Notes and Editorial Reviews
FIRST COMPLETE RECORDING
Here we have the first complete CD recording of the final Gilbert and Sullivan romantic comic operetta written in 1896, set in the imaginary land of Pfennig-Halbpfennig. It was recorded at the Ohio Light Opera Company’s 25th anniversary season in 2003. After Utopia Unlimited (1893), Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated – briefly and unsuccessfully – with other partners. D’Oyly Carte brought the two together again in 1895, when they began work on what would be their 14th and final light opera. With an unintended symbolism, The Grand Duke brought their joint careers full circle: many of the ingredients of this plot echoed those of their first collaborative efforts of more than twenty years earlier.
When The Grand Duke opened at the Savoy Theater on March 7, 1896, the reviews ranged from enthusiastic to disappointed. It ran for 123 performances, not a success by G & S standards, and was never again performed professionally in England until D’Oyly Carte presented a concert version in 1975, with a recording of only Sullivan’s music (omitting Gilbert’s extensive, but very entertaining, dialogue). After the premiere, Sullivan wrote a friend: “Why reproach me? I didn’t write the book…another week’s rehearsal with W.S.G. and I should have gone raving mad.” Of the work itself, librettist Gilbert complained: “I am not a proud mother, and I never want to see the misshapen little brat again.” Their well-documented dysfunctional relationship aside, The Grand Duke contains much hilarious material and charming music. It is great to have it here in its first complete CD recording with all the delightful dialogue included.
The Grand Duke
Cast, Chorus & Orchestra of Ohio Light Opera, J. Lynn Thompson, conductor
Full review from FANFARE Magazine:
Although its premiere run was for 123 nights, by Gilbert and Sullivan standards
The Grand Duke’s public reception was poor. It was understood from the first that the opera’s book was largely to blame for its comparative failure. Even Gilbert himself wrote about the work to a friend, “I’m not at all a proud Mother, and I never want to see the ugly misshapen little brat again.” This initial assessment became more severe over time and eventually set in stone, like so many other aspects of Gilbert and Sullivan performance and appreciation. The consensus of fans and critics of the pair’s music was perhaps best expressed in a 1922 work,
Gilbert and Sullivan, a History and a Comment, by H. M. Walbrook, when he wrote damningly about
The Grand Duke, “Its libretto was as cold as the snows of the Jungfrau, without a touch of their beauty.”
The problem with such judgments is not that they’re made, but that they’re seldom reevaluated by future generations. The opinions of Gilbert, Walbrook, and others of their time became an immutable law—so much so that the opera wasn’t staged professionally again for 79 years. In 1975, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company (led by a descendant of Richard D’Oyly Carte, who commissioned and produced the original operas) finally presented a concert version of
The Grand Duke. This led directly to its first professional recording the following year.
So, is it as bad as Walbrook and others made out, or was it a misunderstood gem left undiscovered for so many years? Something in-between is more accurate. Several of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were regarded as nearly perfect at the time of their creation. While time has interposed a cultural difference, both broadly general and specific, which causes its own problems, that’s not the fault of the original operas.
The Grand Duke, on the other hand, is a fixer-upper. At times, it is a confident, witty, and strikingly original piece of musical theater. At other times, it frankly plays like a good imitation of Gilbert and Sullivan, but an imitation, nonetheless.
The worst faults belong to Gilbert. Despite long-standing criticisms to the contrary, the plot isn’t unusually complex or difficult to understand. Some of the characters are well enough defined to remain etched in memory, much like
Iolanthe’s Lord Chancellor,
The Mikado’s Katisha, and
The Yeomen of the Guard’s Jack Point. There is also some clever satire, much of it aimed at the theatrical profession, and the introduction of new and amusing personality types to the range of Gilbertian targets. At the same time, the sheer number of apparently major characters—by my count, at least nine—means that some establish themselves, like Ernest and Lisa, only to fade for most of the work. Another problem is the occasionally threadbare stagecraft, as when a major plot device, the statutory duel, is both devastating in its effects yet somehow unknown by all save one character.
It must be said, too, that a certain amount of the dialogue is simply tired, or well conceived but bluntly executed. And while there are some excellent lyrics in
The Grand Duke, especially after Gilbert hits his stride in act II, in act I he makes the mistake (understandable but common to prolific writers) of reusing forms that he then fills with new material. Unfortunately, the recycled forms can draw attention to themselves and away from the fine content, as in Ernest’s “Theatrical Song” (“Both A and B rehearsal slight . . .”), which recalls one of Jack Point’s numbers (“What is alright for B would quite scandalize C . . .”). Sometimes, too, the content fails to live up to earlier standards.
Sullivan’s music is similarly uneven. Even if we didn’t know that he’d repeatedly argued over the years with Gilbert in favor of greater freedom while setting lyrics, it would be apparent from this score. The dullest things in it, like Rudolph’s opening verses (“A pattern to professors”), form a simple, repetitive backdrop to the words, often with a skipping iambic rhythm and no melodic interest at all. In
The Grand Duke, Sullivan reserves his greatest attention for orchestral passages (such as the mock-solemn march that introduces Grand Duke Rudolph), entirely new types of numbers (the Offenbach-like “Roulette Song” of the sleazy Prince of Monte Carlo), and those vocal pieces where he competes with Gilbert for the audience’s attention. Sullivan has done all this before, but never on such a scale in a single opera.
This work shares the distinction along with
Utopia Limited of being the only extant Gilbert and Sullivan opera with just one “official” recording by the D’Oyly Cartes. (Compare this to seven recordings of
HMS Pinafore, if one includes the 1973 version for home video.) Various amateur performing groups rushed in to fill the gap during the 1970s. All of them are currently unavailable, which is regrettable: while the Cheam Operatic Society’s recording was woefully under-energized (with John Sowden and Alan Smith offering an exemplary Ludwig and Herald, respectively), that of the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society had a good cast in general, and fine conducting.
This leaves us with only the previously mentioned D’Oyly Carte version for comparison. It includes no dialogue, so the Ohio Light Opera Players’ decision to keep roughly three-quarters of the dialogue puts them considerably ahead of the game. I have mixed emotions regarding their cuts. On the one hand, I understand the desire to remove the script’s dross. On the other, some sections of the libretto that were eliminated didn’t require it, such as Rudolph’s humorous address to his chamberlains. Nor can I comprehend why, with only 63 minutes used on each CD, the act I finale had to be split between discs; or why the second verse of several very fine pieces (among them, the wonderfully silly “Herald’s Song” and the beautiful quintet, “Strange the views”) were removed. Then there’s Julia’s mad scene-in-song: why were the pair of opening lines omitted, as they’re the only clue to the fact that she is doing a mad scene instead of meaning every word she says?
Among the lead performers, I was most impressed by Ted Christopher’s lyrical baritone voice, which he deploys with intelligence and obvious enjoyment for his role. His enunciation of the text is so clear that no libretto is necessary to understand Gilbert’s sporadically learned vocabulary, while his phrasing is good enough to make even his recitatives a pleasure to hear. In turn, Julie Wright has a pleasant voice, though marred by the beginnings of a wobble in the upper reaches. She covers well: her dramatic “The die is cast” is good, though the lyrical “Oh, listen to me, dear,” lower in the staff, is still better. She’s played in this edition (for reasons too involuted to state) as a Hungarian-pretending-to-be-English rather than as a German-who-is-English, and displays a reasonably good Hungarian accent except on those few occasions when it swings southeast to Bucharest.
(As a bit of G&S trivia, her Hungarian name as given in this textual revision of the opera is Ilka von Palmay, who actually played the role of Julia Jellicoe in its first staging. I have one recording of her: a bizarre little song in English entitled
Butterfly, cut for the Grammophone Company in Budapest, in 1903. Palmay’s performance there is charmingly vivid.)
Grant Knox’s reedy high baritone marks him as the possessor of a “Grossmith voice,” named after the originator of many choice G&S roles, among them Sir Joseph Porter, King Gama and Ko-Ko. Grossmith’s successors over the years all possessed extremely clear diction, excellent breath support, ample phrasing, impeccable timing, and a keen sense of fun. On records, at least, Knox evinces most of these qualities, but his voice audibly and unpleasantly strains for the higher notes in Ernest’s act-II duet with Julia. Oliver Henderson’s Rudolph, though less reedy, also fits this vocal type. However, he seems short of breath much of the time, and perhaps for this reason often approximates notes rather than hitting them.
Sandra Ross’s intonation is occasionally suspect and her voice coarse, but she clearly cherishes the melodic line in her fine solo, “Take care of him.” Jami Rhodes does a splendid job delivering the lines of the airhead Baroness. In the songs, she’s accurate but lacks sparkle. Jonathan Stinson is delightfully on-target with his Cockney accent and poker-faced delivery as the Herald. Wade Woodward isn’t always clear as the Prince of Monte Carlo while singing, but his voice is a dry, attractive baritone and his manner is superb. Nicolas Wuehrmann and Aline Carnes are effective in largely thankless parts.
The slow pacing of the dialogue makes the acting in general seem exaggerated. Perhaps the tempo was chosen to allow for laughter in performance; regardless, it seriously drags things down. The orchestra is spirited but occasionally ragged, and there are a few clinkers from the brass that should have been eliminated through editing. J. Lynn Thompson conducts well, though I find his tempos too laid back and his rhythms too understated in a few of the livelier act-II numbers, especially the “Roulette Song” and the Baroness’ “Drinking Song.”
There are a few minor errors in the printing (“I don’t divulge in levity,” for instance, should be “I don’t indulge in levity”), but nothing major. Unless I misjudge the sound, it was recorded on stage, without an audience. The ambiance is too dry for the orchestra, but perfect for the singers.
The D’Oyly Carte performers have the style and pacing down, as well as more of the music, a better orchestra and the advantage of three superb performances: John Reed’s Rudolph, Meston Reid’s Ernest, and the cavernously deep Prince of Monte Carlo of John Ayldon. But the set (London/Decca B0000185) requires purchase of all the operas in a single package, and retails for under $200. That would almost seem to make the Ohio Light Opera Company’s recording a recommendation by default. Yet it also has its share of virtues: a fair amount of the dialogue, decent digital sound, and the performances of a fine cast strongly led by the central figure of Christopher’s Ludwig. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no choice involved. The Ohio Light Opera Players’
The Grand Duke is not just the version to acquire; it’s also worth getting to hear Sullivan in late bloom, and Gilbert skewering theater and royalty with relish.
Barry Brenesal, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Grand Duke by Arthur Sullivan
Justin Legris (Voice),
Ted Christopher (Baritone),
Julie Wright (Soprano),
Grant Knox (Voice),
Wade Woodward (Voice),
Oliver Henderson (Voice),
Aline Carnes (Voice),
Jonathan Stinson (Voice),
Arlene Simmonds (Voice),
Sandra Ross (Voice),
Jami Rhodes (Voice),
Lauren Beatty (Voice),
Bertha Curtis (Voice),
Nicholas Wuehrmann (Voice),
Candice Coffee (Voice),
Breanna Sheffler (Voice)
J. Lynn Thompson
Ohio Light Opera
Written: 1896; England
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