Reviews of the HMV Electrical Ruddigore
The Gramophone, 1931
[This series of articles from The Gramophone cover HMV's 1931 recording of Ruddigore.
While reading this, it is useful to bear in mind that Ruddigore was a considerably less well known opera, even to G&S fans, than it is today. For this reason, the reviewer, Herman Klein, begins the piece with a somewhat lengthy background of the opera itself.
Klein was uniquely qualified to write with perspective on the subject, as he witnessed every G&S first night from The Sorcerer onwards, and even at the end of his life, was obviously still very much a fan (as well as a critic) of the operas.]
[THE GRAMOPHONE, January 1932, (Vol. IX); pg. 321]
"RUDDIGORE" IN RETROSPECT
by HERMAN KLEIN
Herman Klein, from his book
Musicians and Mummers (Cassell: London, 1925)
It will be forty-five years on the 22nd of this month since Ruddigore, or the Witch's Curse, a comic opera in two acts, by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, was produced at the Savoy Theatre in the presence of the most brilliant and distinguished audience that I ever saw at one of those wonderful first nights; and I remember them all from The Sorcerer onwards. The interest in Ruddigore was of a special kind, because it was known that the author was making something of a new departure in this parody of transpontine melodrama. The nucleus of the idea he had taken from his own clever little sketch, Ages Ago, which I must have seen at least three times during its long run at the German Reed's Entertainment in Regent Street. He gave this the topsy-turvy touch peculiar to all his creations, while the dialogue and lyrics were quite up to the customary Gilbertian mark. Yet at the outset the cleverness of the whole thing escaped appreciation. It took more than one revival to bring home to a rather dense public the subtle humour of a plot concerned with the curse that compelled the wicked Sir Despard Murgatroyd and his descendants to commit a crime every day, coupled with the device of bringing to life the family portraits and making them the instruments to enforce the fulfilment of the family curse.
This last naturally proved the pivotal scene of the story, and, had the rest been equally good, all would have been well. But, although the denouement was quickly altered, the second act has always remained scrappy and incoherent, leaving as the sole weight to balance the other side of the scale — what? Some of the most charming, original, and delightful music that Sullivan has put into any of his Savoy scores. True, it never acquired the popularity of its near neighbours in date, The Yeoman [sic] of the Guard and The Gondoliers, much less of the earlier favourites such as Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Yet even then the first run lasted for ten months, and good judges were consistently echoing my opinion that the music "was certainly not a whit inferior in tuneful grace, humorous character, picturesque fancy, and masterly knowledge of effect" to the best of the composer's efforts. It belonged to what many consider his finest period — that of The Golden Legend, first heard at the Leeds Festival of the previous autumn — and, indeed, we read in the excellent biography of Herbert Sullivan and Newman Flower that "From the superb numbers, of the Legend he could return, completely attuned, to compose the lightest of music in Ruddigore. He always considered that this Opera contained some of the best of his light opera composition[s]."
It is interesting now to note (thanks to the same biographers) the circumstances in which Ruddigore had been first discussed by the two famous Savoyards just a year previously:—
"...a January of snow. One morning, in the midst of a blizzard, a snow-covered figure, battled his way against the driving sleet up to the steps of Sullivan's house. It, was Gilbert, who brought with him the outline of an entirely new plot. So pleased was he with the theme, that he had hurried off to Sullivan before he had begun to work his story out. It was Sullivan who let him in, who tried to brush a mountain of snow from his overcoat. Gilbert appeared as a veritable visitor from the North Pole. They went to their chairs and the fire . . . . Gilbert had brought the idea for Ruddigore.
"They sat there, these two, the windows banking up with snow, scheming out the story. Lunch-time came, was announced, and passed. Who wanted lunch? The twain were absorbed by the theme. An hour later the manservant announced lunch again. They went on talking, they talked as they ate and Ruddigore was a practical entity by the time they had finished the meal."
Such was the inception of the piece which His Master's Voice now adds to the list of its Savoy Albums electrically recorded under the supervision of Mr. Rupert D'Oyly Carte. If not exactly familiar, the plot is probably as well known to the readers of these pages as it is to most of the members of that healthy young body, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, whereof I confess that I know nothing beyond its name — and I am not even sure that I have got that right. In any case, "Not mine to sing the stately grace" of the crafty but criminal Murgatroyds as they step from their full-length frames in the picture gallery at Ruddigore Castle; or to recall the quaint conceits uttered by that fascinating lunatic, Mad Margaret. Permit me to do something more useful by quoting — at full length — the original cast, if only because it contained certain honoured names that were not expected subsequently to reappear in a Savoy playbill; thus, as Percy Fitzgerald put it, "The loss of Grossmith was impending . . . . Rutland Barrington had seceded — Durward Lely, that finished tenor, was soon to depart; his successor, Courtice Pounds, was to follow. Jessie Bond, after a long service was to go also." But of these Barrington, Pounds and Jessie Bond were to remain for a time longer; whereas one favourite then singing in her last opera was the delightful Leonora Braham, who, sadly neglected, poor thing, survived in retirement until her death a few weeks back. What an admirable vocalist and actress she was! Well, here was the cast:
|Robin Oakapple||Mr. George Grossmith|
|Richard Dauntless||Mr. Durward Lely|
|Sir Despard Murgatroyd||Mr. Rutland Barrington|
|Old Adam Goodheart||Mr. Rudolph Lewis|
|Sir Roderic Murgatroyd||Mr. Richard Temple|
|Rose Maybud||Miss Leonora Braham|
|Mad Margaret||Miss Jessie Bond|
|Dame Hannah||Miss Rosina Brandram|
I omit the seven Ghosts, but if they are still "walking" they will, I am sure, forgive me. I do not intend making any comparisons between the galaxy of talent enumerated in the original Savoy cast and the group of artists collected by the present Mr. D'Oyly Carte for the H.M.V. performance; it would obviously be unfair to do so. The actual distribution is as follows:—
|Robin Oakapple||Mr. George Baker|
|Richard Dauntless||Mr. Derek Oldham|
|Sir Despard Murgatroyd||Mr. Sydney Granville|
|Old Adam Goodheart||Mr. Stuart Robertson|
|Rose Maybud||Miss Muriel Dickson|
|Mad Margaret||Miss Nellie Briercliffe|
|Dame Hannah||Miss Dorothy Gill|
|Conductor||Dr. Malcolm Sargent|
The Album is completed on nine double-sided discs (numbered DB4005 to 4013), and on the inside cover is provided a full synopsis of the plot corresponding in sequential order with the series of records as played. It would be still more satisfying, of course, if these reproductions could include Gilbert's witty dialogue, which is necessarily missed by all who love its clever "quips and cranks" and scintillating repartee. In compensation for its absence, one ought to be able to distinguish with ease every line of the lyrics; but that, I fear, is more than could be said with truth of most of the singers, notably those of the fair sex and the tenor, Mr. Derek Oldham, who swallows too many consonants, and puts tone too exclusively in front of language. One may well ask, where is the famous Savoy diction gone? Only three or four of the men seem to have caught a glimpse of the old tradition. For example, Mr. Baker, Mr. Robertson, Mr. Granville, and Mr. Darrell Fancourt, who happily crops up in some of the second-act records, named on the labels if not in the cast. Miss Dickson's enunciation is especially faulty; it lacks refinement and comprises too many superfluous diphthongs. Miss Nellie Briercliffe is better in these respects, and her singing of Mad Margaret's scena, Cheerily carols the lark — a masterpiece of verbal and vocal humour — rises well on the way to the Jessie Bond level.
The Gilbert & Sullivan News — March, 1932
But the patter of the girls (always excepting the chorus) is nothing like so clear as it ought to be. There is an unusual quantity of Gilbert's rapid fire patter in Ruddigore, and too few of these singers appear to have the secret of it. Mr. Baker, for one, sets the right example, and when he says to Mr. Derek Oldham, "My boy, you may take it from me," it would be well if his injunction were literally obeyed. Does anyone look after these things, I wonder? Mr. Carte is responsible, of course, for the "supervision"; and so in a sense, I suppose, is Dr. Malcolm Sargent, though I don't exactly see how the conductor can be expected to tackle problems of enunciation when his forces are gathered before the microphone. At the same time, it seems to me that the same preparatory polish ought to be imparted to the work of the principals that one perceives so plainly in that of the chorus and orchestra. The voices of the former are delightfully fresh, their words crisp and distinct. The accompaniments are played to perfection, and it is a treat to hear the Sullivanesque overture, with its sustained vivacity, its weird suggestions of the supernatural, its lightning runs for the violins, and its amazing mastery of form, so splendidly rendered. The ensembles and the two finales go with capital spirit, and I look forward to the day when television as applied to the gramophone will enable us equally to enjoy the dances, the stage gestures, and the picturesque costumes.
To return for a last word as to the singing. If some of the solos and duets are disappointing, no fault can be found with the majority of the numbers; while in things like the madrigalian section of the first finale there emerges a degree of precision and a quality of tone that bring back memories of bygone days. Again, I congratulate all concerned upon the advancement of a worthy Savoyard and successor to the lamented Bertha Lewis in the person of Miss Dorothy Gill. Her voice, a genuine English contralto, reminds me more of Rosina Brandram's than of Bertha Lewis's, which showed a growing tendency to force up the chest register; but, on the other hand, Miss Gill needs to equalise the upper part of her scale, and also to cultivate with greater breadth of style more dignity and repose of delivery. I have only to add that the recording of the entire Album is up to the highest H.M.V. standard.
[THE GRAMOPHONE, February 1932, (Vol. IX); pg. 371]
(To the Editor of The Gramophone)
Dear Sir,— I hope Mr. Klein will allow me to call in question one small point in his delightful article on Ruddigore. He writes: "It is a treat to hear the Sullivanesque overture, with its sustained vivacity, its weird suggestions of the supernatural, its lightning runs for the violins, and its amazing mastery of form, so splendidly rendered." I think he will find that, as a matter of fact, the Overture recorded by H.M.V. is — so far as the arrangement goes — not Sullivan's at all. When the opera was revived after its long silence, several of the numbers were, for one reason or another, omitted. What satisfied the author and the composer was, apparently, not considered good enough for this more enlightened generation! Among the numbers so omitted were the duet The battle's roar is over and the second Finale. As, however, both these numbers figured in Sullivan's Overture, and as it would never have done for the Overture to contain tunes which were not heard again, it became necessary to re-write the work, and the task was committed to — I think — Mr. Geoffrey Toye, the then conductor of the D'Oyly Carte Company. This is the Overture now performed, and that it is an effective piece of work is evident to all who hear it. Sullivan's original Overture was, doubtless, not one of his best. It cannot be compared with those he wrote for Iolanthe or The Yeomen. Yet one cannot help regretting its complete disappearance. There is a characteristic charm about it, a smoothness in the writing, a naturalness in the transition from tune to tune, and withal a unity, which are not, I think, so apparent in its successor. That, of course, is largely a matter of taste. Whatever the rival merits of the two works, the fact remains that the present Overture is not by Sullivan, and the name of the arranger ought surely to be stated on the record, in justice to all parties concerned.
H. H. E.
The above letter was submitted to Mr. Geoffrey Toye, who wrote as follows to Mr. Klein:—
"In the original Full Scores the Overtures to Iolanthe and Yeomen are in Sullivan's handwriting, including all the details of the scoring.
With regard to the Overtures of the other operas, it is generally understood that these were left for Mr. Cellier, the conductor, to arrange — very often at the last moment before the date of the production. These Overtures therefore vary in merit and are generally considered to be inferior to the two mentioned above. [It is not true that Cellier wrote all but two of the overtures, and it is interesting to know that this is the perspective from which Toye proceded. —ed.]
When we revived Ruddigore an Overture of mine was substituted for the existing one, which incidentally contained a tune which was being omitted in our production of the opera.
This Overture is the one now played before the opera, and is recorded on H.M.V. DB4005. I also substituted a new Overture for Pirates, which seemed to require it. Whether these Overtures have more merit than the old ones is a matter which posterity can judge for itself. [The Toye overture for Pirates does not seem to have survied. —ed.]
I am aware that the suggestion of any alterations to the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas fills the purists with alarm and despondency, but I will not for a moment admit the 'untouchability' of these excellent Operas as opposed to all others. If works such as Aïda, Carmen, Lohengrin, Hoffmann and many others can be and are habitually cut to meet modern conditions why not the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas? Moreover, we know that Sullivan himself had the intention of 'making some changes when he had the time,' especially in the case of Pinafore, of which he said, later in life, that he had written some of the numbers and choruses in the wrong keys. As it turned out, however, he was always busy on some new production, and died before he had time to make the alterations.
Perhaps I should add, for the benefit of the faithful, that I took the greatest trouble to satisfy myself about the writing of these operas, making the fullest enquiries from every available source, including people who were on the stage and in the orchestra in the opera companies in the time of Sullivan and Cellier."
Mr. Klein writes:—
"I would like to thank Mr. Geoffrey Toye for his very kind and helpful letter, which I can confirm on every point. I can also ensure the enthusiasts that no one could have been more satisfied than Sullivan himself was nor more grateful for the assistance that he received in these matters."
[Note: The preceding comment by Klein seems to me almost incomprehensible. Robert Morrison interprets Klein to be saying that:
Sullivan was satisfied with and grateful for the assistance that he received in relation to the arrangement of the operas' overtures when lack of time prevented him from undertaking these tasks himself (which, given his working habits, was more often than not). The implication being that Sullivan did not regard such work by "other hands" to be inferior to his own. (Presumably if he had, he would have substituted a self-penned overture at the earliest opportunity — either during the production's original run or at the time of its subsequent revival.) On the other hand, given that N. M. Cameron wrote in his Savoy Opera Record reviews of 1927 that: "It is a notorious vice of the British public to talk not only during overtures but even during performances…," perhaps Sullivan simply could not be bothered wasting his time writing an overture that hardly anyone would pay attention to!)]