A White House Cantata
(with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner)
Thomas Hampson; June
Anderson; Barbra Hendricks; Kenneth Tarver; London Voices and London Symphony
Orchestra conducted by Kent Naganor
DG 463 448-2
Leonard Bernstein offers a history of the White House without tears. In fact
this concert version of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the musical play,
"The Show that Got Away" as one observer remarked, is an attractive compendium
of vaudeville, formal classical, 19th century dance and West Side
Story-like styles. Hopefully, this excellent recording should help to
really establish this appealing work for there is much to enjoy in its charting
of the activities and personalities of the Presidents and their First Ladies
from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt.
Thomas Hampson sings the role of all the Presidents with ironic humour as
well as staunch authority. In the opening number, as George Washington he
convinces contentious Congressional delegates that the capital city should
be set within 'Ten Square Miles of the Potomac River' and almost by accident
the capital is named after himself. This is a very witty piece with vaudeville
overtones and a catchy march. More wit and fun follow in 'The Thomas Jefferson
Sunday Luncheon March'. As James Buchanan, Hampson is stupidly evasive turning
from the prospect of Civil War - "Those endless petitions, For guns and
munitions, Are driving me up the wall, One would think, we're on the brink!
We must have a ball.". Finally he is affectingly noble in the concluding
aria as President Theodore Roosevelt singing, "To burn with pride, And not
with shame, Each time I hear My country's name
This land needs love
To make us proud."
June Anderson is all the First Ladies and she colours her voice according
to all their widely differing characters. She shines, as Abigail Adams in
her lovely recitative and aria, 'Take Care of this House' as she pleads with
the coloured servant, Lud, to watch over the leaky House as it is being built
Be always on call, For this house is the hope of us all". As Eliza
Monroe, she gently but firmly admonishes her President as they try in vain
to sleep worrying over the cares of state. She tartly remarks, "Did reason
supply That little white lie
A Negro shall equal three-fifths of a
You framed the Constitution, Framed the Blacks!" And in 'Duet
for One' she splendidly handles the spiteful catty exchange between warring
prospective First Ladies, Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes.
The story also embraces a history of Lud, the black manservant at the White
House sung ardently by Kenneth Tarver. To music very reminiscent of the romantic
ballads and Latin numbers from West Side Story he sings of his love
for 'Seena' and celebrates his, 'Lud's Wedding'. Seena, is sung by Barbara
Hendricks. Her big number is 'This Time' in which she eloquently expresses
her fears to Lud for his safety because the streets of Washington have become
dangerous as Civil War approaches.
Mention must also be made of another great set piece 'Sonatina' with music
that is very formal in 18th century classical style for the viewpoint of
the British soldiers who occupy the capital during the war of 1812. They
pounce on a feast left by the retreating President James Madison and sing
their drinking song to the tune of 'The Star-spangled banner' which as the
English General Cockburn (a pompous Neil Jenkins), remarks, "Which lately'
I am told, These Yanks have plagiarized." Enjoying their feast they rejoice
at the sight of the White House in flames "Gaze through the window At the
sweetest dish I know Called Washington falmbée". But then a deluge
of rain (historically documented) saves day.
A fine entertainment and a firm recommendation.