Sullivan: Ivanhoe

BBC National Orchestra of Wales/David Lloyd-Jones (Chandos CHAN 10578(3))

22 June 2010 3.5 stars


Occupying their own sub-niche within the genre of operetta, the collaborative works of librettist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan (G&S) have been consistently popular since their creation, beginning in the 1870's.  Lovingly devoted - no, fanatical – G&S enthusiasts have insured that the humor and musical inventiveness of such works as H.M.S. Pinafore, Yeomen of the Guard, and The Mikado continue to be shared with the public by successive generations of theater troupes both large and small.  Still, despite the commercial success of these 'light operas', Sullivan longed to invest his energy in more ambitious projects: it was his life-long dream to compose music of emotional depth for characters with tenable, stage-worthy motivations for their interactions.  In short, he wanted to revolutionize the operatic genre, giving life to what he termed 'true English opera'.

In the notes to this recording, a section of an interview from 1885 is reproduced in which Sullivan makes the following statement: 'The opera of the future is a compromise.  I have thought and worked and toiled and dreamed of it.  Not the French school, with gaudy and tinsel tunes, its lambent light and shades, its theatrical effects and clap-trap; not the Wagnerian school, with its somberness and heavy ear-splitting airs, with its mysticism and unreal sentiment; not the Italian school, with its fantastic airs and fioriture and far-fetched effects.  It is a compromise between these three – a sort of eclectic school, a selection of the merits of each one.  I myself will make an attempt to produce a grand opera of this new school…'

And so he did with his Ivanhoe, a 'romantic opera' (his term) composed for the newly built Royal English Opera House and premiered in 1891.  I include the quote above, because it gives important insight into the mindset in which Sullivan was working as he poured his heart into Ivanhoe.  His blunt dismissal of the various 'schools' of opera indicates a surprisingly ambitious motive to create something bigger and better – in effect culling the best aspects of the operatic tradition while leaving behind those rhetorical devices employed merely for display.  In fact, Sullivan's description of 'compromise' is apt: his Ivanhoe is a hodgepodge of many musical styles, melodic ideas, and structural variations.  And therein is the explanation for its utter failure to hold the listener's attention.  While Ivanhoe contains many striking ideas for musical expression and character development, it ultimately fails to congeal as musical drama.

It is an expansive work: nine scenes in three substantial acts that run the gamut from intimate soliloquies to massive concerted numbers with pageantry and tremendously challenging scenic demands.  With such an episodic nature, a coherent musical style would offer a connective lifeline to the listener adrift in a sea of characters and confrontations.  Alas, in his effort to create a new 'English' school of operatic composition, Sullivan failed to streamline his own melodic viewpoint.  In short, Sullivan tried to do too much: too many ideas, too many characters, too many motifs, too many plot twists, and so on.  Although Martin T. Yates argues quite strenuously in favor of the 'unity and clarity' of Ivanhoe in the excellent booklet notes, the experienced listener will immediately identify its many dramaturgical weaknesses, even while appreciating much of the melodic invention and gracefully written passages for the singers.  To be sure, this superbly produced edition from Chandos is an important addition to the catalogue.  Dedicated to the late Richard Hickox, it allows us to hear an important milestone in Sullivan's career, but unfortunately, its collective weaknesses will almost certainly discourage frequent modern-day stagings.

The story concerns the reconciliation of the Saxons and Normans and eventual exile of the Knights Templar from English lands.  The Christian vs. Jew conflict plays a part, as do the standard themes of rank and honor; even witchcraft makes a brief appearance.  The libretto, by John Sturgis, is intermittently effective, but offers more than the occasional awkward redundancy, such as: “Her mate must be of Royal Saxon blood, as she is Royal and Saxon.”  Scenic shifts tend to occur abruptly, often with little musical preparation: concerted, scene-closing flourishes are found only at the ends of acts.  Sullivan succeeds best with the grand, blustery scenes of pageantry, such as the impressively big-boned 'Plantagenesta' chorus and succeeding contest among the knights and entrance of the Lady Rowena.  Here and throughout, the choral singing is superb, featuring fine clarity of diction and plenty of vigorous energy.

Sullivan is also genuinely effective in his orchestral coloring suggesting the 'Eastern' Jewish ethnicity of Isaac and Rebecca – particularly in the solo scenes given to the latter, including 'Lord of our chosen race…' in Act II.  Rowena's Act I aria 'O moon, art thou clad in silver mail…' is another touching highlight – one of the few moments strongly reminiscent of Sullivan's work with Gilbert – calling to mind the contemplative musings of Yum-Yum or Elsie Maynard.  In fact, if considered as individual numbers, much of the music is satisfyingly constructed, colorful, and often vividly descriptive of the action on stage.  But when strung together to form an evolving narrative, there is precious little that is truly memorable, and the net effect is rather bland.

From a dramaturgical standpoint, Sullivan and Sturgis seem to have let their imaginations gain the advantage over practical matters of staging and narrative coherence.  Taken from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, the operatic 'reduction' has far too many characters.  Ironically, the cast list reflects the standard Gilbertian line-up: i.e., fine for a comedic operetta, but much too convoluted for Romantic opera, where four or five characters usually suffice quite nicely.  Notwithstanding the often fine music written for them, King Richard, Friar Tuck, and Ulrica could easily be scratched as they contribute little or nothing to the important plot motivations.  The last is particularly gratuitous – as if she has accidentally wandered in from another story (Verdi, perhaps?) and her actions are laughably far-fetched.  Friar Tuck seems to fit in the buffo-patter mold alongside Ko-Ko and Jack Point, and has no business turning up in a serious opera.  His arietta 'Ho, jolly Jenkin' though very well-sung by Matthew Brook, is utterly superfluous.  In casting the voices, there are too many low male singers (no fewer than seven) and it is difficult to tell them apart, despite many fine vocal performances here.  Finally, Sullivan and Sturgis have included an uncomfortably generous helping of scenes in which the action happens offstage and someone in the cast narrates to keep us informed of the events.  These 'play-by-play' descriptions grow wearisome by the end of the opera.

Having listed some of the more serious demerits of the score and libretto, I should turn the coin and mention that most of the vocal performances are excellent.  As mentioned above, the choral singing is outstanding.  So too, is the orchestral playing by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with David Lloyd-Jones lovingly attempting to bring some order to Sullivan's helter-skelter scene shifting.  The tournament at the Lists at Ashby in Act I is a particularly striking showcase for the fine instrumentalists.  Baritones Neal Davies and Stephen Gadd are sonorously impressive as Richard Coeur-de-Lion and the Grand Master of the Templars, respectively.  Peter Rose offers excellent diction (illuminating some of Sturgis' more cringe-worthy passages) and sings with an excellently firm line, making a believably paternal Cedric the Saxon.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers uses her highly individual voice to bring the eccentric Ulrica vividly to life, and James Rutherford brings passion, but a rather arch vocal quality to the 'villain' Brian de Bois-Guilbert.  Sadly, soprano Janice Watson is a major disappointment as Lady Rowena, severely compromising most of her scenes with unsteady tone, ambiguous pitch, and raw, squally high notes.  It's a shame, because Lady Rowena gets some of Sullivan's most pleasing music, and Watson simply isn't up to the task.  Luckily, Geraldine McGreevy shines forth beautifully in the soprano range as Rebecca, offering poised, heartfelt singing with shimmering tone and touching vulnerability.  Finally, Toby Spence carries the title role with absolute assurance, impressively filling out his character with virility and youthful heroism.

In summary, Chandos are to be commended for producing this luxurious set with scrupulous attention to detail and making Sullivan's Ivanhoe available for modern reappraisal.  Though the opera itself falls well short of masterpiece status, it is an important addition to the audio catalog, and we are lucky to have such a sonically superior and well-performed version to enjoy.

By David Laviska


Placido DomingoRelated articles:

Review: Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience at the 2009 Proms
Review: Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado at ENO
Opera DVD Review: Domingo in Stiffelio at the Met
Opera Review: Domingo in Boccanegra at La Scala