The Prince Consort Haddon Hall (2000)
The Prince Consort
In the 1980s, the Prince Consort recorded six of Sullivan's non-Gilbert operas. Pearl issued several of them on LP; most are currently available on CD.
The one curious gap was Haddon Hall, which the Consort didn't record in the '80s because Pearl had already issued a recording by the Cheam Operatic Society. Since that performance is now long out of print, the time was ripe for a new recording, an opportunity that the Consort "seized with enthusiasm."
My enthusiasm for the previous Consort recordings was only lukewarm. Most of them have a principal or two who is excruciating, and some of the orchestral playing is extremely insecure. I was just replaying The Emerald Isle recently, and I found the performance of the chorus almost unacceptable.
The Consort recording of Ivanhoe was recently the subject of a brief thread on the Opera list. The opera came in for some heavy criticism, and some of those writing had heard it only from the Consort recording. The Consort Ivanhoe really tries one's patience. Oddly enough, Borthwick and conductor David Lyle coaxed a far better performance out of amateur forces in Edinburgh a couple of years ago: I highly recommend the video.
Yet, for the operas they recorded, the Consort performances are either the only option, or far better than any other option. Until someone comes along and does them better (as has now been done for The Rose of Persia), I'm certainly glad we have these recordings. Still, I didn't jump for joy when I heard that the Consort were to record Haddon Hall.
My trepidations were unjustified. Haddon Hall is easily the best of the Consort recordings. All of the roles are at least acceptably cast, the orchestral playing is generally to a high standard, and the chorus shine. This is a set that will give pleasure for years to come.
Haddon Hall has long been my favorite of the non-Gilbert operas. (Well, aside from Cox and Box.) I followed this recording with a vocal score, and it gave me a new appreciation of the subtlety and complexity of this opera. Sullivan is just a year removed from Ivanhoe, and a more advanced idiom is clearly evident in many of the movements. Yet, other numbers show the show the jaunty tunesmith of the Savoy still very much in his element.
This is the only Sullivan opera based on a known historical incident: the elopement of Dorothy Vernon and John Manners. The libretto moves the date forward a century, to the time of the English Civil War. As in The Beauty Stone, Sullivan is perhaps unsure whether he is writing a comic opera or a chiefly romantic one. Here he is far more successful at treading a middle ground, although some of the material still doesn't cohere. The piece drags whenever the Puritans come in. This is ironic, in that they're the most inauthentic element in the plot; to bring them in, and then not get much out of them, must be counted a dramatic blunder on both Grundy's and Sullivan's part.
After opening night, Sullivan and Grundy replaced a solo/duet for Manners and Dorothy with a dramatic solo for Dorothy. The earlier Cheam recording rewrote the act slightly so that all of the material could be included in the dramatic sequence. The Consort recording includes the earlier working as an appendix to Act I. It is on the same CD as the rest of the act, so you can reprogram your CD player to get either version.
Haddon Hall portends some of the awful rhythmic laziness of Utopia, Limited, with far too many of the numbers in 6/8 and 3/4, but Sullivan takes more chances in Haddon Hall, and generally they work. There is much to discover in this score, and I heartily recommend it to those who have yet to discover Sullivan outside of the G&S canon.
An unfamiliar opera needs a great recording, and I think this is one. Particularly successful are Mary Timmons (Dorothy Vernon), Heather Boyd (Lady Vernon), Peter Thomson (Sir George Vernon), and Fiona Main (Dorcas). I never much cared for Alan Borthwick in the main tenor roles, but Oswald finds him in a comfortable tessitura that never goes above G, and he breezes through the role's patter with palpable joy.
Steven Griffin sings a bit thinly in the upper register, but he is otherwise a capable John Manners. Ian Lawson sings Rupert Vernon as if it were a typical creaky patter baritone part. I would have preferred more of a voice. Maxwell Smart's McCrankie will not be to all tastes, but he is stuck with some awfully inartful Scottish dialect to imitate. If these three performers are less successful, they do not seriously detract from the set's many charms.
David Lyle coaxes a great sense of drama out of the Consort Orchestra. The strings get out of sync once or twice, but this is still the best orchestra Lyle has assembled for any of these recordings. The chorus sing beautifully, although there is a bit more reverberation than I would have liked.
The two-CD set comes with a generous booklet that includes the complete libretto — even the dialogue (although not performed on the CD). These days, that's a luxury! Since the Consort has now recorded all of Sullivan's non-Gilbert operas, aside from those D'Oyly Carte recorded, I would assume that this is their swan song. If so, they saved the best for last. Overall, it's a most welcome addition to the Sullivan discography.
With this recording of Haddon Hall, all of Sullivan's extant operas are now represented on CD. What's needed now are fresh recordings of the operas not yet available to an adequate standard — particularly Ivanhoe. Any volunteers?
Martin Wright contributed:
Haddon Hall is without question the best of the Prince Consort's recordings. The soloists are a fine bunch, second only to the Ivanhoe lot. Alan Borthwick (Oswald) does not seem to have aged a day since the earlier recordings, except that he sounds more Scottish. He and Fiona Main (Dorcas) are a more even pair of young lovers, in fact, than Dorothy & Manners. "The sun's in the sky" is a highlight: it is neither funereal, as in the Cheam recording, nor breathless, as in Sullivan & Co. (though the tempo is quite close to the latter). Peter Thomson and Heather Boyd (Sir George & Lady Vernon) are equally believable, and Maxwell Smart's McCrankie is hilarious. In general, I find David Lyle's tempi slightly eccentric, but certainly workable. However where the PC have most improved is in the standard of orchestral playing. The sound is balanced & in tune, and blemishes are rare & (generally) minor. Consequently, this particular HH is very listenable, at last giving the fine score the chance of a fair assessment.
Scott Farrell added:
I am quite pleased with the new Haddon recording. I had no previous hearing of the opera, save for what is on the RRE Thespis and what I used in my Sapphire Necklace score. Here are some of my thoughts on the new CD.
- I found both of McCrankie's songs to be very nerve-racking. They are without purpose and totally unmelodic. Do I hear real bagpipes in the first song? As Rupert says, "This is worse than the weather!" Quite true!
- There is an error in the liner notes. The songs "The earth is fair" and "Sweetly the morn" were sung at the opening, as one reporter remarked that "The earth is fair" has not inspired the composer, but "Sweetly the morn" is quite nice. This probably prompted Sullivan to write "Red of the Rosebud."
- I did not believe that Alan Borthwick sang the role of Oswald; I believed him to sound much like Manners. But on repeat listening, I decided that it really is Mr. Borthwick. His voice no longer sounds as strained as it did in the 80's, not even his A-flat is thin. Very nicely done. again.
- "When the bludding boom of May" is one of the most beautiful madrigals Sullivan ever wrote. He really captured the feeling of spring in this song.
- Many of the songs have bright tempi and are very big-sounding. I liked that very much.
I think it's time a decent Haddon was available, and the SASS and Prince Consort should be commended for their work. Now if we could have some decent Gilbert operas available… :)