06 March 2013

Sarah Rice at 54 Below

This and other photos from an earlier gig at 54 Below.

With her sparkling soprano voice and crystalline diction, Sarah Rice took the audience at 54 Below on a journey back in time on Sunday night, to the between-the-wars era of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, as she’d promised. As it happens, this was also an era when sparkling voices and crystalline diction were absolutely necessary to perform the songs of English theater composers. I daresay Rice’s skills and artistry would be admired at any point in history, but back in the day, producers simply couldn’t mount a show at all without finding someone like her.

The Downton fad may fade — I’m still assessing the backlash to the Plot Development that ended Season 3 — but Rice made a persuasive case for the songs she brought to 54 Below. They’re important, they’re meaningful, and we’ve lost touch with too many of them. The sly wit and ever-present melancholy that pervade this music tell us what it’s like when the dawn of a new century begins to dim, when empires are smaller than they seemed, when the causes you fought for turn out to be something other than what you believed, and the victories you won make less difference than you hoped — and still you have to carry on. (Not that anybody in the United States in 2013 could identify with such feelings.)

So it’s to be hoped that the 54 Below gig was just the first of many for this act, with or without the Downton label. A welcome showcase for Sarah Rice’s voice and charming presence, “Glamorous Nights & Careless Rapture” is also an introduction to music that’s as enlightening as it is entertaining.

Noël Coward’s music, while very much occupying a niche of its own, is still heard from time to time, but the lion’s share of Rice’s program went to the work of Ivor Novello, a superstar in his own time now fallen into such neglect that Rice had to air-lift the sheet music out of Britain, with barely three days to prepare for her act.

Rice gave us a good sampling of Novello’s range, from “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (surely his best-known song) to the romance of “Someday My Heart Will Awake” and the comedy of “And Her Mother Came, Too” (cleverly updated as “And His Roommate Came, Too”), as well as several others, including the “Glamorous Night” and “Why Is There Ever Good-bye?,” a number from Careless Rapture, which together inspired the title of the act. Three numbers represented Coward: the perfumed “Zigeuner,” and back-to-back renditions of “If Love Were All” and “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” a profoundly poignant combination. Between numbers, Rice sketched the outlines of Novello’s career, with a special emphasis on his relationship with the younger, rather envious Coward.

A handful of songs by other writers elicited big laughs from the audience: Cole Porter’s “When I Was a Little Cuckoo,” as well as two kindred classics, “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden” and “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty.” A haunting Irish ballad, “She Moved Through the Fair,” suggested what the folks downstairs at Downton might have sung.

Not the first time Rice has worked
with young violinist Jonathan Russell.

Rice has been learning to play the theremin, and she favored us with the Doretta song from Puccini’s La Rondine (fondly remembered even by non-opera fans from the film A Room with a View, aptly enough another Maggie Smith vehicle). But not only in her theremin playing is Sarah Rice an atypical diva: she even invited another soprano to join her onstage, none other than the legendary Marni Nixon, who confided that, over the course of her distinguished career, she actually dubbed the sound of a theremin in movies such as Daughter of Horror. Who knew? The ladies’ duet, Novello’s “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” evoked tender sentiments above and beyond the context of the song, much as “One Last Kiss” (from Sondheim’s Follies) never fails to do.

A trio of excellent instrumentalists backed up Rice and performed the opening number: the theme to Downton Abbey, of course. Seth Weinstein commanded from the piano, and Maria Banks summoned up irresistible atmosphere on harp. Jonathan Russell’s nimble, flavorful violin playing was altogether admirable for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that the kid is 17 years old.

Throughout the evening, Rice’s tone remained secure, beautifully placed and cleanly projected, and even in her highest registers (which are indeed very high), every lyric hit home. As I say, this material is an ideal fit for her, and even if crowds of other artists were singing it nowadays, it’s hard to imagine anybody doing it better. This occasion deserves further hearings.


Anonymous said...

I wish I had been there.

-- Rick

Anonymous said...

As much as I enjoy certain posts, there is so much more you could cover. You do know that Tuesday was Pier Paolo Pasolini's birthday? I can't help wondering what it would be like to read an appreciation (or for that matter a critique) of Pasolini on this blog.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Rick. I did celebrate Pasolini's birthday this year, as it happens, but since I'm still finishing the Madeline Kahn biography, my time for blog-writing is necessarily limited. There are plenty of topics I'd like to address -- and with luck, I shall -- but later, later. (Not too much later, I hope.)