A week that has been nothing if not varied in style and content….
Today (Thursday) I spent an absorbing hour in the erudite company of Ian Bostridge talking Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears for an EMI audio podcast. A new disc of Britten song settings with Antonio Pappano at the piano and a Rome recording of the great War Requiem (pace Stravinsky and Boulez, both of whom hated it) with Pappano’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra & Chorus, Anna Netrebko and Thomas Hampson are on the cards for this centenary year.
Tomorrow is many people’s first encounter with Charpentier’s Medea (do listen to my podcast with Sarah Connolly and David McVicar – both so absorbing) but last night Jerry Herman’s Dear World bowed into the charming Charing X Theatre in a form as intimate and whimsical as the composer-lyricist had only dared hope it one day might enjoy. This isn’t a review, more a reflection, of the opening night (I know too many of the people involved) but what is inescapable is the added resonance of doing it now in a time when the planet is reeling from the effect of man-made abuse, when pollution in China, fracking in the UK, and oil-driven greed just about everywhere, are daily headlines.
Dear World (and The Madwoman of Chaillot) is a fable of old values, of innocence and romance, in a world beset by the forces of big business and industrialisation. The wise are mad but the so-called sane are madder – and at its heart there is the Countess Aurelia, the dottiest of earth mothers, once in love, once jilted, but now reborn to restore order and romance to an ailing world. It’s the role, of course, that Angela Lansbury strove valiantly to make her own before an over-elaborate and confused Broadway premiere swallowed her and the fragile piece whole.
Betty Buckley was an inspired idea on the part of Steven Levy who runs this enterprising little theatre and notwithstanding a voice born more to belt than to finesse, she is deeply touching and engaging in the role – an unstarry, unselfish, but self-evidently charismatic performance which anchors the show and uncovers a deeper pathos in Herman’s finest ballads “And I Was Beautiful” and “Kiss Her Now” (an achingly beautiful melody up there with “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack & Mabel). Her unholy trinity with Rebecca Lock’s Gabrielle and Annabel Leventon’s Constance is the unqualified joy of the evening with the insane counterpoint of the “Tea Party Trio” smiling equally on Sullivan and Sondheim to lend the show its comically endearing air.
Herman is so often sidelined as a Broadway showman but when you hear the way the underscoring gently feeds our expectations in this show offering tantalising premonitions of its key numbers (a device refined here by orchestrator Sarah Travis and beautifully managed by music director Ian Townsend) it’s a much subtler sensibility that one becomes aware of. For that, above all, we should applaud this reincarnation of a dotty but big-hearted show.