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Mansion House
06/28/2000 -  
Jacques Offenbach Dick Whittington and his Cat
John Suchet (narrator), Sally Bruce-Payne (Dick Whittington), Constance Hauman (Alice/Princess Hirvaia), Nerys Jones (Dorothy), Russell Smythe (Fitzwarren/King Bambouli), Kevin West (MacPibroch/Bell ringger), Christian Immler (Sargeant/Captain Bobstay)
City of London Sinfonia, Joyful Company of Singers
Cem Mansur (conductor)

Jacques Offenbach's Dick Whittington and his Cat was the hit of the 1874-75 London pantomime season, but hasn't been performed since, perhaps because Trial by Jury appeared immediately afterwards. The City of London Festival neatly presented a concert version in the Mansion House, the home of the Lord Mayor of London, which is what Dick Whittington became at the end of his adventures. Although Whittington is essentially popular and the Mansion House is utterly grand, the classical decor  and heroic statues by Victorian RAs (among them A Bard, closely related to Michaelangelo's Moses) share with the operetta an unshakeably confident derivativeness.

Offenbach's only setting of an English text (by HB Farnie) is almost flawlessly idiomatic, linguistically and theatrically. He uses a number of traditional tunes, in the manner of the ballad operas, Rossini-style arias and duets for lovers, and smidgens of German romantic Anglaiserie. The putative drama is in a continuous line from Purcell's King Arthur, a narrative of distant origins (a hero of the City instead of the nation), with some mild moralizing and several irrelevent set pieces, including a pastoral ("Corn Field Near London"). There are some gentle foreshadowings of Gilbert and Sullivan in both comic themes (ordinary bods catapaulted into government, for examples) and music, though Sullivan's brilliant pastiche of contemporary music is missing. And Offenbach's music has an endearing streak of vulgarity which is spot on for panto.

The alleged plot concerns (in this version) an apprentice, Dick, who falls in love with his master's daughter Alice. Her father takes against Dick and his cat and tries to have Dick arrested. Dick flees, after a look at London from Highgate to fit in with a variant version of the story, to a ship headed for the Pacific. Most of the other characters except Alice end up on the ship as well, and they are all shipwrecked and forced to become government ministers. The cat saves the island from rats, the king's daughter falls in love with Dick, and her father takes them all back to London as a reward. Dick and the cat locate Alice and rescue her and her father from poverty (the sunken ship had all his money invested in it) and Dick becomes Lord Mayor of London.

The cat, alas, did not appear tonight, although she is the real hero and gets two numbers sung in her praise. The dialogue, presumably in excruciating rhymes, was replaced by a narrative loaded with mistimed off-the-news jokes read by David Suchet. Several of the singers doubled roles, distinguishing their characters handily with hats.

The City of London Sinfonia sounded good, boisterous though perhaps not raucous enough for proper panto. The room was a long way from ideal for the singer, and it was often difficult to hear the words, which spoiled most of the fun. (What exactly was it that King Bambouli served as great British cuisine?) Sally Bruce-Payne looked ready for a bit of swashbuckling as Dick, and sounded suitably swaggering as well. Contance Hauman was cute and fluent as Alice and the island princess, and Nerys Jones as Dorothy the cook, who gets taken along to the Pacific to provide another mezzo in the ensembles, sang a fine homesick number. Russell Smythe, Kevin West and Christian Immler (a late substitute) provided versatile comic and musical support.

H.E. Elsom



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