The Recordings of Princess Ida

Comparative Review by Michael Walters

The 1955 Decca Recording

Moving on to the first of the Decca recordings: this coincided with the 1954 revival. The production imported Victoria Sladen, a singer who has become almost a dirty word in G&S circles as a result of her unfortunate association with this production and recording. Few of those who saw her as Ida or who have heard the record have a single good word to say for her; yet, she was an extremely popular singer in her day, so one must ask the question — what went wrong? For "go wrong" something undoubtedly did. The first I heard of her was on this record, and I was inclined simply to dismiss her. It was only when, a number of years later, I heard another record by her, "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca, that I began to suspect that there might be more to the matter than met the ear.

Victoria Sladen was born in 1910, and made her reputation as a singer of emotional music such as Puccini operas. She also sang German lieder when she got the chance, which seems not to have been often. In the immediate post-war years she was a frequent singer on the wireless (radio), and in 1951 published a book of reminiscences entitled Singing My Way. In order to be as fair to her as possible, I read this book. The proportion of singers who write autobiographies is very small, and one wishes a lot more would do it — it would make the task of the researcher so much easier, even if the books were never actually published but merely deposited in a reputable library.

Miss Sladen's book was not, one would suppose, a bestseller, and few would read it for pleasure today — or, indeed, for any other reason than to find out something about the author. Singing My Way is not so much an autobiography as a soap-box, which enables the singer to air her views about singing techniques, and how opera, etc., ought to be performed. She says comparatively little about her life, and betrays reticence about her age, which had to be gleaned from other sources. The pretentious title of the book is mirrored in the pompous self-righteous tone and style of the writer.

Difficult as it is to unravel the personality of Miss Sladen, several facts emerge, both for and against her. The most immediately obvious is her conscientiousness. She may be a pompous prima-donna, but she is a dedicated one — who sets high standards for herself, and is rigorous in her self-discipline. Since, however, one supposes that anyone who knows anything about singing would accept that self-discipline and hard work are necessary parts of any singer's life, one wonders why she found it necessary to justify the point.

But, through this another point emerges — the book's utter lack of humour. Not once does Miss Sladen tell a funny story, and even a few potentially funny stories are told in such a way as to suggest that the author saw nothing funny in them. In short, one must conclude that Miss Sladen had no sense of humour, and a sense of humour is essential for anyone who plays G&S (incidentally, nowhere in the book does she mention G&S, even in passing).

[Note: J. Donald Smith pointed out that since the book was written in 1951 — three years before her D'Oyly Carte engagement and, apparently, the only G&S role of her life — it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that the book fails to mention G&S.]

Although apparently popular in her day (the 1940s) as a stage and wireless performer, Victoria Sladen made little impact as a recording artist. (This fact is not necessarily significant. There were a number of other important British singers of the period whose recordings were almost nil. One example is the Wagnerian bass Ronald Stear whose voice survives only in the couple of Giorgio's lines on the Lytton recording of The Gondoliers).

Apart from Princess Ida, and at least one off-the-air recording, Sladen's only known disc is a 78 of "Vissi d'arte" backed by "Oh my beloved Daddy" from Gianni Schicci, made in 1949. By 1953 it had been deleted from the catalogues, so clearly it was not a best seller. It was rated sufficiently, however, for the Tosca aria to be included in a three LP set of English opera singers, "Stars of the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells," issued in the early 1970s. Both arias come as a revelation to anyone who has heard only the Ida set, for they betray a voice that sounds twenty years younger and more brilliant than that in the recording made only five years later. The voice in 1949 was one of limpid purity and tenderness, marred only by a pronounced tremolo on high notes — a condition which, however, seems to have been common to many sopranos of the time. Yet, only five years later, the voice sounds tired, old, and has unpleasant hissing sibilants. The off-the-air recording referred to above (and there may be others awaiting discovery) is a broadcast (undated) released by "Conoisseur Casettes" in the 1990s. It is a programme of "Songs from the Shows" in which she gives a delightful performance of "Oh who shall say that love is cruel" from Merrie England.

There seems to be some evidence that she misused her voice, for one correspondent who heard her on stage with the old Sadlers Wells Opera, told me that an audience nickname for her was "old screecher". This same informant implied that Miss Sladen was not over-popular with the artists or the D'Oyly Carte management, Bridget D'Oyly Carte referring to her as "that woman". It was also suggested that Miss Sladen knew she was not liked, but insisted on the letter of her contract, including the recording. One can hardly blame her for that.

Victoria Sladen is by far the worst of the four Idas on record, and "O goddess wise" is positively painful. She shows a very considerable wobble and very prominent sibilants. These two features override all else in her performance. There is a fuzziness, though this may be partly due to the recording. She sounds matronly, some of her top notes are shrieked, and there is a weariness with life in her voice. In no sense does she create the imperious princess with a thirst for learning and living. This contrasts markedly with her own self-professed attention to detail and character of the roles she played, as set down in her book. She is not always quite on the note, and one must assume that the recording engineers were tone deaf! She is at her worst in "Be reassured" which sounds incredibly stodgy, but is probably not helped by Isidore Godfrey's plodding conducting. In "The world is but a broken toy" she lacks clarity and is flat on at least one of her top notes. She is better in "I built upon a rock," and though she still hisses and wobbles, her control is better and some of her tone and phrasing is almost elegant. But, she runs short of breath in places during "Stand forth, ye three."

Thomas Round's Hilarion is one of the better things on this recording. "Ida was a twelvemonth old" is finely sung, with sweetness and lyricism, and throughout he sings with charm and emotion, though he has not quite the charisma of Derek Oldham. "Whom thou hast chained" is given complete for the first time on record.

Although I have never been an admirer of Leonard Osborn's records, I have to admit that this is one of his better ones, at least in places, for his Cyril is strangely variable. In "O dainty triolet" he is glacial, but his crescendo and diminuendo on the last held note are excellent. He is less happy in "I am a maiden", where he sounds a very different person to the tenor of Act 1. He handles the Kissing Song with considerable delicacy, though he seems to be having trouble with top notes, and cuts some of them off very quickly. He is, however, superb in his little solo "Madam your words so wise" where he really sounds as if his mouth were full of cold roast lamb. Jeffrey Skitch is a clearly sung Florian.

The period during which Princess Ida was out of the repertory prior to the 1954 revival, seems to have resulted in a total re-assessment of the character of King Gama, in my view not for the better. Eschewing genuine feeling and characterisation, Peter Pratt converts the character from the rather human creature of Lytton (and Martyn Green) into an Alberich-like gnome; and his affected acid vibrato is, I feel, unnecessary and detracts from the role, since everything else is sacrificed to the "funny" voice. His diction, however, is very good. Of his two songs, "Whene'er I spoke" is the better of the two — there is more expression here than in the second song.

The role of Hildebrand appears to defeat Fisher Morgan, and his plummy voice does not suit this part at all. Although he is rather good with his "rum tum tum"s in the Act 1 finale, he labours "Some years ago" which is taken far too slowly. He does try hard though, and succeeds better than Watson but lacks Sheffield's acidity. He is characterless in "P'rhaps if you address the lady".

Curiously, there was apparently an abridged copy of this recording which credited Richard Watson with this last-mentioned number. I have not seen or heard this recording, and am indebted for this information to Mr. A.E. Barrett of Norwich. On receipt of his letter I listened to the number again, and was surprised to find that I could not actually tell by listening to it, which of the two is singing. It seems unlikely that Watson would have been called in to record that number — surely an understudy would have been available had Morgan been taken ill? A minor mystery.

[Note: Correspondent Robert Morrison informs me that the pressing that mis-credits "P'rhaps if you address the lady" is the Pirates & Ida highlights LP: Decca LK 4128 (or LKA 4128 for the Australian release.)]

Donald Adams sings Arac's music strongly and gets good support from the other brothers. Muriel Harding is probably the best Lady Psyche on record, and sings with a very ladylike grace and charm; her feeling and expression is sorely lacking in the rest of the cast. Beryl Dixon (Melissa) has great charm in these lighter soubrette parts, and a distinctive tone which I have always liked. In "Thus our courage all untarnished" she sings the optional top note, and in "Now wouldn't you like to rule the roast" she and Ann Drummond-Grant make a splendid pair. It is interesting to hear the latter's really rather soprano-like timbre on the high passages - oh to have heard her as Ida rather than as Blanche. Cynthia Morey sings Sacharissa's one line very clearly.

This recording is not one of Isidore Godfrey's happier ones, sounding on the whole rather heavy-handed. Apart from "Come Mighty Must" most of the music is included, but one curious omission is the symphony to each verse of "Now hearken to my strict command"; it is difficult to see the purpose of omitting this. Godfrey makes the orchestral entry to "Walls and fences scaling" sound like the entrance of the Sorcerer in Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, presumably not by design? The sound level seems dull and lacks top in places, certain numbers come out very badly, for instance in "The woman of the wisest wit", the women's voices sound shrill.

[Note: I am told that the symphony to each verse of "Now hearket to my strict command was also omitted in stage performances of the time, a short-lived innovation that the recording evidently followed. —ed.]

I am advised that in a reissue of this record, though not the original pressing, one of King Gama's songs is omitted. I do not know the reason for this. But, although this recording is unsatisfactory in many ways, it cannot be dismissed, for historically it is so important as to be unique in D'Oyly Carte annals. It is the only complete recording made of a major revival of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera with exactly the cast that appeared on stage.

[Note: Gama's second song was omitted in the synthetic stereo re-issue of 1979, Decca DPA 3053/4. The reason, apparently, is that this passage was snipped out of the master tape for inclusion in The World of Gilbert and Sullivan, Decca Ace of Clubs ACL 1117, 1962. There was, apparently, a further re-issue of Decca DPA 3053/4 in which this omission was corrected.]

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