No, this is not the Case of the Spy who Sang. From August 5 to 11, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot appeared every evening at 54Below, a supper club which, true to its name, is in a basement on 54th Street, just off of Broadway. I read about it somewhere and was consumed by curiosity regarding this Brazilian whom, although he has made a very respectable name for himself in the opera world, I had never heard.
I tried to persuade my faithful companion Oboe d’Amore to come with me, but nothing doing. A much worse musical snob than I am, he turned his nose up at the prospect of listening to an opera star turned Broadway celebrity and now cabaret singer. But his disdain was not enough to deter me, I heard much good about Szot’s splendid voice and, although I‘ve always been wary of crossover, I decided to give it a shot – sorry, that one was absolutely irresistible…
He is far from the first to venture into a different genre from the one he trained for. As I said, I don’t think I have ever witnessed a case of successful mutation. At least not when the artist sticks to his original genre and goes back and forth from bel canto or classical music to jazz, musicals or pop. You have people like Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck or Keith Jarrett who did succeed, totally and masterfully. But they crossed over permanently, or almost. Friedrich Gulda also tried, but was far less convincing a jazz pianist than a classical one. Closer to us, Daniel Barenboim and Yo Yo Ma have made pop recordings of tango and bossa nova, a pleasant and skillful diversion, but not one they will, in my humble opinion, be remembered for. Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras also dabbled in the pop and folk repertoire, each on his own and the three together, achieving huge popular success as the Three Tenors, and nobody can blame them, or any other of these artists, for giving in to the joy of reaching out to bigger crowds and, I’m trying not to be too vulgar as I say this, to the tinkle of extra cash. Szot, after all, was only following in the footsteps of the great Ezio Pinza, and although I did not see the revival of South Pacific, I imagine he must have done a splendid job to earn a Tony award.
54Below is as pleasant a place as an underground supper club can be. I would even say that if you like that kind of ambience, it is a great place. The décor is phony vintage belle époque, a little on the tacky and chintzy side, but not too bad. One sits at communal tables, a little uncomfortable when they start bringing the food on big platters which they have trouble fitting on the narrow tables. But the food is quite good and the service extremely friendly and efficient, and by the time the show starts everything is safely out of the way.
We were serendipitously seated next to two Broadway critics who meant business. I watched them making notes throughout the performance, feeling slightly incompetent myself, but I suppose each person has her own method and mine is the gut approach, I rely recklessly on instinct and memory – much like Buenos Aires waiters who never write down an order and somehow always get it right in the end.
Thus, we had finished dinner when the lights dimmed in the room and blazed on the stage to reveal a piano, bass and drums trio, whose instruments had of course already given them away. I heard one of the critics murmur that the pianist was a wunderkind, which was indeed the case. In fact, the three musicians, pianist Matthew Aucoin, bassist David Finck and percussionist David Ratajczak were top notch, which was immediately obvious as they expertly delivered an introductory Gershwin, after which an extremely loud and beautiful baritone resounded behind my back in “Summertime”- Szot entered dramatically making his way through the tables and the audience, smiling profusely, the consummate charmer. As he got up on the stage, I realized that his great voice is accompanied by an ideal operatic physique, probably great for Don Giovanni, Almaviva, Figaro, Germont or Onegin, to name only a few. The trouble, for me, was that, cabaret-style, he was using a microphone and his powerful singing was unbearably loud. Surely, for a man used to singing in vast opera houses, the mike was totally dispensable in such intimate surroundings. I also found his attire rather tacky – a dark suit and white shirt, ok, but with a half open collar adorned with a narrow glittery tie. A col roulé or just the white shirt with no tie would have suited the occasion far better.
And again, the specter of crossover. Although this man is a fabulous singer with a gorgeous voice, magnificent technique and impressive presence, I believe his qualities are just not suited to the repertoire. His act was well rehearsed and he made pleasant stage chitchat, but it sounded all rather contrived to me. Some of the songs were beautiful, others bored me stiff. Surprisingly, he completely missed the point by being very heavy-handed in the Brazilian songs, which require a mellow, plaintive voice and a very special beat. A medley sung after jokingly producing a book called “Broadway Hits for Non-English Speaking Singers”or something like that was, along with the instrumental solos, the best part of the evening.
Luckily, Szot will return to the Met, where I suspect he belongs, for a production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose”, which I will do my best not to miss. Musicals and cabaret acts I can definitely do without. I should have listened to Oboe d’Amore’s sensible advice.