Anyone who saw Sir Willard White as Monterone in Opera North’s Rigoletto recently will know that his bass-baritone voice, with its distinctive timbre, is still operating at full throttle. On the other hand anyone who bought a ticket for An Evening with Sir Willard White knew they weren’t in for an evening of Verdi and Wagner.
The situation was complicated (or possibly simplified) by the presence onstage of the Kymaera Duo, Shane Hill and Simon James, an experienced guitar duo whose roots lie, respectively, in jazz and Spanish music and whose albums tend towards smooth jazz and Latin jazz.
The whole thing was very relaxed, though one feels that relaxation only goes so far with Sir Willard. He explained why he was barefoot, forgot that Kymaera had an instrumental halfway through the first half and joked, “That was nothing like the ending we rehearsed” at the end of one number. For all that, he nailed his interpretations pretty solidly.
His programme began firmly in the classical style with Don Giovanni’s Serenade, Valentin’s aria from Faust (using the much-loved old translation, “Even bravest hearts may swell…”) and, best of all, Schubert’s Who is Sylvia?, delivered with poise and delicacy.
The question is where to go from there and Sir Willard’s tendency was to go for the sentimental end of the popular market, in other words, Chaplin’s Smile was given an over-dramatic reading that, in fairness, Sir Charles would probably have enjoyed. Things lightened considerably with a nice relaxed Embraceable You. I Got Plenty of Nothin’ brought the first half to a rousing conclusion, White’s only concession to his famous role of Porgy.
After the interval came It Don’t Mean a Thing, with White keeping up with the Kymaera, soloing with freedom and invention. A couple of Copland’s Old American Songs included a terrific version of The Dodger before sentiment returned via the skilled hands of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Listening to him hymning the delights of Some Enchanted Evening, it was easy to imagine yourself on Broadway in 1949, listening to the first Emile, star of the Metropolitan Opera, Ezio Pinza.
The difficulty with such shows is the choice of material. Speak Low, for instance, calls for a more intimate delivery, but the last of his encores, Ol’ Man River, full of drama and attack, found White’s voice in splendid shape at the end of the evening. The inclusion of only one Jamaican piece, by Bob Marley, was a disappointment.
The Kymaera Duo certainly played their part in the evening. If the accompaniment to some of the early pieces sounded a bit thin, they were soon into their stride, soloing with authority on some of the vocal pieces and revisiting their roots in three instrumental numbers, swapping lead and rhythm easily in Paco de Lucia and Django Reinhardt numbers.
Reviewed on 23rd June 2022.