The Chandos Ivanhoe (2009)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded at BBC Hoddinott Hall
The task of repairing Sullivan's reputation as a serious composer—virtually unassailed in his own lifetime, but seldom acknowledged in the decades afterwards—has been long and arduous. To those who have labored hardest on the composer's behalf, surely no event was more gratifying than publication of the first professional recording of Sullivan's only grand opera, Ivanhoe.
Many Sullivan works, aside from the operas with Gilbert, had amateur recordings before they bad professional ones. But none of those works was less suited to performance by amateurs than Ivanhoe. Little wonder that the two previous complete recordings (those by the Beaufort Opera and the Prince Consort), welcomed though they were at the time, were truly inadequate—virtually unlistenable, in my opinion.
Now Ivanhoe finally has a recording that reproduces the conditions under which it was first heard, or as close as we are likely to come. It is not merely the quality of the singers and orchestra, which are excellent, but also the new full score prepared by Sullivan scholar Robin Gordon-Powell, scraping away the grit and grime of previously available orchestra parts, and restoring Sullivan's use of little used instruments like the Treble Flute and the Bass Trumpet.
If one is to nitpick, the choral singing isn't as robust as I would like (they sing accurately, but there aren't enough of them). But this really is a minor concern. In practically every respect, the recording is a landmark—a triumph for its sponsor and champion, the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society.
Whether this recording will launch Ivanhoe's rehabilitation is another matter entirely. Practically all reviewers agree that the recording itself is excellent, giving the opera as fine an outing as it is likely to have. But among those who are not already invested in the promotion of Sullivan's broader output, I have found few who think that Ivanhoe is a neglected masterpiece. Even the best recording cannot conceal the libretto's weak moments, the work's poor narrative structure, and even occasional passages in which the composer is not at his best.
So I would not hold out hope for a fully-staged production with forces comparable to these. Regardless of when or if this ever happens, I doubt that Sullivan himself could be happier than to have his opera heard in a recording as strong as this.
Review by Simon Moss
I've been waiting for today for around thirty years. Ever since I read, as a youth, about Sullivan's "grand opera" I've been curious about it, so have just put aside work and shopping duties and spent a most indulgent afternoon listening to the new recording, while following along with the vocal score. I know what I wanted "Ivanhoe" to sound like: Sullivan writes Englishness so well that I felt sure that his opera would somehow recall the lushness of the best music from "Yeomen", with a sprinkling of "The Golden Legend" and even some stirring stuff in the same vein as "St Gertrude" (a.k.a. "Onward Christian Soldiers"). When I first heard the earlier (amateur) recordings my hopes were dashed. However, now that I can hear the piece with its true brilliance I'm pleased to say that the score has many passages which are all that I always hoped it would be.
For anyone used to hearing the Savoy Operas there is probably rather too much recit and "padding", but at nearly three hours in length that is, I guess inevitable. There are well known highlights of course, "Ho Jolly Jenkin", "Woo thou thy snowflake", "Oh moon art though clad", and "Lord of our chosen race", but I was surprised at the many other passages which now stood out for me as being especially moving, such as Ulrica's "Whet the keen axes", Ivanhoe's "Happy with winged feet", and some of the stunning orchestral passages such as the opening of Act 3 Scene 2. I suspect that after a few repeated playings in the coming weeks (not something anyone was ever likely to do with the earlier recordings) even the linking music will start to get under my skin. In general as well I am struck by the brilliance of Sullivan's orchestration, something that was certainly lacking in the previous recordings. The accompaniment of "Oh moon thou art clad" is especially glorious, and so perfectly evokes a shimmering moon, but there are many other such surprises. At times the balance seems rather to favour the singers, and I'd like to have been able to hear the orchestration even more clearly. In the male choruses the basses too do not always have the volume I'd expect and often seem to be rather outsung by the tenors.
Interestingly, the words differ somewhat from the vocal score in minor details, but I understand that in all cases it is Sullivan's autograph which was taken as being correct. A good example occurs in "Ho Jolly Jenkin": The vocal score gives the lead-in to the chorus, both times it is sung, as "with his 'Ho Jolly Jenkin'…." The new recording has Friar Tuck sing the second time, "with our 'Ho Jolly Jenkin'…," which is of course grammatically correct. The autograph score has "our" and it is great that the new recording has restored such details. There are occasional notes in the vocal lines which differ from the vocal score, and I assume that most of these are also cases where the autograph has been taken as "gospel" and the vocal score was incorrect.
The soloists are, for the most part superb. Peter Rose as Cedric has a wonderful booming voice, and sounds older, as he should. Toby Spence's tenor voice is perfect for Ivanhoe, but how odd that the title character only gets one short aria to himself. For me the only disappointment is Janice Watson as Rowena, who lacks crispness. It might perhaps be difficult to differentiate between the male singers at times, and it is very helpful to have the libretto printed in full at the back of the booklet; although the diction is generally of a high standard the lib might help the listener to identify the characters at times.
This is a superbly presented package, with 150 pages to the booklet (which I'm saving to read in bed tonight), although admittedly 60-odd of these are devoted to translations of the plot summary and essays by Will Parry and Martin Yates. David Lloyd-Jones has done a superb job of conducting, so it seems a little unfair that the large picture of him on the back cover of the booklet has no caption. I had to Google him to be sure this is him, and not Richard Hickox, to whom the CD is thoughtfully dedicated. Each of the three discs has its own cover which continues the theme of the understated flag of St George taken from the box artwork. I especially like this touch, hopefully reminding buyers around the world that this is one of those rare animals, a British grand opera. Let's hope that the Royal Opera House soon takes up the cause and that I won't have to wait another thirty years to see a fully staged professional production.
Review by Tom Shepard
Ok, firstly, I admit that I only read Classic Comics, never the Scott novel. Therefore, I can't be said to be steeped in the tradition and affection that I am sure Ivanhoe elicits in the British Isles. But because I don't really know the novel, I did not always find it easy either to follow the action of the libretto or to be able to get any three-dimensional portrait of any of the characters. The characters pose and posture and speechify and show various levels of sorrow, pity, bravery, tolerance, intolerance, enlightenment, prejudice—and a whole lot more. But they are no more complex or realized (IMHO) that the characters in The Mikado. They are totally driven by their agendas—once again, like the characters in The Mikado.
But the lyrics to The Mikado are beautifully crafted, and often suggested wonderful turns of phrase and rhythms to Sullivan. This is, sadly, not particularly true of what comes out of Julian Sturgis. Sullivan has done his damndest to create interesting vamps and accompanying figures, but he is stuck with an awful lot of ersatz-medieval poesy. Several of the women's arias are very beautiful, and there are some lovely touches for the men and for the choruses, but Sullivan had to do the best he could with a libretto that is mostly speeches and conversations. As a matter of fact, the best "action" is when Rebecca describes the battle raging outside to Ivanhoe. The orchestrations are beautiful throughout.
There are far fewer memorable tunes in Ivanhoe than there are in G&S's closest counterpart: The Yeomen of the Guard. Besides that, Yeomen is a more interesting story, the characters are more fully developed, and the librettist/lyricist was a giant in his field. Sturgis seems to have very limited skills in crafting a dramatic libretto.
I can hear the influence of French opera, even Berlioz from time to time, and a lot of momentary homages to Wagner, but Wagner, who was far more verbose, somehow made his conversations more interesting or more dramatically produced. I think Sullivan was faced with a mediocre but ambitious libretto, and he didn't seem to know when to speed up the conversations so that he could get to the more musical moments, the arias and concerted numbers, with less stuff in between. How many times does the Templar need to taunt Rebecca? Who does he think he is, Colonel Fairfax?
This is certainly the work of a talented composer who is also a very skilled craftsman, and I believe it can take its place with various works of Massenet and other French opera composers. Sullivan showed the world that he could be serious for several hours. But he also showed the world that his heart and soul were nurtured far more by the inspirations of W. S. Gilbert. I am very grateful that so many people put so much love and care into producing a truly fine recording, and I will certainly listen to it many more times, but I'm not sure that I'll ever grow to love it as I most certainly love Iolanthe, Yeomen, Ruddigore, and others.
I await the flames and I don't guess that Ulrica will come to my aid.
After reading Tom Shepard's review, J. Derrick McClure added:
I think a fundamental fault with Ivanhoe is that Sturgis just didn't know how to transform a novel into an operatic libretto. He gets the worst of both worlds: the libretto has got too much in it to be easily appreciated simply as a sequence of linked events — a story; and not nearlyu enough in it to convey the full richness of Scott's work (not that any libretto could do precisely that, of course). And Sullivan's part is affected by this: he gets bogged down musically as Sturgis does verbally. Don't misunderstand: the new recording has been an absolute revelation in displaying felicities in the score that we had no idea were there; and it's demonstrated beyond all doubt that Ivanhoe is a major and in some respects a marvellous work. Not only did Sturgis fail to write a liretto with a smooth and cohesive story: he gave Scott's fluent and lively prose an overgrowth of what TZS precisely calls ersatz-mediaeval poesie, obscuring the characterisation - as an example I mentioned the other day, as if Scott's Templar would babble about "minstrel's song and lady's love!"
Suppose — I say suppose — that a librettist of Gilbert's calibre had done with Ivanhoe what Donizetti's librettists did with The Bride of Mammermuir — cut it ruthlessly, streamlining the plot, reducing or jettisoning characters wholesale, writing up the bits that were sutitable for a composer of dramatic music to pull out all the stops with and cutting down the bits that were not — what would Sullivan have done with it? We'll never know, of course — and as to what we've got in reality, we can all rejoice in it. But alas, the sense of a great opportunity lost wil always remain.