Sullivan The Contrabandista

0 of 5 stars

The Contrabandista (or The Law of the Ladrones); comic opera in two acts

Rita – Claire Rutter
Inez – Frances McCafferty
Vasquez – Ashley Catling
José – Donald Maxwell
Mr Grigg – Richard Suart
Sancho – Geoffrey Moses
Officer – Justin Bindley

The Foresters (or Robin Hood and Maid Marian); incidental music to the play by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Kate – Claire Rutter
Marian – Frances McCafferty
Will Scarlet – Ashley Catling
Titania – Joanna Cohn
Fairy – Catherine Hopper

The London Chorus
The New London Orchestra
Ronald Corp

Recorded on 16-17 January 2004 in Henry Wood Hall, London


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: February 2005
Duration: 76 minutes

It goes with out saying that Arthur Sullivan’s name has been linked, by posterity, to that of William S. Gilbert, and for better or worse, Sullivan’s legacy and reputation as a composer rests largely with the operettas they wrote together for the Savoy Theatre under the auspices – and entrepreneurial zeal – of Richard D’Oyly Carte.

Yet Sullivan’s output consisted of very much more than the “Savoy Operas”, and he came almost to disdain his work with Gilbert, chiding himself for not pursuing his work as a ‘serious’ composer. But the pecuniary rewards of writing for what one might call the ‘commercial’ theatre were undoubtedly a lure for someone who enjoyed fine living and – dare one mention it? – the company of ‘ladies of the night’.

Sullivan sans Gilbert is a rarity indeed, both on disc and even more so in live performance. Hyperion has already placed those wishing to discover more about Sullivan in its debt with releases of Sullivan’s choral music – “The Golden Legend” (CDA67280) and “The Prodigal Son” along with the “Boer War Te Deum” (CDA64723). Gilbert – not one renowned for compliments lest they be directed towards himself and his own work – described Sullivan, in a letter, as “… incomparably the greatest musician of the age – a man whose genius is a proverb wherever the English tongue is spoken”.

This present issue is Hyperion’s first release of non-Gilbert stage-works, from near the start and towards the end of Sullivan’s composing career. I was intrigued to note that individual tracks on this disc have been individually sponsored. I do not recall seeing such financial backing for a recording being acknowledged before, and one must be grateful to those who, it would appear, have funded the making of this CD.

“The Contrabandista” dates from 1867 and is Sullivan’s first two-act comic opera. The one-act “Cox and Box” pre-dates it by a year, though there is also the unperformed, unpublished and now lost “The Sapphire Necklace” from 1863-4.

For a 25-year-old composer with little practical experienceof the theatre, “The Contrabandista” is a remarkably assured piece of work, and must have created quite a stir on its first production, given that the vast majority of comic operas in England at that time were either adaptations of other composers’ works (most notably Offenbach) or a hotchpotch of music gathered together from disparate sources. Sullivan’s opera was, in this context, ‘original’ in every sense of the word.

The plot of “The Contrabandista” is by F.C. Burnand, who was also the author of “Cox and Box”. It is, it has to be admitted, rather silly, concerning as it does the machinations of a band of brigands in the mountainous regions between Compostello and Seville. They are in search of a new leader, and tradition dictates that the “first stranger” whom they meet should fulfil that position. Enter one Adolphus Cimabue Grigg, an English traveller, who is the precursor of one of the stereotypes that feature in the “Savoy Operas”, with Rossinian ‘patter’ as his musical trademark. Richard Suart, who is adept in such roles, plays him here. His articulate and pointed way with the text, and his relish of consonants, make the part genuinely humorous, rather than allowing the potential for mere embarrassment to develop.

There are other ‘stock’ ingredients which were also to feature in Sullivan’s subsequent work with Gilbert and others – the ‘romantic’ soprano and tenor, and the matronly contralto character.

But, musically speaking, the comparatively exotic locale enabled Sullivan to evoke this orchestrally, as he was later to do most brilliantly in “The Gondoliers”. The youthful élan of much of the writing – especially rhythmically – is infectious. The trio “Dance the bolero…” and the orchestral Dance that follows are delightful. A subsequent duet including the refrain “Dance to the click of the castanet (sic)” seems rather less successful; a slightly less lumpish performance would probably have helped here.

It is when Sullivan becomes more reflective that he cannot always avoid being sentimental in character. Such is the case with Rita’s song “He will return to set me free”, finely though it is sung by Claire Rutter. The rather cloying harmony is not always ingratiating to 21st-century ears, though one must try and accept this music for what it is rather than condemning it for what it does not strive to be.

But when dramatic action is on the cards, Sullivan responds readily. The respective finales of the two acts are replete with interest, including, in the second, Grigg’s “I fired each barrel”, with its premonitions of the Lord Chancellor in “Iolanthe”. And, throughout, it is actually quite fascinating to hear miniature anticipations of Sullivan’s later operatic writing.

This convincingly cast performance, conduced with both verve and sensitivity by Ronald Corp, makes a strong case for “The Contrabandista”. Whether the piece would ‘work’ on stage nowadays, I rather doubt, but we must be grateful for this opportunity to hear the music from this undeniably gifted young composer.

Sullivan returned to his early opera in 1894, revising it as “The Chieftain”. A comparison between the two would be instructive. There is no complete recording of the latter, however.

I don’t think it would be unfair to say that “The Foresters” finds Sullivan at less than his best. There is a sense of the older composer going ‘through the motions’, doing his utmost with decidedly less than first-rate material.

It would seem that Sullivan probably undertook the work out of his regard for Tennyson, rather than having enthusiasm for the play itself. The composer wrote to the promoter of the play: “I have done the best I could with the music to Lord Tennyson’s play”. There is a scene between Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and one of her minions, in which the former berates the latter for daring to abbreviate her name to “Tit”. A scene which is texturally cringe-worthy, it says much for the composer that he was able to imbue it with a Mendelssohn-like grace and for Joanna Cohn and Catherine Hopper that they are able to survive without collapsing into laughter.

But there are some attractive solo songs, with tinges of folk-like modality written well before Vaughan Williams and others of the English ‘pastoral’ school held sway, and if some of the more vigorous writing lacks panache, at least at just over twenty-two minutes, the music does not outstay its welcome. The score is of curiosity value and is well performed here.

There are intelligent and informative booklet notes, though it is not made clear that the musical numbers in “The Contrabandista” are, in fact, separated by dialogue which is not included on this recording. The sung texts are included in the booklet.

This is an interesting release. The composer’s name may be familiar, but the music is most certainly not, and I recommend it warmly, as it sheds light on aspects of Sullivan’s work which have been, hitherto, virtually unknown.

Now, how about a recording of Sullivan’s ‘romantic opera’ “Ivanhoe”?

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