The D'Oyly Carte Stereo Recordings

Decca 473 631-2
Decca 473 631-2

The First Generation
In 1957, the D'Oyly Carte was but two years removed from its 1949–55 eleven-opera cycle of monaural recordings. Perhaps it would have chosen to rest on its laurels for a while had not Sir Malcolm Sargent gone into direct competition with D'Oyly Carte earlier that year, with stereo recordings of The Mikado and The Yeomen of the Guard that set a new standard for high fidelity. The D'Oyly Carte responded with Pirates and Mikado, both released in 1958, with Peter Pratt in the principal comic parts. These were the first stereo opera recordings of any kind to be published on London Records. The recordings these sets replaced were only eight years old.

John Reed took over from Peter Pratt in 1959 and was principal comedian in all the remaining recordings of the series. Pinafore (1960) was the first D'Oyly Carte recording to include all the dialogue, an innovation that continued with Iolanthe (1960), The Gondoliers/Cox & Box (1961) and Patience (1961).

At this point, it is worth reproducing the "official utterance" of the Company concerning its policy on recordings, from the May 1966 issue of The Savoyard (Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 4):

We receive an enormous amount of correspondence telling us what records should be made and which should not have been, who should be conducting, who ought not to be singing, which operas recorded without dialogue should have had it, and so on. Even if some of the views expressed are right, this does not alter the fact that considerable sums of money are invested by the gramophone company, and the D'Oyly Carte Trust cannot take decisions as if Decca were not involved. It is an essential feature of an operation of this sort that each company may try to persuade the other but must not go further in seeking to force upon it the views of its own officials, still less of its supporters.

To this day, fans do not agree on whether inclusion of dialogue improves recordings or mars them. Some like the idea of having the complete opera on record, but others feel that the dialogue does not bear repeated listening and lament that there is no way easily to skip past it. As one who never saw the original D'Oyly Carte live, I treasure the opportunity to hear the full dialogue as the authentic artists performed it and regret that the entire canon was not recorded this way, but this is not a universally-held view.

As an aside, even in the CD era, skipping the dialogue is not straightforward, as London/Decca have chosen to band the dialogue with the immediately preceding musical selection. They do this to keep the total number of tracks under twenty—for compatibility with low-end equipment. Listeners who don't want to hear dialogue can jump to the next track at the touch of a button. However, you cannot program the entire CD to play just the music. Perhaps the trend is changing, as the 1971 Pinafore was issued on CD with the dialogue banded separately.

In any event, D'Oyly Carte evidently concluded after 1961 that dialogue recordings weren't satisfying enough people, and all the remaining entries in the first series of stereo recordings were issued without it: Ruddigore (1962), Trial coupled with Utopia excerpts (1964), Yeomen (1964), Ida (1965) and Sorcerer (1966).

The recordings from D'Oyly Carte's first stereo series may represent the overall best choices for the beginning collector, particularly those that include dialogue. This is clearly London/Decca's conclusion, for of the five operas that John Reed recorded twice, it is the earlier one that has been re-issued on CD in each case.

The Second Generation
After the 1966 Sorcerer, the D'Oyly Carte had all the operas in its repertory on disc, and so nothing remained except to start over again. One opera in the series (the 1968 Pirates) was recorded with dialogue for the first time. Three others were recorded for the first time ever. The rest of the series was essentially a failure. Besides Pirates, no recording included dialogue unless its predecessor had done so, and none was an artistic or technical improvement. The one compensating benefit was the inclusion of Sullivan instrumental works as bonus tracks on several of the sets.

Significantly, the only recordings from the second generation that London/Decca has chosen to re-issue on CD are Pirates (1968) and Mikado (1973), and those only because the earlier stereo recordings (from 1958) featured the less-popular Peter Pratt.

After Pirates (1968) came the infamous 1971 Pinafore, D'Oyly Carte's lone venture into the so-called "Phase 4" sound; it featured a sea-gull as an uninvited member of the orchestra! Many consider it the worst recording the Company ever made.

The 1973 Mikado celebrated John Reed's twentieth anniversary with the Company. Iolanthe (1974) was pointless, while Trial By Jury (1975) was issued to coincide with the opera's centenary.

As part of the centenary celebration, Utopia, Limited was given its first new production since the the 1890s, and The Grand Duke a concert performance. Both were recorded and issued in 1976. I strongly suspect that these recordings are largely responsible for the surge in performances of these two operas over the last twenty years.

The last three D'Oyly Carte recordings were The Gondoliers (1977), Cox & Box coupled with the first professional recording of The Zoo (1978), and Yeomen (1979). After that, the Company's financial troubles became more acute, until it was forced to close in early 1982. It left an important recorded legacy, though few of its last recordings made much of a contribution to it.

The Company's last recording, the 1979 Yeomen, remained in the catalog only a short time. In 1984, digitally-remastered re-issues of the stereo recordings started appearing simultaneously on LP and cassette. Wherever there was a choice between two John Reed recordings, the earlier one was re-issued in each case. Similarly, the 1961 Cox and Box received the nod over the 1978 recording. Oddly, for The Mikado Decca chose Peter Pratt's 1957 recording, even though a John Reed recording (from 1973) was available.

Each of the shorter operas was paired with a longer one: Trial with Yeomen, Cox and Box with Ruddigore and The Zoo with The Grand Duke. These LP re-issues seem to have appeared only in the United Kingdom; I certainly do not recall seeing them in the United States, and I have not encountered anyone who has.

Decca's CD issues of the D'Oyly Carte stereo recordings started to appear in 1985, though they did not reach the United States until 1989-90. For the CD series, the 1973 Mikado replaced the 1957 Peter Pratt recording, and The Zoo was paired with The Sorcerer instead of The Grand Duke. The recordings of Sullivan's non-operatic music that the Company had recorded in the late 1970s also made it onto CD, taking up the slack on issues of the lesser-known operas.

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