Reviews of The Contrabandista and The Chieftain

In 1999, Chris Webster's Sounds on CD label issued recordings by The Prince Consort of two Sullivan & Burnand operas: The Contrabandista and The Chieftain. This is a sensible pairing, as the latter opera is a revision of the former (essentially, a largely recycled Act I grafted onto a new Act II).

Both recordings date from the 1980s. However, The Contrabandista (a studio recording) was issued only briefly on cassette by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society before being withdrawn, and The Chieftain (a live recording based on a stage production) was never issued at all. Commercial issues of both recordings apparently were considered—the Pearl label had already issued four Prince Consort recordings—but for a variety of reasons it never happened (until now).

Most of the reviews that I have received make reference to both works, so I have combined them on this page.

Review by Neil Ellenoff

I enjoyed them very much. The performance is not quite professional, but certainly much better than any other that I have heard. The music is very 1860s, from which I can understand why The Chieftain was not a success in the '90s. Its full of melody, but to me it is a lesser work. I agree; better than The Zoo and Cox and Box, but not as good as anything else.

Review by Arthur Robinson

I highly recommend these CDs. I consider The Contrabandista at least as good as Cox and Box in music, though inferior in libretto; I think The Chieftain is even better, Sullivan near his peak, though the libretto is worse than Contrabandista's. The quality of the CDs is (at least to my musically challenged ears) excellent. I had heard the cassette tape of Contrabandista put out by the Sullivan Society, but the tape quality was pretty poor; now on this CD I enjoy the performances much more. I don't know why the Prince Consort didn't release The Chieftain, but I'm glad they have at last. I do have the Chieftain LP put out a long time ago with a revised libretto by David Eden (it showed up in a record shop in Indiana in the mid-1980's; I had never known a recording existed), and I enjoy that record, but this is definitely the definitive Chieftain (well, of the two I know).

Review by Philip Sternenberg

I was concerned that, based on Prince Consort's own dissatisfaction with what they had recorded, I might find this a flawed product. To my delight, this is anything but. The performances meet the fine standards Prince Consort set with their recordings of other Sullivan operas, but the LPs of The Emerald Isle, The Beauty Stone, and The Rose of Persia were marred by engineering flaws on Pearl's end (more surface noise than Decca/London had, and in the case of Emerald Isle two snippets of dialogue accidentally left in and a groove jump in the introduction). Chris Webster has provided a flawlessly engineered product that, in particular, makes the orchestra sparkle.

Contrabandista is recorded as it appears in the vocal score save for the omission of most of the intro to "From rock to rock," which is also missing from Chieftain. There are two substantially different vocal scores for Chieftain, and Prince Consort based its performance on the later edition. In particular:

  1. "My parents were of great gentility" is used for Inez instead of "Let others seek," and the latter can be heard in Contrabandista, although a chorus was added in the original Chieftain.
  2. "Wanted a Chieftain" was a song in the original Chieftain that, with its surrounding dialogue, was replaced by a recitative. Prince Consort found a way to insert "Wanted a Chieftain" seamlessly into the recitative. I know now for sure that "Wanted a Chieftain" provides the music for "If Maggie were married" in Engaged!
  3. "A lady peers from a tower" was a song for Rita that was written to replace "The tinkling sheep bell," but apparently the substitution was undone during the original run, as "Sheep bell" is Rita's song in both editions of the score. This recording has "A lady peers" instead of "Sheep bell" in Chieftain, but the latter is part of Contrabandista.
  4. A bolero from Contrabandista was part of the original Act 1 Finale of Chieftain, with some chorus lyrics added. The later edition of the score has a completely new dance. This recording uses the Contrabandista bolero.

The Contrabandista acoustics are pristine from being the result of studio conditions, and those of Chieftain are only slightly inferior. IMHO Alan Borthwick, as Vasquez, is the star singer, and the others, except maybe for Dolly, aren't very far behind. (Every role common to both operas is performed by the same person in each. In fairness to Dolly, a role only in Chieftain, her big song is so difficult that in the two other recordings I've heard of it, one is transposed down a step and a half, and the other takes several lines down an octave.)

There are a few occasions when the singers are hard to hear over the orchestra (never true with Alan, BTW), and there are a couple of tempi ("Ah, oui, j'etais une pensionnaire" comes to mind) that are a little too slow for my taste, but otherwise I'm delighted to hear these operas sung as they should be. I think Prince Consort underrated its own performance here, although there are one or two places where I think I detect an edit that may be possible only with digital technology. No matter — if this is typical of Chris's work, then "Sounds on CD" deserves to be a thriving enterprise. I hope Chris will now tackle transferring Beauty Stone and Emerald Isle by Prince Consort to CD.

Ronald Orenstein on The Contrabandista
[Note: The following post from Ron Orenstein is actually more about the opera than the recording, but I thought it would be useful to help readers understand the opera and where it stands in Sullivan's oevre.]

I think Contrabandista is an underrated score, containing some delightful music — particularly the hilarious trio "Who'd to be robber chief aspire", which was omitted from The Chieftain. I find the music very much in a Cox and Box mode, as you might expect, though with a bit of "Spanish" thrown in. For example, the opening number and, in particular, the trio "Hello! What's that?", include passages in which short sung phrases are added almost as occasional flourishes to a scampering tune in the orchestra — something Sullivan rarely did in the Savoy Operas, the "Private Plot" trio from Utopia being the best example I can think of.

Sullivan's sense of humour shines through much of the score — listen to the very "English" cadence in the orchestra when Grigg sings "If you come to London, here's my card" in the Finale, for example. I particularly like the orchestral Bolero in Act I (of course, when the characters actually sing "Dance the bolero" they do a Cachucha instead!) — the melody starts with what in my ignorance of music theory I would call a sustained accidental, giving the tune a very piquant flavour.

I would, in fact, place the score above both Cox and Box and The Zoo, and would love to hear a professional recording of it; as Chris's recording demonstrates it easily fits on one CD with room to spare (In fact I suspect if you omit dialogue you could get both Cox and Box and Contrabandista onto one disc—a natural pairing, I think!).

As for performance, the chief problem is the dialogue — which is, not to put too fine a point on it, terrible. Thank heavens Burnand simply stole Maddison Morton's dialogue for Cox and Box! I would toss it out completely and rewrite it. The lyrics have a certain amount of charm, though—how many operettas end Act I with a character singing about his little pigs? (Even The Gypsy Baron, the only other operetta I know to bring up pig-farming, doesn't do that).

Ronald Orenstein on The Chieftain

My only previous experience of The Chieftain was that of going through the piano-vocal score (with a pianist) many years ago, while searching for music for Tom Petiet's 1971 version of Thespis. We found it a depressing experience, and I came away with the conclusion that this was surely Sullivan's worst operetta.

After listening to an actual performance, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by some numbers I may have dismissed years ago, but see no reason to revise my original opinion. The Chieftain has serious problems, and they are not just restricted to the admittedly wretched libretto.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the music recycled into The Chieftain from The Contrabandista clashes in style with the music for the rest of the operetta. This is not just a matter of a passage in time; the music allotted to the different characters becomes terribly inconsistent. For example, the rough-and-ready bandits Sancho and Jose of the earlier version keep some of their old music, but add to it numbers like "'Tis very hard to choose" which are much lighter and more elegant-sounding. The Rita of Act 1, who retains much of her old music, is almost unrecognizable as the same character in the second act.

Sullivan's approach seems to have been quite different in the later piece. Where the music of Contrabandista is, like that for Cox and Box, English by way of Offenbach, the new music deliberately apes a continental style that did not even exist in 1867. As much as I love the music of The Contrabandista, I wonder if Sullivan might not have been better off to recompose the whole thing from scratch (he did "touch up" some of the old numbers, not always for the better IMHO).

Unfortunately, much of the new music seems to my ear to be Sullivan at his least inspired. Thus, when he does replace a number from Contrabandista with a new song, the new song is usually worse. I cannot imagine preferring "A lady peers from a tower" to "Only the night wind sighs alone" [I understand that this substitution may not have even mad it into performance, and the orchestration for the new song on the CD is not Sullivan's], and though "Wake, gentle maiden" is hardly Sullivan at his best, its replacement, "Wake, then, awake!" Is simply dreadful. The one exception, in my opinion, is "My parents were of great gentility", which is delightful if totally different in mood from " Let others seek the peaceful plain", which it replaced during the run of The Chieftain at the Savoy [it is, alas, wretchedly sung on the recording; though most of the singers on the CD are quite good, and some are better than that, the Inez is simply incapable of handling the music]. What puzzles me about this song, though, is how little it sounds like Sullivan. I could easily have taken it for a number from Sousa's El Capitan, or even for some of Mirabella's music in The Gypsy Baron.

That brings me to one of my main problems in listening to The Chieftain. Even if I eliminate numbers which sound to me as though Sullivan was simply going through the motions, like the interminable "There are cases," the more listenable new numbers sound like they could have been written by any number of Sullivan's lesser contemporaries on the continent (or even on our continent, if I include Sousa). I know that some people on this list consider it quite an achievement that Sullivan could imitate the continental operetta style, but it saddens me to see one of the greatest composers of operetta, who, in his earlier days, confined his imitations to even greater composers like Handel, imitate composers who were not as good as he was. Where is Sullivan's own voice in The Chieftain? I do not know, but I think he found it again in his next operetta, The Grand Duke, which has a continental touch but is unmistakably Sullivan (and much better music, by and large, then the new songs in The Chieftain).

That said, I have to admit that The Chieftain has its moments. The best of them, I think, is "There's no one, I'm certain" despite its rather startling opening which seems to be a direct to steal from Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. Other than that, if I were asked to assemble a "highlights" disc from the new songs in The Chieftain the only ones I would include are:

  • My parents were of great gentility
  • 'Tis very hard to choose
          (though the concluding dance is pretty dull stuff)
  • The Gay Hussar
          (which I would rank as just OK)
  • Ah, oui, j'etais
          (though I am not as fond of this as some)
  • La criada
  • We quite understand
  • The Chieftain is found
          (which partly reprises "There's no one I'm certain")

In conclusion, then, I don't think The Chieftain is revivable (though certainly excerptable, to a limited degree), and I still prefer the much more consistent earlier version of 1867. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Chris Webster, and to The Prince Consort, for giving us a chance to hear it, and as I would be very surprised to see it follow The Rose of Persia into the ranks of the professionally recorded, with the really good orchestral playing that that would imply, I can certainly recommend the CD to anyone who, like me, enjoys delving into rare Sullivan, and can put up with dross while waiting for the odd gem that sticks in the head.

Review by Marc Shepherd

Many have already written in praise of The Contrabandista, and while I withhold judgement on the opera as a whole, this is certainly a delightful recording, made under studio conditions. It is a short work, taking up less than one CD. It appears to me that the chorus contribution is minimal, making this perhaps an easier piece to mount than other works of comparable length. Sullivan in his early period crackles in most of the numbers, and I have to think that it would be an excellent double bill with, say, Trial by Jury as an afterpiece.

Based on all that I had read, I had expected to find The Chieftain a dire experience, and so I was more than pleasantly surprised. This opera has elicited mixed feelings from prior reviewers. At least one found it much better than The Contrabandista, and another found it far worse. Before I make any direct comparisons, let me just say that The Chieftain has more than its share of delightfully inventive numbers, in which Sullivan is obviously (and successfully) elevating the musical interest in the piece above that which he was allowed to do in the Gilbert operas. I had expected that most of the new Chieftain numbers (i.e., those not reused from Contrabandista) would be the low points of the score, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

I have not read the libretto, but I suspect that The Chieftain suffers from the collision of material written a quarter-century apart. The music Sullivan added for The Chieftain, though often worthy on its own, seems to be in a wholly different style from Sullivan's earlier, brasher self. Ron Orenstein referred to it as a Continental operetta style, which seems to me an accurate assessment.

Burnand, too, bears some blame for this. The plot in Act II loses its steam. The opera begins to resemble a musical comedy piece, in which the numbers are individually entertaining, but there is very little human interest. New characters are introduced, and the old ones take on a totally new agenda.

Nevertheless, I am easily able to see why David Eden thought it worthwhile to prepare a new edition, in which Burnand is minimized and Sullivan given the chance to shine. There is too much good music here for the opera to be consigned to the dustbin. I am becoming more and more convinced that Utopia was Sullivan's artistic low-water mark, and Societies who can do that opera need not fear the other '90s operas.

Indeed, I find myself envious of the musical theater societies, who do not feel themselves limited to a repertoire of the same 10 or 12 pieces for decades on end. It would be a liberating experience to add new works to the repertoire, and one might as well start with late Sullivan.

On the other hand, The Chieftain requires a larger cast, and even The Prince Consort (who made this recording) finds itself wanting. At least three of the roles are, to my ears, unacceptably cast. This was brought home during a particular Act II trio, in which I heard the patter baritone singing with two underpowered ladies who sounded like they were shouting into tin cans separated from the stage by a mile of twine.

There is also some scratchy string playing and some off-center notes from the wind section. But, in the liner notes Alan Borthwick said that he hoped Sullivan would shine through, and in my opinion he does. Most listeners will forgive the blemishes in exchange for some entertaining and little known Sullivan. At approximately 150 minutes, the timing of this two-CD set is more than generous.