`South Pacific' disc with opera, jazz, and Broadway singers

If you happen to be a fan of the original cast album of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic ``South Pacific,'' CBS Masterworks's new version (MK 42205 - 1 CD), with an all-star cast, will offer considerable pleasures as well as several problems. This new ``South Pacific'' tries to meld singers from the worlds of opera (Kiri Te Kanawa and Jos'e Carreras), jazz (Sarah Vaughan), and Broadway (Mandy Patinkin) in one glamour package. Unfortunately, it is an uneven mixture. The album seems stilted - perhaps the good folks at CBS tried too hard to create an event, rather than just let one happen. Nevertheless, one emerges from listening to this set with renewed admiration for the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and that is all the tribute any recording needs.

That original cast album - with Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, William Tabbert, and Juanita Hall - is a classic in its own right. Many people - this writer included - have the sound of those voices etched in their memories. Therefore, tenor Carreras singing Emile Debecque will take a lot of getting used to, no matter how effective Carreras actually is. The wholesome Midwestern twang that comes so effortlessly to Mary Martin is simply out of Te Kanawa's grasp, try as she does to flatten her Commonwealth accent and sing through her nose.

Both singers, however, are in better voice and are more convincing in their respective roles than they were on Leonard Bernstein's recording of his ``West Side Story'' for Deutsche Grammophon. Despite the oddities of that set, it was a huge hit. Clearly, CBS was not going to stand by and let that pairing go to waste, hence this ``South Pacific.''

Ironically, the one person who should have been ideal - Mandy Patinkin - sounds mannered and sings in his thinnest and crooniest voice. Whereas one can say that Carreras manages to make one believe Debecque could be a tenor rather than a rich bass, Patinkin proves that a weighty, almost operatic tenor such as Tabbert's, is requisite for Lt. Cable's ``Younger Than Springtime'' and ``You've Got to be Carefully Taught.''

And then there is the case of Miss Vaughan. Juanita Hall sang Bloody Mary's music straight; Vaughan ``interprets.'' She shrewdly styles and sculpts the songs ``Bali Ha'i'' and ``Happy Talk'' to fit her voice in its current, flawed state. If one is willing to accept her personal interpretation amid a cast that sings everything as written - and this writer is - then her Bloody Mary will be received in the dynamic spirit in which it is performed.

The London Symphony Orchestra makes often sumptuous sounds, yet never once does it have the spontaneity of a Broadway pit band. The digital recording - particularly on CD - is all one could ask for in terms of richness and tonal warmth. Jonathan Tunick, Broadway's leading orchestrator, conducts and is also responsible for touching up the original Richard Russell Bennett orchestrations. As the original '49 cast album was recorded with the time limitations of 78s in mind, we hear a lot of new music (mostly introductions and lead-ins) that verges on becoming too much of a good thing.

But to these ears, what is really missing from this often wonderful production has nothing to do with the performers themselves. Only by watching the generally dull new CBS/FOX video tape ``South Pacific: The London Sessions,'' can one discover that producer Jeremy Lubbock must be blamed for the stilted aura. He consistently encourages his singers towards self-consciousness rather than naturalness. It may work for a recording of ``My Fair Lady'' (which is reputed to be next on the docket for Te Kanawa), but it robs this most American of shows of idiomatic veracity.

Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.