ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Great American Songbook – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Singers: Quirijn de Lang & Sandra Piques Eddy

Opera singers performing popular songs, especially if they see themselves as ad hoc jazz singers, can be embarrassing, but, with the occasional exception, Opera North’s programme of The Great American Songbook avoided the pitfalls. For a start Quirijn de Lang is these days the company’s go-to lead for music theatre, from Kiss Me Kate to A Little Night Music. The splendidly versatile Sandra Piques Eddy, last seen in these parts in Monteverdi, is due to partner de Lang in this season’s Trouble in Tahiti by Leonard Bernstein. Then de Lang cleverly crafted a programme that emphasised show tunes more than jazzy standards: lots of Weill, for instance, a touch of Jerome Kern, Borodin (well, borrowed from in Kismet), Rodgers with Hammerstein as well as with Hart.

Most important of all, he developed a simple, dialogue-free story-line so that they were singing as characters, not as themselves – for such adept stage actors, it made a difference. The front half of the audience sat at restaurant-style tables, there was also a table with two chairs on stage and a lounge singer bounded to the microphone and launched into Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Both Quirijn de Lang (for it was he) and the clarinet-and-rhythm quartet sounded a bit frantic, trying too hard to be hip. But then things settled. The mike was removed and de Lang sat morosely at the table by an empty chair and sang My Lady Won’t be Here Tonight, a completely obscure song that proved the perfect choice to kick off the story.

Sandra Piques Eddy made a striking entrance through the audience to Weill’s ambiguous I’m a Stranger Here Myself (another great choice) and they were off, he seated, world-weary, depressed, she animated and mobile. It wasn’t until the eighth number that they shared a song – and what a song! Frank Loesser’s I’ll Know does nothing expected, ironic, sentimental, wistful, with an elusively simple melody – when is Opera North going to do Guys and Dolls? The first genuine duet was another wonderful song, Make Believe from Show Boat – now Opera North did do that – unforgettably! De Lang and Eddy revelled in the operatic tinge to Kern’s music, poised between Viennese operetta and the jazz age in America. That introduced a joyous trio of duets to the interval, De Lang and Eddy dancing through the audience for a delicious Let’s Do It, after the Tiger Lillies the night before a second chance to hear the immortal line, “Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it.”

The second half was more straightforward. The restaurant table was replaced by a bench and the outdoor mood established as De Lang and Eddy strolled in crooning By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Songs were now mostly very familiar and even in the solos the rapport between the singers was obvious. Some impeccable choices, too, from the self-mocking sentiment of I’ve Got a Crush on You to Bewitched, the greatest example of Lorenz Hart’s bruised sensibility. As love triumphed in a medley from Of Thee I Sing, what was there not to like?

The partnership between Quirijn de Lang and Sandra Piques Eddy augurs well for the main house Bernstein production, especially as Antony Hermus, the conductor of that show, was pianist and leader of the neat and sprightly quartet for The Great American Songbook.

Reviewed on October 10th 2021

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