The Recordings of Princess Ida
Comparative Review by Michael Walters
Princess Ida has not fared as well on records as most of the other operas. Apart from the four complete D'Oyly Carte recordings, little of importance exists.
There are few records of single arias. One of these is an early disc by Scott Russell of the Kissing Song: a pedantic, nervous rendering, generally laboured and lacking in characterisation, the singer having trouble reaching some of the top notes. Of the others, Gama's music has fared best, since Martyn Green and Charles Herbert Workman recorded both the character's songs. As this represents the bulk of the role, it is true to say that every major performer who played it and whose voice has been recorded, did record the part.
Walter Passmore, who recorded nothing from the opera, never played it, for he was rarely away from the Savoy, and Ida was not performed there during his time. Workman sings the two songs in a rather clipped style, which does not noticeably differ from his other roles. They are basically renderings of the songs rather than an interpretation of the part. (The same could be said of much later recordings by Nelson Eddy). There is no emotion in Workman's Act 3 song, and nothing to distinguish it from that in Act 1. The records seem to have been made in a hurry, for he misses a word in the second song.
The uniqueness of the role of Ida has been so much commented on that it is more than a pity that it has so rarely been satisfactorily recorded. It is, however, interesting to speculate on how it may have been performed over the years by reference to the voices of those who sang it. At least nine sopranos who sang the role for D'Oyly Carte made records. In chronological order, these were Elsie Spain, Sylvia Cecil, Rita Mackay, Ann Drummond-Grant, Muriel Harding, Jean Hindmarsh, Ann Hood, Valerie Masterson and Barbara Lilley. Those who recorded the role were Winifred Lawson, Muriel Dickson, Victoria Sladen and Elizabeth Harwood; of these, the last-named never played the role on stage.
Elsie Spain's only known surviving recording is a duet with C.H. Workman from The Yeomen of the Guard. Her voice sounds shrill and harsh when played at the speed at which the disc was transferred to LP; however, when played slower it takes on a mellow, authoritative tone. It is a voice with power and sonority — in fact just the sort of voice that would have been ideal for a role such as Ida.
Sylvia Cecil made a dozen or so sides of variable quality, but a Decca record of "Ah sweet mystery of life" (from Naughty Marietta) and a couple from Coward's Pacific 1860 (in which she starred), indicate a stage personality of rivetting and imperious nature. This, together with a famous photograph of her as Ida, taken in 1919, suggests that she would have been magnificent, and it is a pity that she was never able to record the role.
Little remains on which to assess Rita Mackay. She played the leading soprano roles for a couple of seasons, and Audrey Williamson ("Gilbert and Sullivan Opera", p. 136) speaks highly of her. Her only recording, however, is as Lady Ella in Patience, and her only solo is of course, "Go breaking heart" which she sings probably better than anyone else I have heard. A sonorous, soaring voice, she would seem to be vocally admirable for Ida, though what her dramatic potentialities were, I cannot say, for I know nothing of her career before or after her D'Oyly Carte period.
Ann Drummond-Grant began her singing career as a soprano, then, after a break, returned as a contralto. Unfortunately, her soprano voice was never recorded; all her records date from the later part of her career, so it is impossible to assess her with reference to this role. Muriel Harding had a soft and plummy voice, and I find it difficult to imagine her as a successful Ida on the basis of her records.
Jean Hindmarsh, whom I saw in the role (my first Ida) had a stature and bearing that suited the part, but she, and the remaining singers come into the living memory category, and any comments on them can be based directly on recollections rather than records and so are outside the scope of this paper. It would be interesting to hear from readers who may recall any of the previous Idas on the stage, and so could comment on their performances.