SULLIVAN Ivanhoe • David Lloyd-Jones, cond; Toby Spence (Ivanhoe); James Rutherford (Sir Brian); Geraldine McGreevy (Rebecca); Neal Davies (Richard Lionheart); Janice Watson (Rowena); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Ulrica); Matthew Brook (Read more class="ARIAL12i">Friar Tuck); Peter Rose (Cedric); Stephen Gadd (Lucas); et al.; Adrian Partington Singers; BBC Natl O of Wales • CHANDOS 10578 (3 CDs: 165:33 Text and Translation)
Finally, 119 years after its extravagant premiere, we have the first professional recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s grand (or as he preferred, romantic) opera, the piece he believed he was truly destined to write. It was to be the beginning of a renaissance for English opera, as envisioned and funded by Richard D’Oyly Carte, in a theater built especially for the purpose. It ran for 155 performances in its first season, and a total of 161 in two, a mediocre record compared to the Savoy colossi, but remarkable by any other standard. Alas, while the opera was a brilliant success, Carte’s venture was not, and the precipitous failure of the Royal English Opera and the unparalleled success of the G&S legacy have completely and unjustly overshadowed Ivanhoe. Except for a tour of an abridged version by the Carl Rosa Company, and an unremarkable run in Berlin, it has seen few productions since its first, and even Sullivan seemed to have abandoned it. It took the enthusiasm of the late Richard Hickox, funding from the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, and the enterprising Chandos label’s usual keenness for reviving forgotten English music to restore it for modern audiences.
So what is Sullivan without Gilbert like? Not, as it turns out, all that different from Sullivan with Gilbert during that period. Written after The Gondoliers, many passages bear a stylistic likeness to it and to the preceding The Yeomen of the Guard. The similarity is most obvious in the scenes of pageantry, and in Friar Tuck’s act II “The Wind Blows Cold Across the Moor,” but it is easy to imagine many passages, perhaps at a slightly faster tempo and with a bit more lilt, comfortably fitting into a G&S opera. Where it diverges from this model, it does so either in response to librettist Julian Sturgis’s more long-lined and elevated (or in some cases archaic) style, or to Wagner’s obvious influence. The former is not surprising, given Sullivan’s acknowledged sensitivity to word-setting; nor is the latter, though he claimed to be unimpressed with Wagnerian “somberness” and the “metaphysical music” of the German school. Sullivan was ever the master of absorbing other styles, so when writing grand opera, early Wagner was an obvious resource, as was bel canto Italian opera, in the melodic style and dramatic structure, and such Sullivan stalwarts as Schubert, Mendelssohn, and English ballad opera. Sullivan’s genius is that it all works so well. He is aided by Sturgis’s long but tightly constructed libretto, true to the story and the style of Walter Scott, which distills the event-filled novel into nine dramatic scenes. It assumes some knowledge of the story—reasonable in a Victorian opera audience, but perhaps a concern for a modern listener—allowing it to focus on critical interactions between the characters. As experienced here, the criticisms it has occasionally received seem unjust. It is just as stage-worthy as any number of Verdi’s operas based on historical novels, its only dramatic faults being the logistically understandable banishment of large-scale combat offstage, and the rather abrupt and incredible deus-ex-machina resolution of the final conflict. (Scott is heavily implicated in the latter.) Certainly, the libretto can hardly be the reason for the work’s rapid fall into obscurity. That is more likely found in Sullivan’s stylistic choices for his new school of English opera; he was too clearly looking back when musical revolutions were on the horizon.
In any case, that should not be a concern a century forward, especially given the excellence of this recording. Anglophile conductor David Lloyd-Jones is the perfect replacement for the lamented Hickox, conducting a performance of great concentration and dramatic flow. He and Chandos have assembled a superb British cast, truly Sullivan’s “characters of flesh and blood, with human emotions and human passions.” Of special note are bass-baritone James Rutherford’s love-sotted Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert—is there a Wotan here waiting to appear?—Toby Spence’s heroic and vulnerable Ivanhoe, Geraldine McGreevy’s conflicted and fiery—and meltingly vocalized—Rebecca, Neal Davies’ bluff and sonorous King Richard, Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ darkly sinister Ulrica—the connection with Un ballo in maschera obvious—and the lusty, crusty Friar Tuck of Matthew Brook. Only Janice Watson’s effortful “O Moon, Art Thou Clad in Silver Mail,” one of Sullivan’s loveliest creations, comes close to disappointing, and she is fine elsewhere, especially in the duet with Ivanhoe that follows the aria. The diction of the soloists and chorus deserves special mention. You will rarely need the provided English-only libretto.
Chandos’s presentation and engineering are up to the usual superb standards, with two highly informative essays, a synopsis that provides some of the excluded narrative and backstory, and artist biographies and photos. Like old times! The sound is rich, highly detailed, with great choral presence, and only the smallest amount of highlighting of the soloists. In every way, this is a most welcome addition to the catalog. I cannot imagine anyone the least interested in Sullivan or English opera—or opera, period—passing this by. Bravo to all involved, and many thanks.
Perhaps it is amazing that we have had to wait so long for the first professional recording of Sullivan’s only grand opera. All the more so wen it played for 155 consecutive performances in 1891 and later went touring with the Carl Rosa Opera Company. The English Opera House was built expressly for it and yet this facet of British heritage has been neglected and largely forgotten until now. We have to thank the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society’s sponsors for making this expensive recording possible and Chandos for taking the initiative to mount such a worthwhile production.
The legendary Ivanhoe came to us from the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott in 1819. It was such a great favourite in Victorian times that its appearance in the theatre was certain. There have been two previous amateur recordings on disc (Pearl) and these appeared in 1974 and 1989; the first a live performance by Michael Thomas and a studio one by the Prince Consort. Although the latter gave a better chance of evaluating Sullivan’s score, there were nuances, themes and textures that now shine and provide a different perspective. David Lloyd-Jones must be congratulated for the energetic pace he sets, never rushed but always advancing in a purposeful way. This has made all the difference to the way this kind of recording is perceived.
In the first scene, Sturgis the librettist, has to introduce the characters and background before the plot can develop. Consequently the score’s opening section contains much extended recitative that cannot fully reveal Sullivan’s skill as a composer. We are being introduced to motifs which cleverly weave in and out of the work, sometimes later appearing quite subtly. From Act II onwards both the action and music warms up to powerful crescendos that excite the emotions and varied means of expression. Bright brass fanfares give a true air of pageantry.
The singers provide a polished performance, sing superbly and support each other admirably. Special mention should be made of Janice Watson with sincerity of portrayal and effortless top notes; Toby Spence with his strength of delivery and powerful presence; and Peter Rose for warmth of tone and clear diction. In Janice and Toby’s Act 1 Scene 2 lyrical duet, the balance is superb. The chorus is fine and adds considerable weight to the opera. What has made all the difference in this recording is the impact that is added by the meaningful phrasing of the vocal lines and absence of bland characterisation. The passages in Act I Scene 1 make more sense in expert hands and one can now understand the effects Sullivan was striving to achieve in his score.
Generally, I like the fact that the orchestra is quite forward to allow all layers of orchestration to come across and yet does not unduly mask the singers. However, in the second and third CDs there are times where there seems to be a different balance with the orchestra - more recessed - and sometimes the first and second violins are nearly lost. This said, it does not detract from one’s enjoyment.
Two excellent booklet essays by William Parry and Martin Yates unveil the fascinating background of the Victorian English Opera movement and provide an analysis of Sullivan’s score to help give a wider understanding to the music. I notice that a BBC R3 logo is shown, and this cheers me. For too long the establishment has turned its back on the rich scores of 19th century British composers. Ivanhoe should have been a central work to the 2000 Proms when Sullivan’s centenary took place. We owe it to musicians like Sir Charles Mackerras, Ronald Corp and David Lloyd-Jones to remind us of our previous loss in this genre.
When this recording was planned it was to have been conducted by Richard Hickox who sadly died a year before the recording was to take place and to whom it is dedicated. Thankfully, David Lloyd-Jones picked up the baton and has made an excellent job of providing an interpretation that is sure to please the harshest of critics.
The English Opera House that premiered Ivanhoe still stands, now the Palace Theatre in Cambridge Circus and owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was surprised to see neither his name nor that of the Arts Council heading the subscription lists: this is the sort of venture they should surely be promoting.
-- Raymond J Walker, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Ivanhoeby Arthur Sullivan Performer:
Neal Davies (Bass),
Stephen Gadd (Baritone),
James Rutherford (Bass),
Peter Wedd (Tenor)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: Romantic Written: 1891/1895; England
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
thoroughly entertainingJuly 31, 2017By William S. (Renton, WA)See All My Reviews"Arthur Sullivan is one of those rare artists who was blind to the quality of his own work. Sullivan attended the premiere of "Ivanhoe" with one of his students. Naively damning it with faint praise, the young man offered "I rather like it." "That's more than I can say", responded Sullivan. "A cobbler should stick to his last." The fact is, "Ivanhoe" is a thoroughly entertaining work, quite unlike his boring "serious" oratorios and cantatas. He was a wildly talented song writer, and "Ivanhoe" does not disappoint. True, it will never become a Basic Repertoire opera, but it really should be revived on occasion -- even if having an English-language libretto works against its acceptance."Report Abuse