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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Recordings Review: Sullivan (without Gilbert)

The Chandos recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe.
"Ivanhoe is the story of a Russian farmer, and his tool."
--Bart Simpson
Written in 1891, Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe is one of the most neglected English operas of the 19th century. Composed without his regular writing partner W. S. Gilbert, Ivanhoe is a serious adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's novel of knightly derring-do in mythical English history. Thanks to this recording from Chandos, it is now possible to hear what the great composer of comic operas sounded like when on holiday from the world of topsy-turvy. Ivanhoe is one of the most overdue recordings of a "lost" opera, and a necessary listen for lovers of opera and operetta alike.

Sullivan's feats as a composer are nothing to slouch at. In addition to the thirteen D'Oyly-Carte operas, he wrote concertos, symphonies, and choral works. "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is his, along with "The Lost Chord", one of the most beautiful art-songs ever written in English. Ivanhoe was a long-cherished project, and the work finds Sullivan at the height of his melodic powers.

It's odd to hear Sullivan melodies without Gilbert's sly prose--it almost feels like the orchestra and the performers are trying to keep a straight face in the course of three acts. However, the absence of his writing partner allowed Sullivan to flex his artistic muscles and write traditional operatic arias that allow the singers to stretch their voices to the operatic limit.

In the title role, Toby Spence is an ardent young hero. But the most memorable performance here is Neal Davies, whose performance as the Black Knight reveals, a rich, warm baritone with a gift for Sullivan's winding melodic lines. In fact, this recording has an abundance of baritones, with Stephen Gadd as the villainous Prince John and Leigh Melrose as Isaac.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers is memorable as Ulrica, the mezzo villainess who may have wandered in from Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Janice Watson is a disappointment as Rowena--the voice is pretty enough but it turns shrill under pressure. On the podium, David Lloyd-Jones keeps things moving. He handles the huge ensembles in Act III with ease and knows how to detonate the big climaxes in the score.

The knightly setting clearly bears the stamp of Wagner's Lohengrin, particularly the build-up to combat in the first Act and Sullivan's use of off-stage brass ensembles. And yet, some of the vocal writing (especially the lovers' scene at the start of Act 3) recalls The Sorceror and the best pages of The Mikado. Sullivan weaves exotic, oriental melodies through the second act, and lets loose one of the most beautiful baritone arias this side of "Tit-Willow." Starting with simple, melodic ideas, Sullivan slowly builds his story to explosive climaxes and the kind of virtuoso singing that you simply don't hear in his lighter works for the stage. Listen to Ivanhoe: you'll never hear G & S the same way again.

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