Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Beauty Stone
Rory Macdonald, cond; Toby Spence (
); David Stout (
); Stephen Gadd (
); Richard Stuart (
); Alan Opie (
); Elin Manahan Thomas (
); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (
); Madeleine Shaw (
); Rebecca Evans (
); Olivia Gomez (
); Sarah Maxted (
); Lilo Evans (
); BBC Natl O & Ch of Wales
CHANDOS (2 CDs: 129:22
Text and Translation)
It’s easy to understand why three leading artistic lights of Edwardian culture such as Arthur Wing Pinero, Arthur Sullivan, and Joseph Carr would decide in 1897 to collaborate on a theatrical production, given their mutual respect, and the luster each would bring to a collaboration. The surprising thing is that neither Pinero nor Sullivan seems to have realized right from the start that their goals were mutually incompatible. Pinero must have mentioned that he wanted to write a full-length play, and Sullivan, for all his graciousness, surely gave the others to understand that he wanted to create an opera, implying the need for a libretto, and nothing more. And Sullivan curiously doesn’t seem to have taken into account that in Carr he was working with a man who had never written lyrics to be set to music for the stage.
It’s apparent that the capable Helen Carte—wife of Richard D’Oyly Carte, effectively running the Savoy Theatre due to the latter’s serious illness by that time—negotiated some compromise from all three members of the triumvirate, though the result ran for three acts, spread over four long hours. It was not well received by the critics. The lyrics were universally condemned, as were Pinero’s wince-producing pseudo-medievalisms. (“Sooth, I have but made the manikin pay the price for trying to buss Laine Limal, the weaver’s crippled daughter, an hour agone.”) Press complaints about a lack of humor were frequent. Sullivan was in turn attacked in some important reviews of the day for a lack of invention compared to his earlier work with Gilbert, or for triviality in writing far too much like his earlier work with Gilbert.
The Beauty Stone
was severely cut after its opening night, but that didn’t prevent its failure at the box office. Fortunately, Sullivan believed wholeheartedly in his part of the contribution. When his original autograph manuscript ended up at Oriel College, Oxford in 2005, a study of it revealed all the music cut after that first night and long thought lost carefully collected at the end.
The reviews were, to an extent, unfair. Carr’s lyrics are superior to the dismal stuff Sturgis wrote for
33:6). Their regular failing is that they’re wordy and structurally complex, which Sullivan found extremely difficult to set. At their best, they’re elegant and direct, while at their worst, as in the three challengers for the beauty contest, they’re decorative but dull, and also diffuse. In turn, Pinero’s usual vein wasn’t humor, but grim irony. (
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray
is a superior example of that.) It runs large and small throughout
The Beauty Stone
—such as the disguised Devil being the one to suggest to the throng the true reason for Laine’s sudden beauty at the end of act I, only to be completely ignored. The dramatist’s morality play characters have more depth than was commonly found in most of the G&S light operas, and their interactions are sometimes insightful, issues of language to one side. For all its loquaciousness, the play moves forward confidently, with some scenes that develop emotional contrasts to good effect. But in the end it remains a play, not a libretto, and a serious one, not a comedy, and nowhere near Pinero’s best.
The contemporary press reaction to Sullivan is the most puzzling. Few critics seem to have understood that he meant to compose something more refined than a G&S light opera. While it’s true that Carr’s lyrics limited the creation of the many shorter, more memorable themes Sullivan was famous for, more than a few pages of
The Beauty Stone
are just as attractive as the best things he had previously written for the stage. Several others are made so by their greater musical sophistication, as well as a more ambitious diversity of expression. A French influence may have been at work, though no copying is implied. Without getting into any musical analysis, the Devil’s response to Simon and Joan in act I (“My children, I have heard”) shows him a worthy relation to the witty, nimble-footed Méphistophélés of Berlioz’s
La damnation de Faust
, and his first song, describing the creation of the Beauty Stone, recalls the effect of “Scintille diamant” from
Les contes d’Hoffmann
in its shimmering, mesmerizing surface. (And it is produced with such apparent simplicity, too.) Saida’s “Oh, turn thine eyes away” in turn brings to mind Massenet’s female characters at their most sensuous, and regretful. I find touches of mid-period Fauré in an act II modal chorus that comments sadly in irregular asides upon Saida’s loss of Philip’s favor. On the other hand, Laine’s act I prayer is as English as could be, while the counterpoint that informs the first and more impressive section of the act II scene where Guntran confronts Philip brings to mind the late 19th-century reinvigoration of the English oratorio tradition.
But in each example above, save the prayer, the selection is part of a larger musical scenic structure set within the drama, rather than as a moment’s emotional reflection or narrative. Sullivan builds quite a few of these in
The Beauty Stone
, and frequently if not always shows improved skill at sustaining expressive changes across them than he did in
He also takes motifs associated with his most important characters and brings them back in new guise, elsewhere: subtler, more refined here than in his earlier work. None of this is Wagner, nor is it meant to be so. It simply demonstrates that Sullivan was growing in skill and musical ambition in his mid-50s, without any attendant loss of inspiration.
That’s not to say everything works in the score. There are some fairly dull, cheerfully bland choruses, for instance, and a very few popular formulas of the time (such as a fast, tripping waltz
Arditi for Jacqueline, a local vagabond and thief) that sound dated. Sullivan’s larger musical paragraphs are sometimes uneven, and the best sections are so strong as to make the lesser in juxtaposition sound that much worse. But this is an opera as worthy of concert performance (with spoken narrative summaries between musical scenes) as any that can be heard in concert halls—and more than worthy of staging, too, with a tighter, better-worded libretto.
The performances are almost entirely first-rate, though a few are standouts. Alan Opie makes a wonderfully smooth Devil, and Stephen Gadd a rock-solid Simon. Both are notable for their forward enunciation of the text, and their ability to color the words expressively. Toby Spence, whom I admired so much in
(his “gleaming tenor is used with such élan and attention to word values”) does a first-rate job as Philip, singing and interpreting at a high level even in his disappointing pages of the act III Finale. I found Elin Manahan Thomas too hard-toned as Cupid in Blow’s
Venus and Adonis
(CPO 777 614-2;
35:2), but here she’s winsome and delicate, with excellent attention to phrasing and word values. Her “The white moon lay on the ruined hay” would be a show-stopper in any case—it’s Sullivan’s Willow Song, in effect, and as good in its way as Verdi’s or Rossini’s—but Thomas makes very much of it. The only problematic note is sounded by Richard Stuart. A fine singer whom I greatly enjoyed in Sullivan’s
The Rose of Persia
29:3) but less so in
28: 5), here his fine dark tone is intact, but the vibrato has loosened considerably. It makes for a chore to hear his Nicolas Dircks, and a melancholy one given the exemplary work he’s done in the past. Rory Macdonald leads the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a manner to bring out all of the instrumental color and detail Sullivan worked into his evocative score, without sacrificing movement. He ably seconds his singers, and the results are a success.
And further behind the scenes, a tip of the hat to Robin Gordon-Powell for his excellent new, complete edition of
The Beauty Stone
—who bothers with editors, but in what state would that music be without them?—and to everybody involved in the materials Chandos provided to accompany the libretto. It’s truly a treasure trove of original cast photos, drawings, posters, a first night program, contemporary cartoons, an interview at the time with Sullivan, and modern essays. (Though a few lines in the act III Finale are inexplicably left out of the text, they are nevertheless sung.) This is the way to present a previously unheard opera you believe in, and want your audience to understand in context.
In short, this is certainly one of Sullivan’s more attractive scores. With an excellent cast on hand, there is a great deal to enjoy here, in a candidate for my 2014 Want List. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal