What could go wrong? Three first class musicians in a light-hearted programme of songs for Bank Holiday Monday. Snape Maltings was full for The Bostridge Songbook, a selection of songs by Noel Coward, Kurt Weill and Cole Porter. But it was a pretty tepid evening.
The format was simple – a grand piano, a couple of chairs and a café table. In the second half, the same joined by a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses. In the hands of an energetic, imaginative team it could have worked. But by and large, Ian Bostridge sang all the life out of almost every number he attempted.
The songs of Noel Coward call for stage presence and delivery, two qualities that were distinctly lacking. Bostridge looked for most of the evening as if he was about to embark on Die Winterreise. Barely a smile in the first half, beautifully modulated tone as always, but absolutely no sense of sparkle or panache. The words of the songs he sang have to sit across the melodic line, the emphasis in Noel Coward is often to do with contour and pitch: not perfect delivery as in an art song. 'Parisian Pierrot' was a dirge. 'I travel alone' sounded oddly tentative. Matters improved when Sophie Daneman, looking every inch the diva, gave us 'Chase me Charlie', the song of an amorous cat. But true Noel Coward, he of the deft wit and wonderfully (self-taught) musical modulation, it was not.
It was not until we moved into Kurt Weill territory that a semblance of drama blossomed onstage. 'Mack the Knife' was sung by Bostridge in emphatic, menacing German but the highlight of this set was Daneman's 'Barbara Song', that unforgettable ballad of the poor girl and her unsuitable (but irresistible) lover. Daneman went into 'Sprechgesang' for the first time in the evening and it suddenly worked: the first real frisson in anything that had happened vocally onstage. Her switches between spoken/sung passages were different to the famous recording made (late in her life) by Lotte Lenya, but no less effective for that. But it was a mistake to finish the set with the 'Ballade vom angenehmen Leben', because musically the song peters out.
The second half (enlivened from the outset by misadventures with a champagne bottle) was an improvement, but not by that much. Daneman found lovely tone in 'If Love were all' and in the repeated downward phrase 'I believe' she achieved real rapport with the outstanding accompanist Julius Drake. Bostridge and Daneman then put their heads together (literally) and found a charming way of projecting 'Something to do with Spring', one of the evening's better numbers. But the Bostridge 'Night and Day' was flat as a pancake and it was not until Daneman's two successive numbers, 'In the Still of the Night' and 'The Tale of the Oyster', that the evening came briefly to life. The solitary encore (with a lapse of memory in the first couplet, necessitating a second start) was 'The Party's Over'. The trouble is, it never really began.
As an evening's stage entertainment, The Bostridge Songbook does not work. To be successful it calls for pace, charisma and humour galore. The only real energy of the evening came from Julius Drake, who played superbly throughout and who, in the Coward, pointed up all the humorous flashes of inspiration that were sadly lacking in Bostridge in particular. In terms of the partnership, Daneman revealed an attractive stage personality and could have been a foil for an elegant, debonair male partner. But that aspect of performance never got going. Light entertainment repackaged as art and delivered in a po-faced manner really is not that much fun at all.