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Spirited performances are the order of the day in this recording of two little-known operettas by Sir Arthur Sullivan.
The Contrabandista—a ‘comic opera in two acts’ dating from 1867—tells the story of the hapless Adolphus Cimabue Grigg, an English traveller who is co-opted into becoming leader of the Ladrones, a notorious band of thieves. Amid shenanigans of more than a passing resemblance to Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers Sullivan successfully imbues the spice of the Spanish countryside into his score. His second opera to reach the stage, this early work—to a libretto by Francis Burnand—already shows much of the musical mastery that was to characterize so many of Sullivan’s later collaborations with W S Gilbert. The work’s popularity ensured a run spanning 1867 and 1868 and inspired its composer to expand much of its material into his longer opera of 1894, The Chieftain.
First performed—simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic—in 1892, The Foresters sets verses by Lord Tennyson on the theme of Robin Hood. Warmly received in the States, the work met with a distinctly hostile reception in London, where critics were less than impressed by the (American) lead soprano and gave Tennyson’s libretto a roasting. Sullivan’s score, by contrast, was universally recognized as being the saving grace; this new recording gives a new century the opportunity to draw its own conclusion.
At the time when this piece was written Sullivan was just twenty-five, but he already had a string of successes behind him: the Tempest incidental music, the cantata Kenilworth, the Cello Concerto, the Symphony and the one-act comic opera Cox and Box had all come by 1866. If most of this music seemed to be leading him towards the concert hall, it was the success of Cox and Box which was to draw Sullivan in a most unexpected direction. At the time, he must have thought of Cox and Box – and, when it came, The Contrabandista – as just another string to the bow. But fate was to dictate otherwise: the great hope of English music was to make his worldwide fame, and achieve greatness, in comic opera. It was The Contrabandista that edged him further in that direction, for it was to be remembered as a success – enough to merit a Christmas successor in 1871. That opera was Thespis. Its libretto was produced by one W S Gilbert, and the thirteen operas which followed it united the names of Gilbert and Sullivan in an unparalleled run of theatrical success.
Back first to the mid-1860s. At this time France was very definitely the home of comic opera, with Offenbach (himself a German) leading the way with a glittering string of successes. He had created something new, vibrant and extraordinary – and like Sullivan soon after him, Offenbach achieved success as a result of immense musical talent and an extraordinarily fluent gift for melody.
In Britain the dominant tradition was one of burlesque – with most of the music being adapted from existing sources rather than composed for the purpose. But the example of Offenbach was, by the mid-1860s, having its effect – both in the performance of his music (though rarely complete scores) in Britain, and in the production of one or two ‘entirely original’ British operas, with music specially composed, copying the Offenbach model. (The continued use in opera titles of the soubriquet ‘entirely original’ by Gilbert, Sullivan, and other opera librettists and composers right through to the end of the nineteenth century was not otiose or for effect; it was precisely to make this distinguishing point, that they were original works, not amalgamations of existing material.)
Kurt Gänzl begins his survey of the British Musical Theatre at exactly this defining moment – the mid-1860s. The Contrabandista stands in that list of many hundreds of operas as number three, with Windsor Castle (July 1865) and L’Africaine (November 1865) at the head of the list. These pioneering ‘original’ operas were composed by Frank Musgrave, musical director of the Royal Strand Theatre; and had as their librettist F C Burnand – still in his twenties, already on the staff of Punch (which he would eventually edit), and already experienced in the production of burlesques. Although the lights of the Royal Strand Theatre (Ada Swanborough and family) decided to curtail their experiment with original scores in early 1866, Burnand at least had two relative successes to his name. Almost simultaneously, the first complete London productions of original operas by Offenbach – Orphée aux enfers, Barbe-bleue, La belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein followed each other in growing triumph. The suggestion was made very clearly that there was indeed a taste for original scores if these scores were fresh and melodious enough to carry the public with them.
The taste of the public happily coincided with the ambition of one man – Mr Thomas German Reed. Initially at his ‘Gallery of Illustration’ on Regent Street, Reed and his wife presented a series of musical entertainments which contrasted from the norm in terms of general respectability. As time wore on from the enterprise’s establishment in 1859, the works became more ambitious, and in 1867, German Reed took over the St George’s Hall in Langham Place, and turned it into an opera house, with the express intention of producing operetta in English. The first night of the new house was on 18 December 1867, and the shows were two Offenbach adaptations (Puss in Petticoats and Ching Chow Hi) framing ‘a new English comic opera’ – The Contrabandista.
The Contrabandista would not have been conceived had it not been for Cox and Box. This ‘triumviretta’ in one act had been produced for private performance in 1866; it had been the first occasion on which Sullivan, England’s rising young composer, had been paired with one of its star writers of burlesque – Burnand. Eventually put on at the Gallery of Illustration in March 1869, where it was hugely successful for about a year, Cox and Box has continued to hold its place in the repertoire to this day. Although the piece only achieved its stage success after the premiere of The Contrabandista, in private performances and in a few given before the public beforehand, it was already clear that this partnership had potential.
In truth, much of what Burnand wrote for The Contrabandista was doggerel; but much of it was colourful (as was, indeed, the Spanish setting, which inspired Sullivan to particularly successful stretches of local colour – as in the Spanish Act II of The Gondoliers, some twenty-two years later). And although never a wordsmith to match W S Gilbert, Burnand succeeded in providing a varied series of rhythms and metres. This in turn meant that Sullivan was able to make internal contrast and variety a key to the success of the piece. In other words, while never rising to real poetry, Burnand’s libretto more than served its purpose in acting as a vehicle for Sullivan’s melodic muse.
It is still remarakable to think that this was just Sullivan’s second performed opera, since the sureness of hand suggests a composer who had been working on such operas for years. Before Cox and Box, Sullivan had written an unpublished (unperformed, and now lost), serious opera, The Sapphire Necklace (1863–4), and doubtless the very experience of writing the opera had been of immense practical help. He was already more than used to setting words for solo and grouped voices, from his earliest cantata, from songs, and from anthems, and of course from Cox and Box. It is still amazing to find him setting words with such apparent ease.
It is interesting to note that in The Contrabandista the model of the later G&S operas was already apparent: tenor and soprano leads, baritone ‘patter’ singer (‘From rock to rock’ was the hit of the night), and ‘old crone’ contralto part; and in the slightly extended finales to each act. How much, if at all, Gilbert knew The Contrabandista we do not know – but it is clear that in this opera foundations were being laid on which Sullivan would build. Perhaps more importantly, Sullivan had entered the world of comic opera, and it was only a matter of time before he would encounter another contributor to the German Reeds’ playbills – W S Gilbert.
Sullivan, then, had established himself as a composer of comic opera. The critical reaction to the piece was favourable, and it ran for a (then) reasonable seventy-two performances, closing only in March 1868 (the cost of the forty-piece orchestra was deemed to be a factor). It was seen again in Manchester (1874) and in the USA, where it was much reworked by, among others, John Philip Sousa. Nor did The Contrabandista die even then, for in late 1894, when Richard D’Oyly Carte was casting around for a new piece for the Savoy Theatre, it was to this opera that he turned. Much revised and added to by both composer and librettist, The Chieftain emerged at the Savoy on 12 December 1894 – just short of twenty-seven years after its first appearance. It ran, disappointingly, for short of one hundred performances – perhaps because, despite gorgeous new music from the composer in his best late style, this was a piece rooted in the earlier history of comic opera in Britain. None of this should detract from the fact that Burnand and Sullivan had done something of immense importance, in creating a fully home-grown opera which held its own, and which inspired others to think of Sullivan when they wanted a comic opera. It is perhaps true that without The Contrabandista, there would have been no Gilbert and Sullivan.
Encouraged by the success of The Cup, produced by Henry Irving at the Lyceum on 3 January 1881, Tennyson began to write another play, The Foresters, based on the legends of Robin Hood. The manuscript was completed shortly after a visit to Sherwood Forest in October, but Irving, who had supported the project at first, eventually rejected it on the grounds that it was not sensational enough for a modern audience. Tennyson therefore turned his attention to The Promise of May, rejected by both Irving and the Kendals and disastrously produced on 11 November 1882 by Mrs Bernard Beere. The Foresters was set aside until 1888, when the American actress Mary Anderson showed an interest in The Cup. Tennyson also pressed the case for The Foresters, representing it as a work-in-progress which could be modified for her benefit, and taking Miss Anderson and her mother on a tour of the New Forest by way of suggesting the scenery. However, Miss Anderson retired from the stage in 1889, in advance of her marriage to Antonio Novarro, and her plans were lost. Tennyson now turned once again to Irving, who again rejected him: ‘Public taste I fear is in a very sensational condition.’
Matters rested here until 1891, when Marion Anderson’s brother Joseph wrote to the great American impresario Augustin Daly suggesting that The Foresters might be suitable for his company, and in particular for his leading lady, Ada Rehan, who would play Maid Marian. Daly was then at the height of his American success, and about to embark on the construction of his own theatre in London. He embraced the project eagerly, while stipulating that the first production should be in New York, where he felt himself on sure ground. Tennyson in the meantime questioned Henry Irving about Miss Rehan, only to refuse to meet his representative when he arrived with the answer. The contract was finally signed in September 1891.
The text of The Foresters contained a number of individual songs, and one extended scene for which music would obviously be required. At the suggestion of Tennyson, Daly approached Arthur Sullivan, who had already collaborated with the poet in the production of the first ever English song cycle, The Window (1871). Sullivan was then primarily occupied with the affairs of the Royal English Opera, where Ivanhoe had recently enjoyed a successful run of 155 performances (the idea that Ivanhoe failed is the product of a serious historical misunderstanding – the closure of the opera house in January 1892 was due to the box office collapse of Messager’s La Basoche). A series of letters from Sullivan to Daly and Tennyson’s son Hallam, who acted as his father’s amanuensis, shows the composer concerned with the practical details of the musical performance, and in particular with the musical scena in which Marian sleeps and has a Shakespeare-derived encounter with the fairies. This scene was originally conceived by Tennyson as involving Robin rather than Marian. Composition was completed in December 1891 – ‘I have done the best I could with the music for Lord Tennyson’s play, but it is after all not very satisfactory to have to write music which, whilst it is merely incidental to the play, at the same time requires proper and adequate interpretation.’ Sullivan immediately left London for Monte Carlo in order to begin work on his next opera, Haddon Hall.
The copyright difficulties which in 1880 had famously made it necessary to stage the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance on both sides of the Atlantic at once had still not been resolved in 1892. Daly therefore arranged with Irving to hold a makeshift performance of The Foresters at the Lyceum on the same day, 17 March 1892, as his American opening. On the due day Irving opened his box office early, and a few interested spectators paid a guinea each to see Acton Bond and Violet Vanbrugh as Robin and Marian. Daly’s New York performance was a glittering social event which saw John Drew and Ada Rehan, his established stars, in the leading parts. In April the production went on tour to the main American cities – Washington, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Chicago, San Francisco. It proved to be Tennyson’s greatest theatrical success, though the poet himself was too far away to enjoy the fact. He died on 6 October 1892, a year before the London production.
In the meantime work was in progress on Daly’s new London theatre in Cranbourne Street. The theatre opened in May 1893 with a production of The Taming of the Shrew, described in some quarters as the Ladies Home Journal version. The Foresters followed on 3 October 1893, with Ada Rehan as Marian and Arthur Bourchier as Robin. Unhappily the New York success was not repeated. In spite of much goodwill towards the production itself, it was apparent that Tennyson, too, had created the Ladies Home Journal version of the Robin Hood legends. The Foresters achieved a total of seventeen performances, helped on its way by the following cultured lament from the Pall Mall Gazette: ‘The Foresters is not a great play; it is not even a good play. All the charm of Miss Rehan’s acting, all the aids that scenery and costume, music and mechanism, fays and dances and electric lights could lend, were unable for a moment to cheat the beholder into the belief that the play was a fine piece of work, worthy in any way of the great name that had signed it … It is probable that the great, the aged poet dreamed that he was putting into his play all that the subject called for, all the brave breath of the old ballads, all the chivalry of the Lion Heart, all the heroism of the immortal outlaw. To him, no doubt, the gallantest of English legends lived again, moving with an action as noble as that which pulses through the day of Agincourt, graced with a mirth and music as sweet and fresh as that which stirs the leaves of Arden. For him Marian had the wit of Rosalind, the courage of Moll, and seemed, like Helen, fairer than the evening air. The spectator may guess at the great ambition; he can only behold and bewail the melancholy result – a result as tactless and as tedious as a nursery tale.’
Sullivan’s contribution, by contrast, was well received. The following remarks from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News may be allowed to stand as typical: ‘The saving features of the production are the incidental songs as set with rare taste, discrimination, and melody by Sir Arthur Sullivan, whose delightful music gives charm and interest even to the extremely feeble episode of fairyland which closes the third act. There seems to be no earthly reason why Maid Marian, who is a particularly stalwart and self-reliant young woman, should be the protégée of a bevy of pantomimic wood-nymphs who gather around her as she sleeps in the forest under the resolutely twinkling stars of a back-cloth. But their chorus is fascinating, and so also is the quaintly pretty “Bee song” so cleverly rendered by Miss Catherine Lewis. Other numbers deserving of praise are the ringing ditty of Robin Hood’s merry men, “Long live Richard!”, the chant of Marian, “Love flew in at the window”, in which Miss Rehan’s scanty vocal resources are deftly employed, and – perhaps most tuneful of all – the exquisite lullaby chorus, “To sleep”, which closes the first act.‘
The reference to ‘Miss Rehan’s scanty vocal resources’ serves as a reminder that at Daly’s, as frequently at the Savoy, Sullivan was writing music for actors who did not profess to be able to sing. He was therefore restricted in what he could do, describing the ‘Bee song’, for instance, as ‘only a bit of word painting’. In a wider context the The Foresters’ music is part of Sullivan’s continuing concern with the setting of English words in an English musical style. The enormous prestige of German music in Victorian England led to a concomitant debate about English music: ‘What was English music, and, supposing it was not simply Germanic music composed by Englishmen, how would it sound?’ Sullivan’s answer to this question, the central artistic question of his career, is seen in a number of specifically ‘English’ works, commencing with Kenilworth in 1864, running through the Shakespearean incidental music, the Savoy operas, and reaching a climax with Ivanhoe and Haddon Hall. Falling between Ivanhoe and Haddon Hall in date of composition, The Foresters exemplifies the comments of T F Dunhill, who, writing in the heyday of Vaughan Williams, understood that Sullivan was engaged in the same nationalist task: ‘If Sullivan’s artistry in word-setting has first claim to importance amongst his positive qualities, we may attach an almost equal value to his genius for the abounding provision of good melodies. He was undoubtedly a great maker of English tunes – of what we can justly call folk tunes and folk songs. Let us disabuse ourselves of the idea that a folk song is a song written by nobody and arranged by Cecil Sharp. It is true that the composers of many of our famous national melodies were born to blush unseen, and that Cecil Sharp and his kin have prevented them from wasting their sweetness on the desert air. But is Sullivan any the less an inventor of folk songs because it happened that he was an accomplished musician and chose to harmonize and arrange them himself?’
‘I am English music’, said Elgar. The claim is a bold one, which was not true even in Elgar’s own day. But at a time when the very term ‘Englishness’ has been cast into disrepute by concepts of multiculturalism it is worth remembering that there have been composers for whom the idea held no shame, and that Sullivan was one of them.
David Eden & William Parry © 2004