Bernstein: A White House Cantata

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bernstein
LABELS: DG
WORKS: A White House Cantata
PERFORMER: Thomas Hampson (baritone), June Anderson, Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Kenneth Tarver (tenor); London Voices, LSO/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: 463 448-2
It took a certain audacity to think that a musical on the story of the first hundred years of the White House and the abolition of slavery acted out as a rehearsal would work on stage. And Lerner and Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue duly bombed: ‘stultifyingly ponderous’ came the reviews. But according to one of its first performers, Patricia Routledge, it was a ‘diamond-studded dinosaur’, and in the composer’s concert adaptation as A White House Cantata we hear all the diamonds.

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Bernstein had a field day: musical jokes include the perfect 18th-century pastiche ‘Sonatina’ as the Brits storm the White House in 1812, the hilarious duet of quarrelling First Ladies (June Anderson is amusing, but Routledge must have been perfect), the exuberant waltz on the eve of the Civil War, delivered with stylish gusto by Hampson, and the ridiculous ‘President Jefferson Luncheon March’. There are also some lyric gems: the love song ‘Seena’ and calypso ‘Lud’s Wedding’ are given warm performances by the excellent Kenneth Tarver as the black servant. Barbara Hendricks is perhaps over-polite as his wife and the promising young Victor Acquah is also a little too careful in his delivery and un-American. Neil Jenkins and Keel Watson inject some welcome individuality into their characters, as do London Voices.

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Lerner’s libretto, shorn of its moralising rehearsal speeches, has a specially sophisticated comic tone achieved by cutting grand gestures down to size. The emotional heart of the work is a nighttime exchange between James Monroe and his wife, whose accusation ‘You framed the blacks!’ is doubly effective for being pillow talk. The side-swipes at capitalism – ‘We loves de country an’ de people an’ such/You gotta love ’em all to screw ’em so much!’ – show no signs of dating. Despite its grandly affirmative ending, the work is by no means the simplistic ‘bicentennial bore’ it was once dismissed as. It’s a clever, biting work of great musical charm and all praise to DG, Nagano and the LSO for bringing it finally to a wider audience.