Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe” Poses Some Questions


IMG_20150601_0001_NEWSullivan’s “Ivanhoe” Poses Some Questions

  Being a Gilbert and Sullivan addict, I am equally interested in Sullivan without Gilbert—and especially in Sullivan’s only completed grand opera, “Ivanhoe.” At last, an acceptable complete recording is available on three Chandos CDs with David Lloyd-Jones conducting soloists and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Richard D’Oyly Carte, who took a chance on Sullivan without Gilbert

Opinion on this opera is varied. There is Sullivan’s own diary entry that “a cobbler should stick to his last” as a starting point. He dreamed all his life of creating an English school of opera, but he was too successful in light opera to take the chance. As the legend goes, Queen Victoria herself suggested upon knighting Sullivan that he turn to more serious endeavors. Sullivan and Gilbert’s producer Richard D’Oyly Carte offered to erect a lavish opera house for whatever work Sullivan chose. Gilbert was given first refusal as librettist, and Sullivan settled for a not very good libretto by one Julian Sturgis.

Many characters in the novel are missing; but the libretto pretty much follows the original in a highly abridged but adequate form.

The booklet accompanying the CDs gives an excellent account of the rest of the background and a good analysis of the positive aspects of the score. It does not dwell upon the negative comments of the critics in 1891, many of which can be found on the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive website.

I found much of the chorus work exciting if not quite original, one or two sequences straight out of “Lohengrin” and “Tannhauser” both dramatically and musically, and most of the arias for the female leads quite beautiful but not quite memorable. Perhaps Sullivan lacked the inspiration Gilbert’s lyrics might have given him. Who can guess?

Toby Spence

The cast is a strong one, most singing with good enunciation (final consonants hit squarely); but the enclosed libretto is still needed. Among the vocalists are Toby Spence (Ivanhoe), James Rutherford (Brian), Janice Watson (Rowena), and Geraldine McGreevy (Rebecca).

The running time is 165 minutes, and each CD side holds a complete act.

Note: One of Richard D’Oyly Carte’s rare miscalculations was to build an opera house for “Ivanhoe” and then find its run far too short to balance the books. The results can be found in any biography of Sullivan.

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