Saturday, February 20, 2016

Who Says I'm Not Eclectic? Three new CDs ...


It is not often that I write about recordings. Since my massive listening-writing effort of The Musical Theatre on Record, it has taken me a long time to bring myself to lend an ear to much recorded music. But this week the world has decided it shall be otherwise. No less than three CDs have popped through my postbox, all three worthy of much more than a background listen.
They’re three very different pieces of music. One opera, one musical, one choral cantata. One a hit from the 19th century, one only recently written and sung, one still awaiting a first full showing. Two from Great Britain, one from America … but all three, a bit of a miracle in this lazy day and age, wholly original. No ‘based on’ this or that, no pasticcio score and second-hand music: original through and through. So, where do I start? Why not in the order they arrived.


Toads on a Tapestry is the cantata. A form which is sadly neglected, even though largely secularised, these days. This hour-long piece was commissioned to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, and was given its first performance, last year, in Faversham, Kent. All I can say is, it deserves annual repetitions, all around Britain, on the fatidic day. It is a thoroughly original and exciting piece for adult and children’s choirs and soprano, alto and bass solo voices (music: David Knotts, text: John Gallas).

The piece is divided into nine ‘numbers’, starting with an atmospheric dawning of the day over Runnymede as the King (bass) arrives, surveyed by his falcon, Gibbun (soprano). The second number (‘I walk on paper’) is sung by one of the day’s main actors: the quill (contralto) which will sign the document, after which we briefly meet the other components (children’s choir and soloists) and the King ponders on what is to come, in the key number of the night (‘Angels sitting in the rushes’).
The Charter is recited and sung, and at the Quill’s urging, signed and sealed, as Gibbun espies the goings-on cynically from a Thames-side willow, in a soprano bravura showpiece (‘Good afternoon, my name is Gibbun’). And when all is signed and done, England goes on being England (‘Song of the People’) and the forest murmers to the end ‘for a tree is partial to a bit of history’ while the choir heads to a great Amen in the most thrilling bit of choral music of the piece.

The live-recorded performance of the Faversham singers is a remarkable one with, in particular, John Alan Ewing singing richly and powerfully as an outstanding King John, but in the end, the reason I am playing this disc for the fifth time, and have ordered copies for my friends, is the cantata.
This is a wholly twenty-first century piece, with its roots warmly embedded in the traditions of English poetry for the people. The text is true poetry, written with a quirky flair which hardly surprises those who have read a few of Gallas’s many books of verse. Knotts’s music is, I can only say, made for me. The now and the then, melted together into a forever. I got really excited at hearing the vocal lines … from basso profundo to trilling, squealing soprano … none of that ten notes in the middle of the voice rubbish. This composer lets his artists sing.

Anyway Toads on a Tapestry goes into my (very) small collection of ‘play again and again’ CDs, but what I hope most is that it goes into many future productions and … BBC, are you listening?


And now for something tooooooooottally different. From an English country church to a most bzazzy bit of Broadway. No, not Broadway today (when did Broadway last bzazz?), this is Broadway in its hey-you day and its got big, big, big and bold, bold, bold and brassy, brassy, brassy boiled all over it. OK? Got it? Well, if you haven’t, you will have when I tell you this new musical (which has been heard several times in concert, only … so far) is called Merman’s Apprentice. Yep, it’s that dame again. And the story is true to title. Little Muriel Plakenstein from Canarsie (Brooklyn) runs away from home to become a Broadway star, and ends up, with the red, hot and blue mama’s help, going on in Ethel Merman’s role in Hello, Dolly. Yes, that’s it. It’s all there needs to be.
You have a song-studded vehicle for a Merman and a mini-Merman (with the occasional interruption from other folk), set in a book (yes, I’ve read it) of showbiz in-jokes and ribbing that will set Broadway fans of all ages a-hootin’ and a-sniggerin’, because this piece has its tongue shoved firmly in its cheeks – somewhere between The Boyfriend and Dames at Sea. But those shows didn’t have two chandelier-cracking leading ladies. Two! Fasten your ear-plugs … here they come!

Ethel, presented with loving kiddery (yes, author Stephen Cole really knew the lady!) is played – well, on the CD, sung – by Klea Blackhurst. Brilliant casting. She has a staunch, scathing, tuneful, yet warm, voice which makes breakfast of her ballads and her ‘Blow Gabriel’ parody,  ‘Listen to the Trumpet Call’, is the hit of the night. Little Muriel (who naturally trades in Plakenstein for ‘Lake’) is taken by Elizabeth – daughter of Lara – Teeter. This is the role created by Carly Rose Sonenclar of X Factor fame, but much as I loved Carly, Elizabeth is well-and-truly splendid. This must be the biggest sing for ‘a kid’ since ... since Herbert Hoover put together, and she brings it off with brio.
While the two stars are having a breather, Anita Gillette and P J Benjamin  as Ethel’s parents have a funny song about how their daughter became ‘Loud’ and if Bill Nolte looks as he does on the cover, as David Merrick … look no further for the Broadway production!
Because I’m sure this show ain’t gonna stay at Birdland for long.


And now for something as different as could be. From both of the previous. I’m not going to give a history lesson here, but this is ‘my’ period, so forgive me if I get a little ‘learned’. Satanella was one of the dozen or so most popular and successful English operas of the Victorian era, of which a disproportionate number were launched by the Louisa Pyne/William Harrison company over a period of just a seven years (The Rose of Castille, Lurline, The Lily of Killarney) from 1857 onwards. A disproportionate number, too, were the work of Irish composer William Balfe (The Bohemian Girl etc), and Satanella shows him at his best, the traditional English opera strains (and dialogue) tempered just enough by his Italian training and experience to produce a score which is one of the most effective, lush and beautiful of the era.
Victorian Opera Northwest have already given us complete modern recording of Balfe’s previously unrecorded The Maid of Artois and a very fine new Lurline as well as Macfarren’s Robin Hood (another of the top twelve): now, happily, they have turned to Satanella and have, in my opinion, and not just because I like this opera – music and book -- the best, topped all their previous efforts in practically every department: recording values, the orchestra under Richard Bonynge, chorus and soloists are all quite superb. I will bet that Balfe never heard his opera sound as rich, flowing and just plain huge as this, even with the superb Miss Pyne and Messrs Harrison (in well-tailored parts) and Weiss singing the leads, in 1858-9, on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

The extremely hit song of the hit show was ‘The Power of Love’ sung by the demoness Satanella to close the first act. No bravura, this, as in The Maid of Artois, but a beauteous, emotional air which went on to be a hugely popular concert item. Don’t worry, the traditional bravura comes in the second act instead, there is a cabaletta to end the third, and a stunning 4th act curtain: quite simply everything any prima donna could ask for. ‘The Power of Love’, and Miss Pyne’s role, are here absolutely splendidly sung by Sally Silver, who we have heard already as Lurline, and she is teamed with a first-rate tenor, Kang Wang, whose sweet and soaring voice is perfect for the demanding sentimental music of the piece’s hero, and whose dramatic passages ring out vigorously and excitingly, in the shining performance of this recording.

The expansive bass role of the fiend, Arimanes, created by the then top bass in Britain, Liverpudlian Willoughby Weiss, is here efficiently sung by a bass-baritone (Trevor Bowes), and the pretty songs belonging to the considerable role of the ingénue Leila, originally played by Britain’s most versatile soprano, Rebecca Isaacs, are delightfully treated by Catherine Carby.

British writers – unlike most Italians of the time, with their inexorably tragic tales – were not afraid to put comic and lighter moments into their texts, and Satanella has its share of these. The comedian/tenor Alfie St Albyn had a sighing swain number
which Anthony Gregory delivers in spot-on fashion, and a jolly Pirate, half Enchantress and half Pirates of Penzance, from ‘merry Tunis’, written for another comic player, Henri Corri, here get suitable service from Frank Church. The pure comedy went to singing actor, George Honey (here Quentin Hayes) as a useful tutor who strengthened the bass line when Arimanes was off-stage. The seven principals (Arimanes is off, here) join in a rousingly sung septet with chorus, in the 3rd act, which show Balfe and the forces of Victorian Opera Northwest at their very finest.
This is one of the grandest specimens of English opera, from the era when English-language opera companies were proud to play home-made material, and that home-made material stood on an equal footing in  a repertoire with Lucrezia Borgia, Der Freischütz and Il Trovatore. So why have Satanella and its fellows been allowed to drop from the repertoire? Inverted snobbery? Hopefully, this first-class recording will open the eyes and ears of those who produce English opera. Now that there is a brand new performing text and score available, there’s no excuse for its not finding itself back to the stages of the world in double quick time.

So, three grand CDs, of three pieces looking for performance. I’m sure that none of the three will look in vain or for long. Each, of its kind, deserves to be heard. Again and again. And after a whole morning listening to the soaring strains of Satanella, I’m going back to the start all over again … here we go: Toads number 6 ….

PS OK, OK ... stop mailing me ...
TOADS can be ordered through
MERMAN from Jay Records
SATANELLA from Naxos

Saturday, February 13, 2016

70, Boys, 70 ...

Tomorrow will be the seventieth anniversary of my birth. Seventy! Imagine. Years ago, when things likes pensions and life insurances had to be thought about, I was quite certain that I would never make it so far. I and my high-octane personality. Placid is gooooood. So, yes, I paid into nothing, made no provisions for the hairless, toothless, bespectacled and deafish years and achieved everything I had wanted to by forty-something.

And now – and I don’t know whether to say ‘dammit’ or ‘hoorah’ – I have made it. So ….

What does one want at seventy and beyond? Well, number one is definitely health. Number two? Friends. Dear Friends. Close, closest and not even so close. Three, obviously enough money to live on. Four, a comfy place to live. Yes, comfy. Not posh or flash, not filled with bits of the family’s and late spouse’s stuff, just ‘comfy’. Five – which should maybe be one! – some kind of work to keep your brain enquiring, investigative, busy, anticipatory. Something to get up for in the morning.

So where am I, at the start of this unexpected decade?

(1) Health. Not too bad. I had a stroke five years ago. But apart from slowing me down a lot and crippling my right hand (can’t do 55 wpm or handwrite any more), I think I’m fair for my age. Unexpectedly, after having been a skinny boy all my life, I’m getting a pot-belly. OK, too much booze and not enough exercise. I know. Periodically, I try. Not for the aesthetic, couldn’t care less about that (vide my clothes!), but for the energy, yes, the health.

(2) Friends. I suppose I should have said ‘friends and family’ but I haven’t much family. One dearly wonderful brother in England (take a bow, John Gallas) and one loved cousin whom I haven’t seen in too long (your turn, Nerole Williams). 

Friends? Well, since I was widowered, there are two people who have been and are all-important to me. Wendy (NZ) and Paul (Aus/Ger). They make my life happily, nay joyously, liveable. And, well, they take care of me, too. Without either one of them, I might not have had the will to hit up a 70 score. And all you other guys and gals behind them … thank you for your real and lasting friendship.

(3) Money. The kindness of others. Bless them. And I think I’ll be OK, if the world’s money men don’t wreck the value of everything once more with their plots and games. I remember the farthing. And when 1,000 a year was enough to live on. Makes my 71 pounds a week pension look pathetic, though, in 2016. Fingers crossed.

(4) ‘Home’. I’ve always been a ‘mover’. England, France, Germany, New Zealand, Australia … never anywhere for long, in recent years. Well, this year, for the first time, I’m not coming back to Europe, from the lovely Gerolstein down-under farm, for the summer. SCHENGEN says I’m not Syrian or Turk, therefore I can’t stay in Europe for more than 12 weeks pa. So I looked elsewhere. And I found it. Yamba-sur-mer, NSW, here, in a few weeks, I come. A delightful, tiny seaside flat… yes! That seems like a 70 year-old’s ideal!

(5) Except on the rare mornings when I have a hangover, I’m at my typewriter by 8.30am. And for most of the day. And mostly … yes, still writing. Or answering the queries which still come to me on my area of expertise, from round the world. My life is still filled with the minutiae of music and theatre, and I’m compiling a vast database of the lives and careers of VICTORIAN VOCALISTS. Love it.

So. That’s me. I approach the unexpected decade with hope that all five categories of Life’s Necessities will be kind to me.

And you all, too.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

GREASE ... Live?


The comical musical Grease seems to have been around in the theatre as long as I have. I remember, in my far-off twenties, attending an audition call for the London production with my pal, Paul Bentley. It was late in the day, it was a rotten wee hall, every hopeless non-singer in town seemed to have been in, and the panel were looking weary and fed up. I think they were rather pleased when we came on together. When we finished, they were all smiles, and the boss told us ‘we had quite made his day’. No, they didn’t need an operatic basso, and a comic heldentenor, but we’d read the poorly-written audition notice uncomprehendingly. It asked for a falsetto singer. Well, we’d recently performed ‘Pensacola’ (Dames at Sea) in a Benefit at Harrogate Opera House, so we gave them that, all burlesque stops full out. I was Mona, dancing and singing in an ear-splitting soprano.
We didn’t get the job. He was very sorry, but he just couldn’t see how to use us. He should have. The London show was pretty lifeless.

Grease -- via stage and screen -- is now a standard. Deservedly so. I saw it last year, performed with loads of life, and some grand performances, at the Christchurch Court Theatre. And this month there has been a lot of chat amongst musical facebookers about something called Grease – Live. Live? On Televison? Oh, well. Anyway, people seemed either to love it or hate it. Then it was announced, with more gusto than effective taste, for NZ telly. I ventured, ‘should I watch it’? ‘Don’t’ warned facebook … which knows I prefer my shows live and untampered-with. So we watched our favourite Australian Masterchef. But come Sunday eve, the nadir of New Zealand television, Wendy revealed that she had taped it. So we sat down to watch a recorded version of a TV version of Grease – Live. Sort of.

Did we like it? It was all right. Like the curate’s egg. In parts. I can’t see for the life of me why we had to lose some of the best songs ('It’s Raining on Prom Night’, ‘Alone at a Drive in Movie’), why the story and dialogue had to be changed (they actually said ‘cool’ in what was supposed to be 1959), why girls were pasted in to ‘Greased Lightning’ and boys into the cheer-leader squad, why Rump was cut … not one of the changes was anywhere near for the better, and the unfamiliar (to me) musical material was excruciatingly dull. I still don’t know what the lady was up to, howling out what seems to have been an introductory song. But … Grease is made of stern stuff. Like The Boyfriend, it’s not so much a burlesque, but what Sandy Wilson called ‘a joyful recreation’ of a much loved (in retrospect) era, it is unpretentious, melodious, funny and sometimes even a little serious. It is hard to knock down, no matter how you fiddle with it.

So did I enjoy it, in spite of it’s not being the kosher Grease? It was all right. In parts. And very right in one or two.  What first? Cast? Production? Let’s do cast. I do not know who anyone in the cast is/was. I’m sure they are ‘celebrities’ of the 21st century kind. But that’s all right. This show doesn’t need or want stars. It needs to be played a bunch of joyous young singing-dancing teenagers. Humph. This was the oldest set of teenagers I’ve seen in a while. If Rydell High has students un-graduated at that age, teaching standards there must be abysmal. The Danny looked over-thirty. Which was a shame. Because he’s a fine singer-dancer-actor with a great twinkle … The triumph was the Sandy. She did look like a teenager, and act like one, and her singing of ‘Totally Devoted’ (of course, the film hits are now an accepted part of the score) was absolutely grandiosely spot on. The other kids each pounded out their numbers – Rizzo did a fine ‘Worst Thing I Can Do’, Doody was capable in ‘Those Magic Changes’, Marty sang all right in an opened-up production number made up of ‘Freddie, My Love’ but you couldn’t take her seriously as a high-school student, Frenchie’s part was ruined and she had little chance, and WHERE was Frankie Avalon? The wonderful teen-angel bit was given to an amateurish (purposely?) trio and a set of bumbling women in hairdryers. I nearly gave up at that point. But … it’s Grease. We had a splendid Johnny Casino to make up for no Frankie Avalon … and … there were only a couple of other cast members who gave me the shudders. Even Wendy, who doesn’t complain about actors, couldn’t abide the frightful ‘look-at-me’ performance of Blanche, and Patty Simcox will doubtless get first class honours … from the School for coarse over-acting.

The production? It’s hard to make an abstraction of it from the changes made to script and score. I didn’t mind the opening up of some bits of numbers into fantasy … it was all right. And lively. If aged. The choreography? A bit excessive, and I’d have liked it better if ‘Greased Lightning’ had been just boys. Teenage boys. But I guess it's what a TV audience wants in 2016. Strange. Costumes … well, I don’t know what one wears at High School. Some were copies of previous ones … apart from Marty’s green thing, they were all right.

But, when all is said and done, I lasted till the end, when ‘live’ suddenly happened, and I really did very much enjoy spending the evening with the dazzling Sandy and the elderly but delightful Danny … if not some of the others and the tacked-in rubbish.

I’m still a little puzzled, though. Why was such a fuss made of it being ‘Live’. Was the title just to assure folk they weren’t getting Travolta/O N John? Oh! It was BROADCAST live? Why?
Actually, why was the fuss made at all? A fair enough evening, with fine bits and not-fine bits, and about 70 percent of the show. Yeah, it was all right.

PS Of course, the cast is on line. So credit where credit’s due.  SuperSandy was Julianne Hough, dishy Danny was Aaron Tveit, Joe Jonas was Johnny … and I’m none the wiser.