Sullivan & Co.: The Operas That Got Away
Arthur Davies, tenor
Gareth Jones, baritone
Gillian Knight, contralto
Valerie Masterson, soprano
Frances McCafferty, mezzo-soprano
Richard Suart, baritone
The National Symphony Orchestra
David Steadman, conductor
This disc contains selections from all of Sullivan's operas that were written or first performed in the 1890's, aside from those he wrote with Gilbert. These late operas (that "got away") are full of gems that show a composer fully in command of his art, and not a word of Gilbert anywhere to be found. In many of them, Sullivan's gift of orchestration, which he often tamped down in the Gilbert operas, is shown in full bloom.
Aiding the cause are the fully professional forces of the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Steadman, and six soloists with well-known Sullivan credentials: Arthur Davies, Gareth Jones, Gillian Knight, Valerie Masterson, Frances McCafferty, and Richard Suart. The professional chorus is unnamed and a little thin-sounding in spots.
Sullivan's music apart from Gilbert has enjoyed increasingly frequent respect in the recording studio, but this is the first time that so much of his operatic music from the 1890s—music that shows him in his most favorable element—has been recorded by such top-quality forces. And indeed, these are probably the best performances the material has received in this century. If Sullivan & Co. achieves its objective—to force a reappraisal of the composer's non-Gilbert music—it could well be the most important Sullivan recording of the last quarter-century. Regardless of whether these lofty objectives are met, it is a recording that will delight any lover of Sullivan's music and will leave most listeners with a far better perspective on his achievements as a composer.
It is a pity that nearly half-an-hour of the CD's maximum capacity is left unused, but this was surely a financial necessity. As it was, the recording cost £30,000, half of which the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society had to raise on its own. One is left thirsting for complete recordings of these operas on the professional level heard here, but it's clear this dream will take time to achieve, due to the enormous expense involved. One might have wished that "Ho! Jolly Jenkin" from Ivanhoe and the Drinking Song from The Rose of Persia, both of which have been well served on records, had been left out in favor of less-often-heard selections, but otherwise the programme is well chosen.
Regrettably, the liner notes are not up to the level of the recording itself. For example:
- "Arthur Sullivan was the most critical of English composers." One wonders, in comparison to whom? Do not even Purcell, Elgar, or Britten measure up to Sullivan?
- ". . . Sullivan never strayed beyond the boundaries of his genius." Again, in comparison to whom? The statement implies that Sullivan never failed musically, a statement I wouldn't even make about Beethoven, much less about Sullivan.
- ". . . his judgement is vindicated by the consistent artistic success of his music." Again, this implies that everything he wrote was of a uniformly high level, which is surely not the case. It is not demeaning Sullivan to observe that, like all composers, some of his works are better than others. Certainly, some of these operas did fail with the public, a fact the notes never mention. (Far better, I think, to confront this head on, and to explain it, than to hope that no one will look up The Beauty Stone and find that it ran for only 50 performances.)
- "His ambition was not to edify but to delight." But surely, sacred pieces like The Martyr of Antioch were intended partly to edify.
- "Like the troubadours of medieval Provence, he might have described his art as the Gay Science." An incomprehensible statement.
- "Such an art requires neither apology nor explanation." But, the liner notes are precisely that: an explanation.
- "[His music] exists in and of its own sake, and is to be appreciated as an enhancement of life through pleasure. To please the listener is therefore the only purpose of the present disc . . . ," implying that other discs have a different purpose?
And so forth. Nowhere in the liner notes is W. S. Gilbert mentioned—even in connection with The Martyr of Antioch, for which Gilbert assisted Sullivan in adapting the original Milman poem. There are potted summaries of each opera, explaining how the included numbers figure in the plot. The words are included for all the selections.
It is hard to single out any item, because they are all so good. The Martyr of Antioch and Ivanhoe selections show Sullivan's skill at orchestration to particular advantage. There are four selections from Haddon Hall, more than any other opera. While Haddon is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps it would have been wiser to give more air time to The Rose of Persia (represented only by the Drinking Song). The selections from The Chieftain struck me as slightly weaker than the rest. But, it must frankly be acknowledged that this opera was one of the greatest failures of Sullivan's career. Maybe, in this case, posterity was right.
Some people have criticized Richard Suart's Devil in The Beauty Stone, but I find him perfect for the role, and I only wish more people could hear the entire opera. Suart also shines in "If you wish to appear as an Irish type" from The Emerald Isle. The selections from this last opera bring a fitting end to the disc, and they show that Sullivan was still in full command of his powers at the end of his life. Every opera has a musical "tint" appropriate to the time and place. This is so much more evident when selections from multiple operas are juxtaposed, as on this disc.
Writing in the Sept. 18, 1998, issue of The Times of London, John Higgins gave the recording two out of three stars, and wrote:
A silly title for a serious compilation. "Sullivan without Gilbert" would have been better. TER has put together pieces from the works Sir Arthur composed to words provided by hands other than those of his great partner. Some, such as The Martyr of Antioch (text by The Very Revd Hart Millman), sound seriously boring. Others, such as Ivanhoe, are still remembered.
From the latter Gareth Jones sings Friar Tuck's "Ho! Jolly Jenkin" with gusto. It is one of three lively drinking songs, the others, both tackled by Arthur Davies, coming from The Chieftain and The Rose of Persia. The latter is in praise of the grape — unthinkable now in that region.
Rupert D'Oyly Carte [sic] produced a couple of these non-G&S pieces, and TER has engaged some D'Oyly Carte stalwarts for its cast. Valerie Masterson and Gillian Knight may not be the powers they once were but certainly know the style. Best of all is Richard Suart as Professor Bunn from Sullivan's unfinished final work, The Emerald Isle. He delivers "If you want to appear as an Irish type" in a way that could have the Race Relations Board knocking at the door.
Dan Kravetz wrote:
I am grateful that this release has materialized and hope that this will lead to a boom in recording Sullivan's non-Gilbert works for the commercial market.
I should disclose from the outset that I specialize in producing and conducting these works at the New York G&S Society and have my own ideas as to how they should be presented that may differ with the folks responsible for this CD. Nevertheless, I will try to look at it from the perspective of a G&S fan who is exploring new material.
The CD cover is visually enticing, but if you don't know the design consists of icons from Savoy Theatre souvenir programs, you'll wonder what it has to do with Sullivan. I would have selected a photo or drawing of the composer himself, and stressed "Sir Arthur Sullivan" in the title. The point is grabbing as much attention as possible from customers browsing in the record shops.
I am wery well aware of the the risks being taken to present Sullivan to the music-loving public as something other than half of G&S. The liner notes reveal an insecurity about the project in desribing Sullivan as someone who "never strayed beyond the boundaries of his genius." Does true genius have boundaries? Is it praising Sullivan to declare that he never attempted to be anything other than he was? The recording itself bears considerable evidence that Sullivan was continually reinventing himself, and so does the body of his work not used on the recording. To state that Sullivan's art "requires neither apologies nor explanation" is in itself something of an apology, but again, I realize how provocative this release is in some circles, and how certain critics may object to its very existence as unworthy of the effort. The deliberate omission of W. S. Gilbert's name in connection with The Martyr of Antioch to avoid repercussions may have been very necessary — I can only say I await the day when admirers of Sullivan as an all-around composer can "come out of the closet."
The most interesting pieces on the disc are the Martyr excerpts. The work, despite the title of the disc, is not an opera. Perhaps it was too risky to wait for an entire CD of excerpts from choral works, so these are welcome. Both included pieces are to be sung by heathens or pagans (as opposed to Christians), and Sullivan did some brilliant rhythmic and melodic work. I'll have to listen to more of Martyr to see what else is there. The Ivanhoe excerpts are quite well done, and demonstrate how well a good professional recording of the complete opera might sound.
I can't help but find problems with the performances of excerpts from Haddon Hall, The Chieftain, The Beauty Stone, The Rose of Persia and The Emerald Isle, all of which I know very well. Several singers with G&S opera performing credentials seem to have come to the studio to give performances of technical quality with little commitment to the works in question (probably because they don't know them the way they know the G&S canon). As a result, much of the beauty and charm of these selections is left unexplored. In Haddon, the "budding bloom" madrigal is beautifully sung, but plods along in too stately a fashion for the joy and cheer it purports to express. "The sun's in the sky," on the other hand, doesn't stop to savor its pastoral picture of budding romance, and Frances McCafferty is more contralto than mezzo, showing little of the sauciness and mischief of her character. Gareth Jones and Gillian Knight do very well with their solos.
In The Chieftain, Arthur Davies could use a bit more energy in the gay Hussar's drinking song. His French duet with Valerie Masterson is gotten through without much pointing out of the absurdity of the situation — it's almost too much like real French operetta as opposed to the English making fun of it.
The Beauty Stone is undercut by the soloists in both its excerpts. Richard Suart, a high baritone, is simply wrong for the Devil, a bass role if there ever was one. Never mind that Walter Passmore created the part; it was composed for a bass voice. Masterson, who is still a Josephine to die for, is just too sweet and placid to convey the conniving desperation of Saida in her "Ride on!" aria. They both give excellent renditions of the music—better than one is likely to hear in a lifetime—but do not serve to show this opera in its best light.
In The Rose of Persia, why give us another tenor driking song when such numbers as the "Harum Scarum" trio and "Sultan's Executioner" could have been tapped as sure-fire knockouts? The Emerald Isle selections are quite nicely brought off, although "On the heights" (one of the most gorgeous trios ever written by anyone) seems too perfunctory.
And there is the question of why the disk runs only 52 minutes, when 25 minutes more could have fit easily. I suppose money is the answer, and the sponsors of the selections are to be congratulated for the service they have done. My reservations aside, this CD is a must-buy for anyone who treasures the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Don't miss it!
Stephen Turnbull, Secretary of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, had this to say about the selection of repertory:
The programming was bound to come out a little unbalanced. We started out with a "long list" of about 30 items, and various considerations, artistic and financial, played their part in the whittling down. One was a reduction in the cast from two sopranos to one; another the reassignment of roles and recasting consequent on the death of Donald Adams; a third was understanding ourselves that material familiar to us as fans/enthusiasts (such as "Ho! Jolly Jenkin") is still completely unknown to the general record-buying public.