Music and Vision homepage


CD Review

CD Review

Sullivan & co. - The operas that got away

Arias, Duets and Ensembles from Sir Arthur Sullivan's Operas
That's Entertainment Records CDTER 1248  1998
Arthur Davies, Gareth Jones, Gillian Knight, Valerie Masterson, Frances McCafferty, Richard Suart
National Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Steadman

A curious production, this, in several ways. The appropriately "aesthetic" front cover shows a scene, not from an opera at all, but from The Martyr of Antioch, one of Sullivan's big oratorios which were so much admired in his lifetime, and even for a while after it, but which have become submerged by the passage of time, changing tastes, and his pre-eminent posthumous reputation as a composer of operetta, immortally in collaboration with W. S. Gilbert, more mortally with the other librettists represented in this recording.

Also curious is the (uncredited) analysis in the booklet, which begins, "Sullivan was the most critical of English composers...[who] never strayed beyond the boundaries of his genius" - a statement, I suspect, few commentators on English musical history would agree with, even those well disposed towards Sullivan's legacy. There is much evidence of slipshod preparation in the packaging of this CD: there is no explanation of who or what the chorus are, and there are many annoying minor errors- on the back cover the year of the first performance of The Emerald Isle is wrong (it should be 1901), and inside, the well-known cartoon of Sullivan is credited to "Ape" despite being clearly signed "Spy". (This particular error occurs in many works of reference: however, with the involvement of various experts in the production of this CD, including David Steadman, who knows a thing or two about Sullivan; one might have expected better).

The least satisfactory feature of the recording is without doubt the "chorus", who sound like a handful of soloistic voices gathered together. This makes a particularly bad first impression since the opening number is the only purely choral one,  extracted from The Martyr of Antioch, a work originally written for the vast amateur chorus of the 1880 Leeds Festival to exercise their lungs on. Here the weighty National Symphony Orchestra sounds quite out of proportion to the number of singers, despite the artificial re-balancing of the recording. This is followed, as it is in the score, by the contralto solo IoPaen, sung by Gillian Knight, a surprisingly rollicking production to come out of the sober world of 19th century oratorio. The remaining numbers on the recording, arranged chronologically, are all solos, duets and ensembles from Sullivan's various non-Gilbert operettas.

This brings me to the soloists, about whom I also have very mixed feelings. Though Gillian Knight did good work with the D'Oyly Carte in the 60s, particularly under Sargent, her voice is now, one has to say, past its best. Valerie Masterson, singing the soprano numbers, is far more satisfactory, and her rendition of the beautiful O Moon, thou art clad from Ivanhoe is one of the highlights of the recording. Gareth Jones gives stirring performances in the bass numbers Ho, Jolly Jenkin from Ivanhoe and In Days of Old from Haddon Hall, and Richard Suart, baritone, covers a great character range from the sinister Devil in The Beauty Stone to the absurd "Typical Irish Pat" in The Emerald Isle. Tenor Frances McCafferty chooses not to follow him into attempting the Irish brogue in the extracts from that operetta, but is otherwise satisfactory. Fellow tenor Arthur Davies, a stalwart of the English oratorio platform, here, however, sounds uncomfortable with all the music he is allocated. And in the ensemble numbers the solo voices fail to blend satisfactorily. Was this lack of rehearsal, or just mis­match? Shortage of time is suggested by the shortness of the CD itself. Considering this is a full-priced issue, 51 minutes seems mean for a compilation to which more numbers could easily have been a added. In particular, it seems a pity that only one number from The Rose of Persia, one of Sullivan's most tuneful works, was included, whereas the relatively dull Haddon Hall scored four extracts. One of these, however, is the moving Queen of the garden.

Overall, the finest music is probably that which concludes the CD, in which Valerie Masterson leads the beautiful "Come away", cries the fairy voice which concludes Act 1 of The Emerald Isle, the last music that Sullivan wrote (the operetta was finished after his death by Edward German).

The National Symphony Orchestra under David Steadman plays competently throughout the CD, but without the sparkle or pace that Sullivan really needs, and that, say, Sargent would have provided.

This recording is a mixed bag. Enthusiasts for operetta, particularly the English variety, will want and need it, as it commendably makes a start in filling a gaping hole in the recorded repertoire. Others, unaware of the full scope of Sullivan's achievements, may also be surprised and educated by it. It's just a pity about the naff title.

Copyright © David Arditti, 13 January 1999


More CD Reviews >>