West Green House Opera is going places. Its long-term plan is to replace its annually constructed Green Theatre with a permanent opera house, and, with this in mind, it is currently experimenting with different locations beyond its walled garden. Whereas before the theatre was pressed right up against the house, that would not be a suitable location for a permanent structure as it would spoil the vista and provide an insufficient backstage area. As a result, this year its temporary Green Theatre has been moved to the adjacent meadow, and already this has allowed it to be constructed with a larger auditorium.
2018 has also seen West Green House continue its tradition of supplementing two large-scale productions with a host of other events including talks by celebrities, chamber operas and recitals, and it has shown much innovation in its programming. It is not unusual for summer opera venues to include either concerts or slightly lighter fare in the form of musicals, but West Green House has gone one step further by devoting an entire event (actually presented twice) to the songs of Cole Porter and Noel Coward.
Although Stephen Citron’s dual biography Noel and Cole: The Sophisticates suggests there were many differences between the two in terms of background, relationships, output beyond the realm of music and need for the limelight, they are still both known for a witty, wordy and cosmopolitan artistic point of view. Led by the excellent Simon Bates Big Band, the evening exploited the synergies between the two, and in the process featured an eclectic mix of performers.
There were several entirely instrumental pieces including ‘Love for Sale’ and ‘Anything Goes’, which opened the evening. Both revealed tremendous playing and particularly good solos from Simon Bates on saxophone and Chris Dean on trombone. Dean’s solo in the latter song was particularly impressive as it punched out the phrases in the section beginning ‘The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad today’, even in the absence of words. He is actually the leader of the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, which says something about the calibre of the evenings’ performers, and later in the evening he sang ‘I’ve Got you Under My Skin’ while playing the trombone during the instrumental break.
The established Noel Coward performer Stefan Bednarczyk took to the stage to sing ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, capturing with striking authenticity Coward’s way of phrasing a song so that it felt like a musical lecture on a chosen topic. Later in the evening he also performed ‘London Pride’, playing the piano as he sang.
Harry the Piano, who also compered the evening, presented his own mash-up of Chopin and Porter, which, although he described as still a work in progress, carried the working title ‘When Cole met the Pole’. Most interesting was the fact that within the piece some parts were clearly Chopin and others Porter, but a few really did seem to sit in the middle as a true combination of the two. Harry also joked that the rattling during the piece was the sound of Chopin spinning in his grave!
The evening’s greatest comedy, however, came from the double act Bounder & Cad, with the first joke deriving from the fact that only one half of the duo (Bounder, or Dr Guy Hayward) had actually been able to make it! Described as ‘the liberal elite’s answer to Ant and Dec’, and in the spirit of making opera accessible, they sing in English so that ‘La donna è mobile’ by Giuseppe Verdi becomes a song about a girl and her mobile phone by Joe Green! Bounder’s performance was very funny as the deliciously rewritten lyrics referred to selfies in Tiananmen Square, as well as with a grizzly bear and Tony Blair.
In the second half we heard Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love’ immediately followed by Coward’s own take, which constituted an affectionate send-up of the original, and thus highlighted the respect that the pair had for each other. Bounder, however, performed an even more up-to-date version, where naturally we learnt that people do it on Tinder!
The evening also featured substantial contributions from singer Georgina Jackson, which included a highly accomplished performance of ‘Too Darn Hot’ and a trumpet solo, which she presented to look as if it were off the cuff. Perhaps the greatest indication of how eclectic the performances were, however, came when the young Alistair Crosswell and Veronica Fulton danced to ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ and ‘Begin the Beguine’ in true Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fashion. In this way, they sealed an evening that, within its overarching theme, was as diverse as it was entertaining right up until the encore, which was, appropriately enough, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’.