Kings Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1QN
Six performances from Sunday March 31 until April 29
Charles Castronovo is a dashing young tenor (think of a young José Cura) who performs at all the world’s leading opera houses and has developed a neat sideline in revisiting his Italian heritage by singing traditional Neapolitan favorites. He is not to be missed.
Currently performing in The Magic Flute at Covent Garden, he’s been moonlighting at the intimate Kings Head Theatre where he’s put together a great five-piece band under musical director Tom Penn to perform his debut album Dolce Napoli.
Born in New York, of Sicilian-Ecuadorian parentage, he was raised in LA where he began his opera career. He says of these songs “they’re the first things I heard” and luckily for us, he simply wants to share them. These simple, direct, immortal folk songs were brought over to America and popularized by all the great Italian opera stars and indeed they have now become a rite of passage for all tenors. While a trained opera voice can reveal layers of richness in this music, the danger of course is that it ends up sounding bland or crossover if they’ve no feel for the vernacular. No need to worry here, however, as from the opening bars it’s quite obvious this music is in his blood. His ease with the material is a delight.
When he tried out this show at 54 Below (the cabaret space below the famed Studio 54) in New York, he said they were wary at first but “then they heard the mandolin and accordion and everyone was happy”. Here these clean, exquisite arrangements for guitar, mandolin, drums, bass and piano-accordion draw out the magic in these songs, and in Anema e core (you might know it as Heart and Soul), for example, the mandolin provides almost a separate vocal line. This set combines the odd up-tempo happy number such as Comme facette màmmeta (How did your mother make you?) but at its core are heart-wrenching tales of lovesick youths serenading at windows or betrayed lovers bemoaning their fate. What else is there?
As well as a warm voice Castronovo also has an engaging way with an audience, revealing just enough detail to make the song understandable but not too much to bore us. He respects and loves this material so he can gently poke fun at its more dramatic extremes such as the song Pecchè? where the lothario grumbles “Carmela, why did I leave my Mamma for you”. You can’t get more Italian than that.
He cleverly blends more familiar songs such as Luna Rossa with lesser-known material including a wonderfully full-blooded Malafemmena about a deceitful woman. Nothing worse! That song is from 1952 whereas the rest date from 1880-1930. So many of the songs have a strong tango flavour, which makes you realise the musical debt which the Argentine tango owes to Naples and some, like Scetate!, are also clearly infused with Arabic harmonies.
His encore was a heart wrenching Core ’ngrato, the cherry on the top of the Neapolitan pie, and it left everyone in tears. They’d soon recovered though and on the way out I heard the distinct sound of humming. If you like a good tune, this is an evening to treasure.
You can find out more at www.kingsheadtheatre.com and www.charlescastronovo.com.