself thinking ‘I’ve heard it all before’. There were no surprises, I found no freshness in it. It was the first time I had ever felt like that about one of my favourite choral works, and it shocked me. Perhaps familiarity does breed contempt…What is the recipe for an ‘Enchanted Evening’? ‘Dites-moi’ someone – please.
Sarah Kirkup is deputy editor of Gramophone. She plays flute and piano, and sings with her local church choir. Sarah is a fan of ballet and contemporary dance, and attends as many productions - particularly at Covent Garden - as she can.