March 11, 2010


Sullivan: Ivanhoe. Neal Davies, Stephen Gadd, James Rutherford, Peter Wedd, Peter Rose, Toby Spence, Matthew Brook, Leigh Melrose, Andrew Staples, Janice Watson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Geraldine McGreevy; Adrian Partington Singers and BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Chandos. $44.99 (3 CDs).

     The biggest surprise revealed in this recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe is that it is not at all a bad opera. Fusty, stodgy and overstuffed it is, and unceasingly earnest in a way that is ultimately unconvincing. But it is very well made, with fine vocal writing and sensitive and at times excellent orchestration; and it attains, from time to time, a genuine sense of grandeur and spectacle, if scarcely of profundity.

     But then, Ivanhoe is a sort of command performance, and its source is one of the 19th century’s more famous potboiler novels, by Sir Walter Scott. Scott wrote two dozen historical novels, essentially inventing a form that survives today. His works were over-plotted and made little attempt at characterization, essentially throwing numerous cardboard figures onto a vast canvas and having them enact scenes out of the past – a style that also, unfortunately, survives today. In the absence of strength of character, an opera librettist – Sullivan’s was Julian Sturgis (1848-1904) – needs to create an ensemble piece, and that is just what Ivanhoe is. The libretto is serviceable, and Sturgis appears to have been far more pliable in working with Sullivan than was the notoriously prickly W.S. Gilbert. The result is a work in which the music clearly dominates the words, with Sullivan adding more character to the characters than they would otherwise possess.

     It was none other than Queen Victoria who inspired Sullivan’s Ivanhoe. She knighted Sullivan in 1883, during the run of Iolanthe, specifically singling out his serious music – not his comic operas with Gilbert – as the reason for the honor (Gilbert was eventually knighted in the somewhat less straitlaced Edwardian era, after Victoria’s death). Sullivan tried to fulfill what he perceived as his duty to create true English national opera by doing Ivanhoe, which he dedicated to his queen. And certainly the opera is thoroughly English – perhaps more “early English,” as a character in Patience would have put it, but English through and through. This, despite the fact that in the time period of Scott’s novel and Sullivan’s opera, all the nobility spoke French (Richard the Lionheart spoke little English and lived in the south of France).

     What Sullivan did with Sturgis’ version of Scott’s novel was to create a work with three acts, each containing three scenes, hitting many of the high points of the original work. This is a very manly opera (to use a near-obsolete term), filled with posing and boasting and battles grand and small – it is set, after all, in the 12th century. Low male voices predominate, and there are only three female characters, the result being a serious if rather pretentious sound in much of the vocal music. Yet Sullivan often manages better characterization in music than Scott did in words. King Richard (Neil Davies) is too good to be true, but the nobleness of his music is impressive, and the rough good humor with which he confronts (and, of course, bests) Friar Tuck (Matthew Brook) is a high point, if not exactly a lightening of the mood. The bad guys – Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (James Rutherford) and Maurice de Bracy (Peter Wedd – a tenor!) – strut and stamp about and are unidimensionally evil, but Rutherford manages some effective lines and de Bracy seems genuinely surprised when King Richard pardons him. Less impressive is Ivanhoe himself (Toby Spence): he spends much of the opera wounded and weak, and never becomes a very interesting character (although this is true in Scott’s novel as well). Also unimpressive – one of the few irritating flaws in this production – are the multiple pronunciations of de Bracy’s name, which is sometimes “BRAY-cee,” sometimes “BRAH-cee,” and once even “Brassy.”

     The women, interestingly enough, have more personality than the men. Janice Watson as Lady Rowena is appropriately evanescent and seems, in her delicacy, a good match for Ivanhoe: they are just about equally colorless, although her “O moon” aria bespeaks some (well-buried) passion. Rebecca the Jewess (Geraldine McGreevy) threatens to take over every scene she is in: she is the one character with fire, intensity, self-awareness and a willingness to confront those who think themselves her betters (including de Bracy and Prince John [Stephen Gadd], who in a nice piece of casting also sings the role of the Grand Master of the Templars). Actually, to be fair, Rebecca is not the only woman with fire: Ulrica (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) uses it to burn down Torquilstone Castle – and, in a fine touch in both libretto and score, her words are written in something approximating Old English cadence, and the music reflects them.

     Familiarity with Ivanhoe the novel will be a big help in listening to Ivanhoe the opera, for those seeking the music’s full effect. Whether the added investment of time and effort is worthwhile is a matter of opinion. Sullivan’s work is scattered, a series of episodes rather than a story with a strong arc; and the “ensemble” nature of the opera allows listeners only intermittent identification with individual characters before it is time to move on to someone and something else. Certainly the singers and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the extremely able guidance of David Lloyd-Jones, give the music their all, and it is unlikely there will be a better Ivanhoe anytime soon. It is also unlikely that there needs to be one. This is not an endearing opera: unlike Sullivan’s collaborations with Gilbert, Ivanhoe never transcends the time in which it was written, and at its most effective remains rather pale. It is not at all a bad opera, but it would be overly charitable to call it a really good one.

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