The Lyric Theater Company Mountebanks (1964)
Lyric Theater Company
This recording was made by the ambitious, and now disbanded, Lyric Theater Company of Washington, D.C. Within a three-year period, the group produced note-complete recordings, with dialogue mostly complete, of Utopia, Limited, The Grand Duke, and The Mountebanks. All three were profitable — a model that modern societies would do well to emulate.
Although it is an amateur recording, the vocal work is first-rate. I suspect that few amateur companies could recruit as good a cast. The orchestral playing is weak, at times, but not to the point of fatally undermining the recording. The dialogue is a bit tedious, and after one hearing you'll want to skip past it. Still, it is not a bad introduction to the work. Short of an unlikely' professional recording, this is the best Mountebanks we are likely to have.
J. Donald Smith provided the following extensive review:
Like the other Washington Lyric recordings, that of The Mountebanks combines a very good orchestra with enthusiastic performers whose singing is usually good, but whose acting skills generally do not convey the depth of characterization needed to adequately bring this most troublesome of Gilbert's operas to life. The plot is the famous (or infamous) "Lozenge Plot," which Sullivan consistently refused to set. His more famous refusals brought forth The Mikado and The Yeomen of the Guard, so we can not criticize Sullivan too severely for his unwillingness.
As a dramatic work The Mountebanks derives more from Gilbert's The Palace of Truth than any of the Savoy operas. Much of the opera deals with human relationships, rather than any detailed plot, and how artificial such relationships are when individuals are placed in a position (by taking a potion) which forces them to become what they have only pretended to be before. That Gilbert is able to take four such situations, interrelate them, then resolve everything quite neatly is a tribute to his dramatic genius.
The flaw, such as it is, in the opera, is that the dialogue looks forward to the Music Hall and to the Victorian and Edwardian Musical — with a lot of rapid-fire one-liners — rather than having a lot of action. As such, the dialogue needs drastic trimming before any performance could ever be done again. All of the dialogue is present in this recording, and as performed it simply does not help the opera's reputation. The music contains some of Gilbert's best (and one or two of his worst) lyrics, and Cellier's music is a joy to hear. The orchestra betrays its amateur origins only in a few exposed string passages, but there seems to be a good deal more subtlety in the music than the orchestra or singers convey here.
If one is fortunate enough to come across this recording, my recommendation would be to make a tape of the music and cut the dialog. Otherwise, unfortunately, it does not bear rehearing.
The original recording is on three 12" LP discs, with the Overture on a separate 7" disc. Since Cellier died before the completion of the opera, the conductor, Ivan Caryll, took the first movement from Cellier's Suite Symphonique (composed ca. 1870) to use as the overture. Caryll apparently orchestrated some of the numbers himself but it is not clear whether or not he composed any of the music, except for one piece. The song "Ophelia was a dainty little maid" occurs only in the Second Edition of the Vocal Score, not the First, so it seems reasonable to assume that it was a post-opening night addition. It is one of the highlights of the opera, and it is unfortunate that Gilbert never took the opportunity to collaborate again with Caryll, who became a major composer for the musical theater in his own right.
Bruce I. Miller looks on the recording less favorably: "I have this recording, and find it almost impossible to listen to, as the orchestra playing is so bad and the singing so amateurish. It really doesn't begin to do justice to the score."
John Pepper, who was in the chorus, adds:
Incidentally, we recorded The Mountebanks onstage in the auditorium of St. Elizabeth's Hospital, in return for a free afternoon performance for the inmates (some of us wondered whether Ezra Pound was in the audience!).
In 2009, the recording was re-issued on CD by House of Opera. I've received mixed reports about this re-release. J. Donald Smith says:
They have actually done a good job with the transfer. The music and dialog are tracked separately, and there is a very minimum of evidence that the recording was transferred from records. Of course the cd medium itself does tend to magnify all of the problems with the performance!
But Simon Moss says:
My copy of this double CD set has arrived. I'm currently plodding through it, and am finding it very tough going. It should, I suppose, be wonderful to be able to hear this GWOS piece (I never owned the 3 LP set) at all, but really, it was so badly performed in 1964 that it really is hard to hear the score through the performances.
And Douglas Whaley says:
Some of the Savoynet comments about the Lyric Theatre of Washington, D.C.'s performance of the show have been negative. I'm not of that number. I own three of their LP recordings (Utopia, Grand Duke, and Mountebanks, all with' complete dialogue) and admire all three. . . . All are well sung and acted. The negative comments to the contrary I would suppose come from listening to the ragged CD just released, which makes the listener fume and impatient for it to end.
Yet, Ian Bond says:
These negative comments are not new and have nothing to do with this CD release. They go back to the release of the LP's of Utopia Limited in the UK on the Pearl label in the early 1970's, when the strong American accent and (contrary to Douglas opinion) lack lustre presentation, caused quite a lot of adverse comment — so much so that, although Pearl had planned to release the Lyric Grand Duke, that never happened and we were saddled instead with the drastically cut Wolfson version from Cheam Operatic Society (1974) — thankfully the' DOC recording was issued early in 1976. In the case of Mountebanks, for example, the first dialogue scene between Alfredo and Teresa is painful to listen to, at least, to my ears, and is redolent of an early version of some of the worst examples from Ohio Light Opera.
|1965||Lyric Theatre||Mono LP||164022|
|2009||House of Opera||CD||CD5105|