Has-Been, Would-Be and If-Only-If

ItalyItaly Elio Pandolfi at the Teatro Ghione, Rome. 05.03.2013 (JB)

This was a trip down memory lane. Nostalgia without compromise, was the order of the day. Many of Mr Pandolfi’s fans are also his contemporaries, including the great actress, Valeria Valeri, who was leading the applause. Both are in their late eighties. (A friend in the know, has just corrected me: she is ninety one.) And bundles of energy. Elio Pandolfi is mostly revered for his “voices” : in Italy he was the voice of Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy fame) as well as Groucho Marx, Peter Ustinov and many others. He performed in Variety, live and on television, and in operetta. It was to this last art that this evening was largely focused.

The show shot me back to the age of seven when my grandfather took me to Blackpool Central Pier to an entertainment called Thanks for the Memory in which Randolph Sutton had brought out of retirement such great Edwardian Music Hall stars as Ella Shields and Gertie Gitana. I was balled over. Never, before or after, have I seen such powerful musical communication skills. We were sitting in the front row. When Ella Shields came on with her signature number, Burlington Bertie from Bow, dressed as a male toff, the white powder on her face, blew all over us. What a baptism into showbiz that was!

Elio Pandolfi’s speaking voice is still a lush, melodious, rich baritone. His singing voice is scarce; most of the singing is more spoken than sung. You will remember that Swarzkopf did the same thing in her last recitals: she would talk her way through the whole programme with only the faintest hint of singing, but then on the final encore she would open up with a very loud high note on a Richard Strauss lied. The audience went away convinced that that was what they had heard all night. How clever! Nothing better than people who know their business. And Pandolfi and Swarzkopf can give lessons in that.

Befitting the informality of the Pandolfi evening, there was no programme and no information, but I want to say that Mr Whatever-his-name-was (WHN) did rather a good job at the piano. It’s not his fault that the Teatro Ghione has a tricky acoustic and on stage it’s nearly impossible to hear any partner in your music-making. It was probably the fear of drowning out the soloist that caused WHN to underplay a lot of the time. That unfortunately, is never called for in this music.

Ghosts of Lehar, and Johann Strauss were nicely invoked, among scores of lesser-known Italian operetta composers. And if Pandolfi has only a shadow of a singing voice, it’s a shadow which is better than nothing. An old Music Hall song says, Better be a have-been than a never-was.

This music calls for self-effacement. And both Pandolfi and WHN missed this. I remember as a boy hearing broadcasts of Sidney Harrison playing and talking about music which was fundamentally the most almighty trash (There was a waltz called Destiny he used to trot out among others.) But his playing was so perfectly nuanced –somewhat tongue in cheek, no doubt, now that I think of it- you were persuaded you were listening to great music.

Pushed, Pandolfi and WHN should be able to deliver this. But subtle humour has never been a natural virtue of this wonderful nation. If only…….

Jack Buckley