Book, music and lyrics by Noel Coward
Original London cast: Peggy Wood, Ivy St Helier, George
Metaxa md Reginald Burston
I'll See You Again; If Love Were All; Dear Little Café;
- Studio Recording (1961) cast: Adele Leigh, James Pease,
Susan Hampshire md Kenneth Alwyn
- If You Could Only Come With Me; I'll See You Again; What
Is Love?; Ladies Of The Town; If Love Were All; Dear Little Café;
Tokay; Bonne Nuit, Merci; Kiss Me; Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom; Green Carnations;
- London Revival (1988) cast: Valerie Masterson, Martin
Smith, Donald Maxwell, Rosemary Ashe, Alec Bregonzi, Tom Griffin,
Michael Fitchew, Ian Platt, Robert Jon, David Dyer, Donald Jones,
Sally-Ann Middleton, Fiona Lamont, Claire Hayes, Susan Stubbs,
Anne O'Neill, Carol Lesley-Green md Michael Reed
That Wonderful Melody; The Call Of Love; If You Could Only Come
With Me; I'll See You Again; Polka; What Is Love?; The Last Dance;
Life In The Morning; Ladies Of The Town; If Love Were All; Dear
Little Café; Bitter Sweet Waltz; We Wish To Order Wine;
Tokay; Bonne Nuit, Merci; Kiss Me; Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay; Alas!
The Time Is Past; We All Wear A Green Carnation; Zigeuner
- Bitter-Sweet is probably Coward's greatest musical
play, except that it's an operetta (even if it is not, as Sheridan
Morley describes it, 'Coward's 'Tale From The Vienna Woods').
In fact, it's not really even an operetta, but an affectionate
pastiche (why are pastiches so much more welcome when they are
'affectionate'?) of the genre. Too much of this wealthy score
has fallen into neglect, and - beyond Coward's inability to nip
his never-ending rhymes in the bud, or the very obviously derivative
passages in its music - the old piece can still pack a powerful
- To be truthful, you wouldn't guess it from the original recordings
of the production that opened at His Majesty's Theatre in July
1929, running for 697 performances. Of course, Peggy Wood, the
original leading lady, was a noted performer of the time, but
during the elapse of seventy years her type of voice has dated,
seeming a little tenuous for music that is sometimes already
too tenuous for its own good (nobody, for instance, is going
to pretend that the duet 'Dear Little Café' is strong
meat). But recordings of the period made no concessions to those
who entered the gramophone studios, and it may be that we are
listening to a pale shadow of Wood's theatrical effectiveness.
- The diminutive Ivy St. Helier, a now almost forgotten character
actress and writer of musical comedies, played the cabaret singer
Manon in London, creating one of Coward's most affecting,
and autobiographically true, lyrics 'If Love Were All'. Fortunately,
in this instance we are allowed a glimpse of St. Helier's magic,
making us wonder why she is not remembered for the brilliant
performer she clearly was (the assiduous watcher of British films
of the 1940s and 1940s may occasionally get to see her at work).
But perhaps the main disappointment of the gathered recordings
of the first Bitter-Sweet is that they are so meagre.
- A 1933 film version starring Anna Neagle cut the majority
of the show - perhaps just as well, as Neagle had no voice and
is laughably mannered throughout. Coward later rightly scorned
Hollywood's attempt to film it with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson
Eddy, when once again only shreds of the score were retained.
- Following a handsome production mounted by New Sadler's Wells
Opera at Sadler's Wells Theatre in February 1988, the first full
recording of the score was laid down, and the result is a joy,
at last enabling us to appreciate the breadth and stature of
Coward's achievement. It sweeps away the cobwebs that have gathered
around the work, exposing whole stretches of score never heard
outside the theatre. It is greatly helped by having been musically
revised and expertly orchestrated by conductor Michael Reed (helped
by three other orchestrators). Reed's treatment convinces us
that this is a highly distinguished piece (and, in its way, it
is). The sense of commitment from the company is stronger because
it emanates from a stage production.
- Shining as Sarah, Valerie Masterson gives herself absolutely
to Sarah's songs, nowhere more so than in her fine first act
aria 'The Call Of Life' (and how the orchestration, with its
exciting drum-rolls under the swells bringing the number to a
thrilling conclusion, lifts the tension). It is a wonderful outburst
of passion from an artist whose standards have remained at the
highest pitch throughout a long career.
- As her lover, Martin Smith is a very light-voiced Carl Linden,
crooning and whispering his way through it, but Masterson adjusts
herself to the gentleness of his performance. And his approach
works: a throaty tenor seldom stirs the spirit.
- Rosemary Ashe is the Manon, singing 'If Love Were All' capably
enough, and with no fuss, but she doesn't suggest the depth of
sadness that is transparently in its lyric. She simply isn't
in the same category as St. Helier. But the other principals
(including Donald Maxwell, who only gets to sing 'Tokay', surely
a rather unattractive drinking song with some forced rhymes?)
and ensemble are brisk and beautifully recorded.
- The sound is in the first division. Play 'The Call Of Life'
and see if you don't agree. It is only one of many songs from
the show that one has heard too seldom before, for this is a
recording that makes us re-think the importance of a piece that
has all too easily been allowed to sink into history.
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