His Excellency (Gilbert & Hawes, 2001)
Conducted by the Composer
In the early 1890s, Terry Hawes was looking for a "light show" to fill in a scheduling gap between Moses in Egypt and Pagliacci for Southgate College Opera, of which he was musical director. Hewing to the theory that Gilbert's libretto of His Excellency was a lost gem, but Osmond Carr's score unsalvageable, Hawes composed his own score, which is heard on this CD.
Hawes's score has one thing in common with Carr's: it is best appreciated if you try not to ask yourself what Sullivan would have done. I don't think Carr was trying to emulate Sullivan, and while Hawes might have been so inclined, he did not succeed. Indeed, the only score I've heard yet that comes close to achieving that feat is Bruce Montgomery's Thespis.
What Hawes has done is to write a gayly infectious, tuneful, and accessible score that will never bore anybody. The notes say that Hawes has written "some twenty musicals," although it is perhaps notable that none of them are named. He is obviously a capable composer, and if the music never rises to Great Art, it is at least competently crafted throughout.
The score reminded me at times of Rudolf Friml, Edward German, and the 1940s Disney animated musicals. While there are hints of Sullivan's melodic gift, there are few of his harmony or orchestration. This is not to deny that Hawes's version of His Excellency can be a jolly hour's entertainment, even if it doesn't match Sullivan—a feat few could be expected to manage.
About the only number where Hawes noticeably fails is Griffenfeld's "Quixotic is his enterprise." His setting of the lyric, like Osmond Carr's, is fairly dull. Evidently Gilbert's mediocre lyrics to this patter song failed to inspire either composer.
For this CD production, Hawes has gone all out. The performers are accomplished pro and semi-pro singers, and aside from Stan Wilson's work-a-day Griffenfeld, they are all a delight to the ear. The chorus diction and orchestral playing could not be better.
The packaging of the CD is first-class, with a custom-designed sleeve and an accompanying booklet with the complete lyrics. The plot summary is just adequate, and the background essay all too brief; both contain a number of spelling errors.
As I followed along, I saw some unfamiliar lyrics. Then I reached the back page, where Hawes is credited with partially rewriting the libretto for five numbers, and inventing a sixth. A number of lyrics are also omitted, including two that are generally considered among Gilbert's best in the opera (the Regent's song and Christina's "buzzing bee" song), and several others. If the piece requires such heavy rewriting, I would have to conclude that not only had Hawes dismissed Carr's contribution to the opera, but he is not overly fond of Gilbert's either.
My own view is that Gilbert's contribution to His Excellency is overrated, and Carr's underrated. But particularly if given a performance of the quality heard on this CD, His Excellency can give much pleasure in its original form. I would have been happier had Hawes devoted his considerable talents to orchestrating Carr's score, and making the necessary judicious cuts. This would, at least, have given a large audience the chance to appreciate what Gilbert and Carr had to offer in 1894, which is a good deal better than most people realize. As His Excellency will never be a big crowd draw no matter whose score is performed, it might as well be the original one.
In any event, Hawes has gone the route of composing his own, and it gives a happy if unchallenging hour of fun. By all means buy it.
There is a clever and entertaining website devoted to the CD, where you can order online at £12.99 or $22, and credit cards are accepted. It is also available from Chris Webster Sounds on CD: firstname.lastname@example.org.