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Valley of Song ...finally

The homeland of Anna in The King and I, which she described as "a civilized land called Wales," with a side trip to Venice are the settings for a little-known, never-recorded score that deserves to be more known—and embraced.

Available at and at Dress Circle

The "Better Late than Never" category of recordings of scores by major writers often has as its explanation that the show appeared before cast albums were commonly done. This one is nowhere near as ancient as the early works of the Gershwins, Porter, Coward or Kern and his collaborators which were belatedly preserved, in original or revised reconstruction, by studio casts on labels such as PS Classics. The 1951 sudden death of composer Ivor Novello, on a night when he was performing in one of his own shows, came while he was in the midst of composing Valley of Song. Thus, it was left in the valley of limbo, but others later adapted the music and added to it, preparing a piece of property released to the amateur market late in the next decade. Why professional companies operating in the world of operetta have not pounced on it with regularity is a mystery to me, as it's quite the delight and in the league of—or a couple of cuts above—other scores of the genre. And one would think the historic reality of a successful composer's final (albeit unfinished) work would have stoked the fires of curiosity to have this sweet confection come to more stages or disc. Past recordings of isolated songs had piqued my interest.

The charming, quite solid cast album of this Finborough Theatre production presented by the WestEnders should keep the ball rolling. That little theatre is in Britain, where Novello is more familiar a name, if not a household one anymore. The composer, also a major film actor/matinee idol in his day, comes to musical mavens' memories when his notably sentimental, songs—sturdy or sweet—come out of their lamentably mothballed storage vaults. Since his 1998 centenary, for example, there have been CD re-packagings recycling old recordings and the occasional newly sung nods. The year 2012 saw a few such packages, and a cast album of Gay's the Word was reissued in 2005, with a revival cast album appearing (and reviewed here) just last year. Some may know Novello's name more for the annual British awards titled in his honor or his being a character in the film Gosford Park, which also used his songs.

Valley of Song seems to heartily hold its sacred ground as a determined but darling dinosaur; it's very much old-school uber-romantic operetta. It is about as 1951-ish as many an older relic of Sigmund Romberg or contemporary Noël Coward at his stuffiest or fluffiest. Brimming with amiable tunefulness, the "hummable" factor wins out and the frothy escapism casts its spell. As is often the case with this kind of score, the lilting and brisk melodies shine more than their lyrics, which tend to the prim and proper. Ploddingly "poetic" proclamations of undying idyllic love and dying for love to be requited will be perceived by some of today's listeners as somewhere between quaint and corny. Those of us with a higher tolerance for what they dismiss as musical high fructose corn syrup will find both melodies and words to instead be tasty refined sugar. But despite somewhat typically clunky cardboard characters who come across as archetypes with precious little distinct personality or detail, singing their fluttering hearts out, there's some spice and welcome humor in the mix. All this brings us to the collaborators, such as the lyricist whose name is relegated to small print on the back cover while Novello's name is billed prominently above the title on the front. The man in question is Christopher Hassall, who wrote several musicals with the composer and, unsurprisingly, was also a poet. He was also an actor and Novello's understudy when their collaboration began.

The CD package includes the lyrics, and that's helpful because it can be tough to catch them all, with the challenges of some being sung in counterpoint, with the accents of this more than capable cast from Great Britain, and much being handled by the ensemble, at times layered with the leading lady's obbligato "Ahhhhhh"-ing over them, and decorative flourishes and embellishments from an orchestra. There as some repeated sung lines, such as echoed ending statements, that are not strictly repeated in the tiny-font print. Nor are the included spoken lines at the beginning of a number or, much more commonly, between sections. The book is the work of Phil Park (1907-1978). Ronald Hanmer (1917-1994) has a credit line that reads "Music adapted and arranged, and additional material by ..." Alas, neither the packaging nor press release specify which numbers may have been completed by Novello, which were tweaked or fleshed out, and what may be largely or fully the handiwork of Hanmer or the lyricist. Sources state that Hassall took over to finish the work and that Hanmer and Park further shaped it for the amateur market /publication.

The happenings in the not-so-groundbreaking plot happen to take place 100 years ago, with the penultimate set pieces set at Christmas of 1914 as the choir and its leader first sing about what carol to croon and then present a tender re-telling of the Wise Men approaching the baby Jesus, "The Bundle in the Hay," in what could easily step outside the score and become a yuletide item on its own. This gentle and appealing melody is matched to an elegantly worded ode embraced by the choir ("Right glad are they to enter the byre / Such a sweetheart bundle for to see/ So small a babe. Yet girded with pow'r!/ What miracle can this be?"). Not just in this reverent rhapsodizing, but in many spots, this is very much a choir sound, as opposed to a more musical comedy ensemble chorus congregation of actor-singers. It's more about lovely blending, harmonies, divisions of voices by gender in different sections and then satisfying unison reunions. So, the perhaps acquired-taste choir sound can be beautiful ... but anonymously narrative, rather than ever crackling with character or robust energy like the lively townspeople of many spunkier musical. This often works sufficiently and can be sonically satisfying, more along the lines of the atmospheric chorale introducing the moods of Lerner and Loewe's dreamy world of Brigadoon, but not on that level of exquisiteness. The "Ensemble" credits list consists of 10 voices, including musical director Adam Morris and two who have solo featured roles. They are Gareth Snook (veteran of several Trevor Nunn productions in England), also playing a major character, and Harrison Rose, with a small assignment playing a reporter in the early quartet about the emporium with items' prices being "Nothing Over Sixpence."

The opening and ending scenes are in the beloved verdant valleys of Wales, Novello's birthplace and home to many of the choir members. The rest of the story takes place in Italy, where the emporium's retiring entrepreneur retreats, accompanied by a retinue of her staff and a singer, seeking some more fame and fortune, named Lily, leaving the valley, too. (Valley of Song had been titled—you guessed it—Lily of the Valley.) As in many a romance-idealized-driven device of a storyline, our leading lady has two suitors: the pining, devoted one and the seemingly more dashing and exciting one who is (spoiler alert) conniving and nowhere near as sincere. David (the devoted) eventually follows Lily to Venice where she is to sing in an ill-starred supposedly star-making production promised by Ricardo (the rascal).

Soprano Katy Treharne has the glass-smooth voice with high notes for the lilting Lily numbers. One number that survived semi-obscurity through recordings is "Look in My Heart" ("... for it belongs, love, to you!") wherein leading lady Lily (and later with Ricardo) also proclaims with such flowery syntax as "Rapture is mine, past all comparing!/ Blue skies above, Smiling at me/ Tell me my love will be my love forever/ Leave me never." This drifts to the ear vaguely as a combination of a seemingly interchangeable exchange by cinema sweethearts Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy and Rodgers & Hart's "Blues Skies" ("Blue skies/ Smiling at me/ Nothing but blue skies do I see"). But it's all gloriously glistening, in treatments not as overblown and anything-but-subtle declarations often heard in other works of this type.

Linford Hayes (earnest and steadfast as David) and Gareth Snook (with some panache and showboating—I wish he'd gone further that way) as Ricardo contrast appropriately in voice and personae. Among the many ingratiating and cozy numbers are Lily and David's warm "I Know a Valley" ("... where the birds sing all day/ Deep in a land of legend, far away/ Warm, leafy lanes are there,/ Summer clouds are gliding ...) and a piece called "Sail Away."

While some selections are indulgent in the land of lush and mush (in a good way for we who have a soft spot for such nostalgia-drenched wooing and wailing), spunkier tunes with a bit of sass—happily—make this more than worth its weight in feathers and frills. I love the pep of the lively "Step by Step" inducement to march along with the brigade and "Sing!" about different nations' "recreations" that suggest a Cole Porter-ish sense of fun. Sample lyric: "In Switzerland,/ I understand/ They yodel in the street./What rumour says/ They do in Fez/ I'd rather not repeat." And, of course, in the wonderland Wales, "Music never fails." The jauntier, feistier material goes to the supporting characters, with particular relish evident in the work of Lee Van Geleen, who gets a lot to gleefully sink his teeth into. The other earthier women—played with style by Jill Nalder, Sandy Walsh, and Amira Matthews—each has her moment to vocally strut and sashay, but their combined commiserating about men ("Where Do We Go from There?") takes the prize ("Some men are torrid,/ Flamboyant and florid;/ Some equally horrid,/ Are colder than fish...").

This 2014 endeavor produced and directed by Benji Sperring in a small space, with modest musician staffing, gets expanded with the engagement of an orchestra of a dozen players, including three trumpeters and five string players. Jae Alexander is musical supervisor. Two of Novello's most famous songs also show up on the disc, in generous helpings, for good measure(s): The male voices appear to "Keep the Home Fires Burning (Till the Boys Come Home)"—1914 lyric by Lena Gilbert Ford—midway through "Soldier Lad" and then the two combine in counterpoint. As a bonus track, the choir sings a restrained, classy "We'll Gather Lilacs" (from 1945, another World War, another hit). Like some other selections, it has more loveliness than oomph. But there may have been a memo gotten by all concerned here to be cautiously conservative in creating the ambience of perfumed dreaminess when the more "dear" tone is wanted and good old, old-fashioned sincerity is being fashioned. Take it all with a grain of sugar.

The release of this recording after all these decades means a time for celebrating. As its finale reprise optimistically opines, "When Bells of Peace are ringing/ Their joyful message bringing/ Then there'll be singing all day long/ In our Valley of Song!"

- Rob Lester

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