Sullivan’s Ivanhoe

0 of 5 stars

Ivanhoe – A Romantic Opera in three acts adapted from Sir Walter Scott’s novel; words by Julian Sturgis

Richard Coeur-de-Lion – Neal Davies
Prince John / Lucas de Beaumanoir – Stephen Gadd
Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert – James Rutherford
Maurice de Bracy – Peter Wedd
Cedric the Saxon – Peter Rose
Wilfred, Knight of Ivanhoe – Toby Spence
Friar Tuck – Matthew Brook
Isaac, the Jew of York – Leigh Melrose
Locksley/The Squire – Andrew Staples
The Lady Rowena – Janice Watson
Ulrica – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Rebecca – Geraldine McGreevy

Adrian Partington Singers

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
David Lloyd-Jones

Recorded 24-28 June 2009 in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: April 2010
CHAN 10578 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 46 minutes



For an opera to achieve 155 performances in its first production, which was intended to inaugurate a new opera house, and then to sink virtually without trace is probably something unique in the annals of operatic history. “Ivanhoe” has been more written about than performed – indeed, this finely presented Chandos set is its first professional complete recording and almost certainly its only professional performance since a BBC concert performance broadcast in 1929.

It was Queen Victoria who fired the composer’s motivation to write a Grand Opera, since she is alleged to have said to him directly “you would do it so well”.

Impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, having built a theatre (The Savoy) to house Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas, subsequently intended to stretch his wings by opening an opera house – The Royal English Opera – and to establish a tradition of English Grand opera. Arthur Sullivan’s was to be the first and, alas, the last, in this bold venture which ended in financial ruin for Carte. William Parry’s excellent booklet note sets out the background most informatively and Martin T. Yates’s elucidation of the music is a model of its kind, making fascinating comparisons between “Ivanhoe” and Britten’s “Gloriana” as operas which alternate between private and public scenes and both being ‘nationalistic’ in character.

For listeners familiar with Sullivan’s music only via his collaborations with W. S. Gilbert, the soundworld of “Ivanhoe” will probably come as something of a surprise. There is, in fact, only one scene (Act Two/scene 1) – a duet between the King and Friar which includes a drinking song with the refrain “Ho, jolly Jenkin” (which did acquire a degree of popularity as a separately performed number) – that finds the composer in what might be termed ‘Gilbertian’ mood. For the remainder, Sullivan adopts quite a different mode of musical expression. In an interview with the San Francisco Daily Chronicle in 1885, the composer dismisses the various individual styles of French, Italian and German opera, and declares that the kind of opera he wants to write “…is a compromise between these three – a sort of eclectic school, a selection of the merits of each one”. He goes on to state: “What we want are plots which give rise to characters of flesh and blood, with human emotions and human passions. Music should speak to the heart, and not to the head…”.

The desire for “characters of flesh and blood” and “human emotions and passions” were the very qualities he had lately been seeking from Gilbert. Indeed, Sullivan had hoped that Gilbert would collaborate with him on a Grand Opera, but the latter felt that in such a work “the librettist is always swamped by the composer” and it was Gilbert who suggested that Julian Sturgis might undertake the task. By January 1891 – the month of in which Ivanhoe was premiered – Gilbert and Sullivan were estranged over quarrels which Gilbert had regarding the Savoy’s management and was writing poisonous letters to Sullivan up to and including the day of the opera’s first performance.

So how well does Sullivan succeed in his stated intentions for the kind of opera he would like to write? I think the honest answer, on the basis of this recorded performance, has to be ‘variably’. I don’t think that “Ivanhoe” is a forgotten masterpiece, but neither does it deserve the virtually total neglect it has experienced. I suspect it probably needs lavish staging – just as it did for its first performances – in order for it to work in the theatre, and one has to be tolerant of the libretto’s frequent quaint turns of phrase, quintessentially ‘Victorian’ in every sense.

Another potential drawback for modern audiences who may not be totally familiar with Water Scott’s novel is that the opera presents, as it were, scenes from “Ivanhoe” rather than a continuous, fluid narrative.

But leaving aside such constraints, Sullivan has produced a score of pretty remarkable variety and invention. And in spite of his remarks quoted above, it is the Wagner of “Lohengrin” which often springs to mind, with its knightly announcements and heraldic proclamations. Leaving aside his considerable theatrical experience, “Ivanhoe” was, after all, a ‘first’ in terms of a full-length operatic work. It remained Sullivan’s one work in the genre and the one on the grandest scale.

Even Sullivan’s detractors have never denied the efficacy of his gifts as an orchestrator – in spite of the numerical limitations placed upon the players he was able to draw on at the Savoy. Here, working on an expanded canvas, one can relish the composer being enabled to write for ‘extra’ instruments and on an expansive scale.

The vocal writing is, as ever, grateful to sing and gratifying to hear, but without in any way wishing to be curmudgeonly about Chandos’s considerable achievement in recording the opera at all, it is possible to imagine more strongly sung performances in certain roles. The basses and baritones are generally fine if, in one or two instances, deploying a bit more vibrato than is ideal. I would prefer a young-sounding Rowena than the usually commendable Janice Watson gives us here. Uncharacteristically she is sometimes slightly under the note and doesn’t soar as effortlessly over ensembles in the way Sullivan surely intended.

The Adrian Partington Singers give an accurate rendering of the chorus part, but I would like to hear a full-blooded operatic chorus in this music. Too often, the chorus here sounds like a cathedral choir let out of the stalls, with Toby Spence as one of its members.

There is, from time to time, a certain ‘buttoned-up’ quality about the performance that I suspect would have been obviated by greater familiarity with the score.

Chandos’s recorded sound and production are up to its customary standards. The scenes with on- and off-stage trumpets (such as the magnificent one which concludes Act One) have vivid perspectives and there is a good balance between voices and orchestra; indeed the clarity of the latter is impressive.

The recording is dedicated to the memory of Richard Hickox, whose initiative it was to record “Ivanhoe”. Whatever reservations about the opera and its performance, it makes a fine memorial to one who did so much work to promote neglected English music, of which Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe” is a prime example.

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