MUSIC / The world of Wooster: Arthur Jacobs reports on neglected works by Villa- Lobos and Edward German at a festival of light opera in Ohio

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The Independent Culture
WITH un-American modesty, the small town of Wooster, Ohio, fails to proclaim itself the world capital of operetta. But where else, in an annual summer season of nine weeks, could you see seven shows from the British, French, Viennese and American traditions of musical theatre, with Villa-Lobos's Magdalena as this year's exotic ingredient?

The Ohio Light Opera appears under the auspices of the College of Wooster, but is still a professional presentation. A troupe of 32 singers at an early stage of their careers is supported by a youthful orchestra of about the same number, the singers forming the chorus when not performing solo parts. Under the direction of James Stuart, a veteran performer and teacher, the productions in general adhere to the librettists' original ideas of location, action, dance and costumes - a traditionalism which is positively bold in today's climate. Fans are flapped in unison and parasols are twirled in The Mikado, unfortunately in a staging which is symmetrical to the point of paralysis. But the British legacy is more boldly taken up in Edward German's Tom Jones (1907), a work which the British have long consigned to amateur performances.

In a prettily pictured setting, with singing and dancing equally vigorous, the score of Tom Jones proves to have not merely charm but a surprising robustness. We should perhaps stop tagging German as a follower of Sullivan, who died in 1900, and recognise him as the contemporary and British counterpart of Lehar.

Filleted from Fielding's novel, the libretto agreeably contrasts fashionable London with the countryside, the latter involving a concocted 'Zummerzet' dialect which the American cast manages without too many tumbles. The composer's cleverly worked ensembles and rich orchestration are cherished in Steven Byess's conducting, and high-profiled contributions come from the principals. It seemed a minor drawback that the leading soprano lacked glitter in the once-celebrated 'Waltz Song', a throw-back to Gounod which ices a substantial cake.

From there to Magdalena is a leap not only across the Atlantic but from the operetta to the musical. Robert Wright and George Forrest, having already pillaged Borodin and Grieg respectively for Kismet and Song of Norway, sought permission from Villa-Lobos to raid his music for a similar contribution, and were rewarded by the 60-year-old composer's decision to write an original score instead. The short opening run on Broadway in 1948 had no sequel, however, until a New York concert performance in 1987 and the CBS-Sony recording based on it. The Ohio Light Opera's production is the first professional stage revival.

The river Magdalena, flowing down from the Andes, takes a symbolic role in a story which switches between the poverty of Colombia and the corrupt luxury of Paris. The moral of any such show today would be ecological; here it is more vaguely poor / good versus rich / bad, with a religious element in a stolen statue of the Madonna. If the score is uncertain in pace and lacks obvious hit tunes, it reaffirms Villa-Lobos as a master of multi-layered harmonies with a wholly individual palette of beguiling sound.

James Stuart's production comes understandably short of a Broadway fizz, as does the operatically conditioned orchestra under Evan Whallon's beat. The proper caricatured style for Carabana, the gourmandising general, and his mistress Teresa is achieved too late. But finally Carabana (John Muriello) satisfyingly dies at dinner, leaving the moral victory to Maria, chief of the villagers - a stunning performance by Julie Wright.

In their different ways both these scores make a claim to be heard professionally in Britain - or on the near-professional level exhibited in musicals at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Meanwhile, until 9 August, the Ohio Light Opera beckons one to Wooster.