Benjamin Britten | Jamie McDermott | Conor Mitchell – Cabaret Songs at RomaEuropa Festival 2014

Teatro Eliseo on 15 October 2014

Italy still languishes behind almost all its European neighbours in recognition of gay rights, so much so that when the Mayor of Bologna, amongst others, recently started registering foreign gay marriages at the local municipality, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano sent out a circular ordering all Italian municipalities to remove these gay marriages from their registries. Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino has promised he’ll defy this ruling and personally officiate at the registration of foreign gay marriages in the city this weekend. These registrations remain essentially “symbolic”, however, with no pending legislation on a national level in the offing. I am saying all this in order to properly understand and contextualize the impact of a performer like Jamie McDermott, who made a welcome return to Rome this week, and how his exploration of the history of gay song writing in the twentieth century, though a sophisticated selection of Cabaret Songs, inspired by the music of Benjamin Britten and the words of WH Auden, truly comes as a breath of fresh air in Italy. Most of the love songs to men in this show were, after all, written at a time of homosexual illegality, with the repression of homosexual desire their driving force. In this show McDermott throws the closet doors wide open with his gorgeous re-imagining of the Britten/Auden compositions.

Teatro Eliseo was magically transformed into an intimate nightclub, as McDermott appeared, not on stage during the opening number - Fallen Out of Love with You, a WH Auden piece, set to music by contemporary composer Conor Mitchell – but instead among the audience, moving through the red velvet seats, as if from table to table in some Berlin nightlife joint. It was the perfect start to what would be an elegant, refined, and also at turns poignant, funny, and wilfully camp evening. Admittedly, the performance wasn’t free of minor technical glitches – microphone problems, a music stand falling over – but these things only seemed to endear McDermott even more to the Rome audience, who had already been seduced by his glorious voice, with its operatic vibrato and soaring falsetto. Pianist Stephen Higgins – a dexterous and sensitive foil to McDermott’s vocals - also delighted us with his new Italian lyrics to Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It.

Musical highlights for me were Noel Coward’s achingly lovely Mad About the Boy, with new explicitly gay lyrics that were censured at the time, the Rodgers and Hart classic My Funny Valentine, and a wonderfully sultry Too Darn Hot by Cole Porter. Dermott seemed genuinely surprised by the warmth of the applause at the end of the show – “Are you all insane?!” - and was called back on stage for two encores, an exquisite repeat of the Auden/Mitchell piece After Sappho performed early on in the setlist, and a brief burst of Johnny One Note, abandoned in favour of My Funny Valentine.

Jamie McDermott will be back at Teatro Eliseo tonight with The Irrepressibles – Nude: Viscera. Highly recommended!