Tom Jones – Comic opera in three acts based on the novel by Henry Fielding; book by Alexander Thompson & Robert Courtneidge, lyrics by Charles Taylor
Tom Jones – Richard Morrison
Sophia – Marianne Hellgren Staykov
Honour – Heather Shipp
Squire Weston – Donald Maxwell
Gregory – Simon Butteriss
Partridge – Richard Suart
Lady Bellaston – Gaynor Keeble
Officer – Giles Davies
Allworthy – Paul Carey Jones
Blifil – Ashley Bremner
Hostess of the inn – Catrine Kirkman
National Festival Orchestra & Chorus
David Russell Hulme
Recorded 1-3 September 2008 in Haden Freeman Concert Hall, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: September 2009
CD No: NAXOS 8.660270-71
Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes
When, in 1900, Arthur Sullivan died before completing “The Emerald Isle”, the Savoy Theatre asked Edward German to finish the operetta. Named by Sullivan himself as the only man who could follow in his footsteps, German (1862-1936) went on to produce a number of highly successful operettas in his own right – most enduringly “Merrie England” (1902), the popularity of which continued into the second half of last century (over 500 amateur companies staged the piece in the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation!).
Although long since faded from consciousness, “Tom Jones” (premiered in 1907 to coincide with the 200th-anniversary of the birth of author Henry Fielding) was initially very well received: critic Neville Cardus was a particularly ardent admirer of the music and its orchestration, later recalling what a big impression it had made on him in his youth: he returned “night after night”, selling “several of my precious books to obtain admission.” This release from Naxos is the first complete recording of the operetta (albeit music only; dialogue is omitted), and a delightful experience it is too.
It is evident that German stems from the Gilbert & Sullivan tradition, but “Tom Jones” is certainly not a carbon copy of the Savoy Operas. Elements such as the Act One Madrigal Quartet ‘Here’s a paradox for lovers’, ebullient patter-songs and substantial chorus involvement throughout (often chirpily echoing the principals) show obvious homage to Sullivan. But Sullivan’s operas were essentially classical in form; German is far more romantic. Ballads such as Tom’s ‘If love’s content’ have a grand Lehár-like, almost Puccinian, sweep to them and, given that there is still a Sullivanesque preponderance of stand-alone numbers, German’s extended sequences feel much more through-composed. German also goes far beyond Sullivan in the cultivation of a wistful ‘olde English’ manner, heard most clearly in the work’s lively folk-influenced dance numbers. Pioneered by German, this hugely popular mock-Tudor style is instantly evocative (and influential for generations of light-music composers including Frederick Loewe and “Carry On” film scorer Eric Rogers).
British light-opera academic nonpareil David Russell Hulme conducts a committed cast in a vibrant and idiomatic performance. Richard Morrison gives a suitably hearty rendition of the title role. Jones’s true-love, Sophia, is sensitively sung by Marianne Hellgren Staykov – her gently lilting Act Two number “Love maketh the heart a garden fair” (haunting music which foreshadows many of Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne”) is beautiful. Donald Maxwell plays Squire Weston, Sophia’s father, with aplomb – and with a decent attempt at a Somerset accent. As Sophia’s maid, Honour, Heather Shipp is especially beguiling in her flirtatious song ‘As all the maids’. There are enjoyable larger-than-life comic cameos from Simon Butteriss and Richard Suart, and the supporting cast and chorus are very strong. The National Festival Orchestra makes a well-played, sympathetic contribution.
If, occasionally, the performance is a little less than fluid – betraying an inevitable lack of familiarity with the work – this is compensated for by the relish with which the cast acquits itself. It is impossible not to be won over by Edward German’s uniquely appealing style in this very warmly recommended release.