The Recordings of The Rose of Persia
Comparative Review by Michael Walters
When the CD of The Rose of Persia was first issued, amid general rejoicing, I made no comment on it, as I found myself less than enchanted with the standard of the singing. I happen to know that there are some others who were less than enthusiastic about this CD, and also chose to remain silent. I have long known (and loved) the St. Albans recording, which, for all its imperfections, has the advantage of having being recorded at a live stage performance, and being complete with dialogue. The other two recordings under consideration, the CD and The Prince Consort LP, both lack dialogue and strike me as cold and impersonal by comparison.
In the case of the CD, while, obviously, it is very good to hear a first rate orchestra, many of the soloists sound totally uninvolved with the music and give the impression that they were sight reading. Give me a live performance with imperfections rather than a lifeless one that is technically perfect! The orchestra is the main thing that lets the St. Albans recording down; though after the overture I find I can usually forget about the orchestra and concentrate on listening to the singing, so this is an aspect of this recording which doesn't bother me too much. The Prince Consort recording is on the whole, humourless. There was an audience when the piece was recorded, but they hardly ever laughed. Perhaps they didn't realise the show is supposed to be funny?
I listened to all three of these recordings and made critical comparisons of them. I would have liked to have included the only other recording known to me, that of the Cotswold Savoyards, but did not have a copy of this available. I listened to the recordings item by item and noted my impression of each. I then listened to each recording straight through to see if these modified my opinions at all. The results were not entirely as I expected: I found both good and bad things to say about each of the recordings. Abbreviations used below are: SA (St. Albans), PC (Prince Consort) and CD (BBC Music Magazine).
Overture: On listening to the SA overture without reference to the other two, it emerges as a perfectly reasonable performance, albeit with a squeaky out-of-tune oboe. PC is considerably better, without the jarring fluffed notes. The sound is also much clearer. However, neither SA nor PC can compete with the CD. The professional orchestra is clearly streets ahead of the other two.
Opening Chorus & Solo: The overture runs into the opening chorus almost without a break. In CD, the solo is limp, and although the singer is clearly trying to put in expression, it doesn't really work. Somehow the expression is false and contrived. He tries quite hard but is defeated by the utterly dreary tempo. He comes over, not as "natural" but as Suart trying to give a performance. The PC baritone, though with a rather heavier voice than is ideal, manages a lot better, but both these recordings are hampered by over-slow tempi. PC plays the solo at the same languid tempo as the chorus, whereas it really should really have had a bit more punch. SA has a much brighter tempo (though actually not all that much faster); the baritone here wins hands down over the other two. There is a forward thrust that is completely missing on the other recordings, and a chorus repeat that is not in the vocal score.
When Islam first arose: The SA baritone succeeds in making this song a really interesting one, a delight to listen to. The pace is just what the song needs. (There is an arrangement of words towards the end which is different to that in the vocal score). By contrast, both PC and CD are so dreary as not to be worth listening to; neither performance does anything for the song. The PC singer (who makes an error "For Islam's gates are right" instead of "strong") has a good voice but an unimaginative style, and the tempo is too slow for him. The song starts to become boring long before the end. The CD singer cannot make this song interesting either; it comes over as totally dreary — yet SA showed that this song can be made to sound interesting.
Oh Life has put into my hand: The orchestral hiccup at the beginning of SA is unfortunate, but the contralto, though with vocal defects, gives a heartfelt and satisfying rendering even though the recording quality is poor. The PC contralto has a much better voice, and gives a more evenly sung, though blander, performance: smoothly delivered, but not very interesting. The CD alto gives a more uninteresting rendering than I would have believed was possible. The singer has a good voice, but is totally uninvolved in the performance. How could anyone make this song sound so bland? ("peri" is given as "fairy").
Recitative & If a sudden stroke of Fate: The recitative is a bit awkward on SA, but the song goes with a splendid lilt, verve and forward thrust, though hardly a word is intelligible. The dance has a great deal of "punch" and with a less raucous orchestra would have been excellent. "I find this conversation most depressing" rather sums up PC's dreary tempo throughout the recitative and song, though at least a lot more of the words can be heard. (However, played in context of the recording without comparison to the other two, it doesn't sound too slow). PC's dance is a dirge. CD gets it about right, with the recitative taken slowly and clearly, then a faster tempo for the song and dance.
If you ask me to advise you: SA is inspired; the three voices blend and soar wonderfully. PC seems to go at about half the speed, and there is less contrast between the sections. Pedestrian and stodgy, a poor thing by comparison, but not at all bad in its own right: pedantic rather than inspired. CD is even slower, and in my opinion is a dreadful performance without a single redeeming feature. The three singers are accomplished but again the dreary tempo fails to lift the song out of the mundane into the exciting, and none of the three exhibit anything more than conventional interpretation.
'Neath my lattice: SA gives a very serviceable rendering of this aria. Lacking the most brilliant voice, the soprano knows how to phrase the song to get the best effect. I bet there are plenty of professional singers who would not render this song so well. My friend, the late John Foster, on hearing this performance, remarked "She knows her vocal limitations". PC is perhaps marginally more successful, though I don't care for the pedantic individual placing of all the notes in some of the high runs. The soprano has a good voice, but there is little interpretation and it is taken in a very pedestrian and plodding way. She blasts on top notes. Both these singers perform the standard cadenza that is printed in the vocal score. CD sings a bizarre unidentifiable cadenza (which doesn't agree with the VS, nor does it seem to agree with the mutilated Yaw cadenza printed in "Sing with Sullivan"). The soprano seems quite unable to sing it, so why on earth put it in? This is a most inadequate performance which should never have been released. It is taken at a totally pedantic and jog-trot tempo, and the soprano does nothing at all with it. This performance is one big yawn. (If she were Olympia, one would be itching to wind her up!). It does no credit either to the singer or to Sullivan. We have yet to hear this aria sung as it really ought to be sung. What a shame no one ever thought to bring it to the attention of Joan Sutherland!
Chorus of beggars — When my father: All three performances are worth listening to, and good in their own individual ways. The SA baritone paces and phrases the song in a way that (listening to it without reference to the other two) I could not imagine bettered. In the case of CD it is difficult to put one's finger on exactly what is wrong with the delivery of the song, for the singer definitely tries to put expression into it, but makes it obvious that he is doing so. Nothing seems to emerge as being directly from his personality.
Peace be upon this house — I care not if the cup: The tenor is the weakest member of the SA cast. The solo is rushed, and the tenor has a raucous voice; particularly unpleasant is his "up, up, up" in an ungrateful staccato which is echoed by the chorus. PC sings at a more sensible speed, but with a wobble on sustained notes, and some apparent strain on top. In places it is awkwardly phrased. CD is competent but just dull. To hear a satisfying performance of this song you have to go back to the singles of Walter Glynne and Webster Booth, or possibly that of Tom Round.
Musical maidens are we: SA sounds quite adequate. PC & CD are impossibly slow, I found it very trying to sit through these performances. PC takes the number very carefully, but this number requires a degree of excitement, which this performance lacks. It moves forward like a dirge. Honey-of-Life's dance sounds like a dignified minuet rather than an eastern dance. One could imagine Queen Victoria performing it like that at Balmoral ball! But to give justice, the chorus does built up a bit better at the end.
Recitative & Hassan's Dance & chorus: The same remarks reply.
Peace be upon this house — We have come to invade: SA is at about the right tempo, but the singers are not up to singing it at this speed. There is a splendid bottom note on "creep out on tip toe". PC & CD are dull, leisurely and humourless. You will listen in vain to hear the "wild carouse" which Abdallah sings of stopping!
If the Sultan's Executioner: SA is probably the definitive version of this superb patter song, except that not all the words are clear. PC & CD seem to have got stuck in the mud. PC is so slow as to rob it of all interest. CD is not bad, but too slow to give the impression of confusion. It is all too careful and precise. There is not a hint of an expression of fear.
I'm the Sultan's vigilant Visier: SA gets the tempo about right, though the cast have problems coping with it. The words are not clear, but this probably doesn't matter that much. This performance has the frenetic chaotic vitality that the number requires. CD also gets it right and the rather better cast can cope with it. This is definitely the best performance of this number. PC is impossibly slow and dreary, not sounding in the least like a dervish dance except at the very end.
Finale Act 1: In the first part PC has the edge over SA, but both are adequate. CD is better than either. In part 2 (starting from "I am the Sultan") CD is definitely the best. Both it and SA have a dramatic tension, and CD of course, does not have the technical imperfections that mar SA. PC totally lacks tension. In SA, "Oh luckless hour" has a feeling of tension and despair as is required: the mood is brought out beautifully. The Sultan's narration has an urgency but the trumpet fanfare at the end is not good. "With martial gait" has the proper martial gait, and plenty of fire and oomph. The sections following have a dramatic intensity and move forward with urgency. "Hassan thy pity I entreat" presents the necessary contrast in tempo to what has gone before. "O lady do not fail" returns to the dynamic pulse after the legato interlude. In PC "Oh luckless hour" is very competently sung, but the tempo cannot lift the music out of the hum-drum. "Hark the distant roll" builds up better, but there is a horrible squeal of trumpets at the end. "With martial gait" is too slow, not very martial. "He whom you call Hassan" is slow and pedantic. The singers cannot sustain or keep my interest. I was beginning by this time to understand why the MD was taking it at this tempo — he is treating the music with the reverence of oratorio and forgets that it is comic opera. "Hassan, thy pity" is just right, but it should have formed a contrast in tempo with what preceded it — like an oasis of calm in the midst of a frenetic finale. In CD "Oh luckless hour" and "With martial gait" both go very well with plenty of pace. "Attended by these palace warders" also goes well, but in "I am the Sultan" there is no real characterisation or interpretation. "Hassan, thy pity" goes quite well, but the subsequent recitative lacks momentum. The tempi are limp and flaccid.
Oh what is love: All three recordings have grace and charm, but CD (in context) is probably the most accomplished, though out of context it is acceptable without distinction. It doesn't really "sell the song" to the listener.
If you or I should tell the truth: SA has excellent pace, but the tenor blasts his top notes. The tempo is right, the repeats of "taradiddle-id-iddle" sound natural patter and not laboured. PC is very slow and has no pace at all. This should be a patter song; the music makes no sense at this tempo. The dance is impossible! CD is not as slow as PC, and has a bit of pace, but SA wins for verve. The CD singers try to treat it as oratorio rather than comic opera, and there is no sense of humour in the singing.
From morning prayer: All three are satisfactory, CD probably the best. SA is very good, and every word is clear even at this vigorous tempo.
Sultan's Song: PC is dreadful, underlining all that is wrong with the song. The baritone does not even seem to be trying to get anything out of the song, while the SA baritone gets quite a lot. Although this performance (SA) cannot disguise the poverty of the song, it has tremendous verve, and the phrasing is inspired. CD gets little more out of the song than PC, and both these versions are dreary. CD's turgid performance does nothing for the song, and makes one wonder if a bass-baritone ought to be singing it. The role was created by Henry Lytton.
In the heart of my hearts: SA is the only recording with any life, though both the others have far more accomplished contraltos, who must have been capable of singing it better given more sympathetic conductors. Both PC & CD are very slow. PC is sung without style or charm, and at so slow a pace that it robs the number of any interest. SA goes at about the right speed, and the Dancing Sunbeam has the right pompous characterisation for the role. CD is another dreary and careful performance: the contralto doesn't have a clue about the character of Dancing Sunbeam.
Sultan/Sultana duet: SA is very laboured, and the Sultana's exaggerated "baby talk" is in doubtful taste. The two singers do their best, and act this song excellently, but the only overall effect is to draw attention to the musical poverty of the melodic line. Sullivan's setting underlines the dramatic content of the verses, apparently unaware that Hood was not Gilbert and his verse does not sustain such treatment. An attractive melodic setting would have been better. PC is slightly better, though I rather doubt if anything could redeem this song (I have never understood why the first night critics singled it out for special praise!). In PC's rendering, most of it comes across like recitative. CD is not really an improvement on PC. In trying to play down the "baby talk" the two singers just succeed in making the song totally uninteresting: they don't begin to get under the skin of it. I'm not sure what technique should be used to make the song work, but this isn't it.
Chorus & recitative — Where am I? CD is the clearest, but otherwise this number seems to call for little comment.
It's a busy, busy, busy, busy day for me: SA gets the speed right but the cast cannot articulate the words at that speed. Although taken as a patter song, the Yussuf still manages to insert the romantic interlude, and this has the effect of creating an effective contrast of tempo. PC is absurdly slow — it sounds like a laid-back day rather than a busy one. The tenor seems to be trying to interpret it as a romantic farewell, instead of a patter song. His verse "of overpowering high degree" is self-indulgent. CD is a quite reasonable compromise tempo-wise, and would have been really good if the singing had been more interesting. Again, I can't put my finger on precisely what is wrong; the slow passages drag even though the patter is about the right tempo. This performance so nearly works it is a shame that it doesn't quite.
Our tale is told: This one of my favourite numbers in the score. SA is rushed and the tenor has trouble coping with it. A better tenor might have coped at this tempo, but probably this one would have been worse than he is at a slower tempo. PC is preferable but marginally too slow; it lacks a certain charm. However both these recordings have more interesting singing than CD, which gets the tempo just right. For some reason SA performs this number as a duet rather than a solo.
Recitative; What does it mean? — Joy and Sorrow: SA is raucous and ragged and the voices do not blend well. The singers are not good enough to make the singing blend into a good ensemble. PC is a much more accomplished piece of harmony singing, but marred by the very slow tempo. At this tempo, it is difficult to maintain interest. CD is way ahead of the other two — a really fine performance. The singers can handle a piece like this which is pure harmony and requires nothing but good singing — no interpretation, no characterisation.
Mother Hubbard Song: PC & CD give adequate renderings of this boring song. SA showed excellent critical judgement in omitting it. The CD singers do their best with this song, but they are unable to make it interesting, though they do a sterling job. There are two verses only in the Chappell libretto, three in the score and on the recordings. Three verses is far too many, the two given in the libretto would be quite sufficient.
Entrance of the Sultan: SA is raucous and laboured. PC is better. CD is the best of the three.
Small Street Arab: All three versions are good, but then this song is a gift on a silver salver to a good patter baritone. All three conductors seem to have found the best tempo. The SA singers seem to have a bit of trouble fitting the words round the notes. The Hassan seems to manage rather well, but it was a struggle. His word arrangements are rather different from those in the vocal score, and neither quite agree with the words in the Chappell libretto. CD is a competent performance, but the voice itself is devoid of interest.
Finale Act 2: Nothing much to comment on.