It is ironic that Sullivan–who made it quite clear to Gilbert and their producer D’Oyly Carte that he would not tolerate another plot that depended on a magic elixir, potion or lozenge–would choose “The Beauty Stone” as his next-to-last complete work for the stage.
The libretto is about the Devil offering a Beauty Stone to whoever would apply it to their person to bring back their youthful good looks or to change from plainness into perfect beauty. This might have worked had Gilbert written the lyrics and dialogue. But the authors were Arthur Wing Pinero and Joseph William Comyns Carr, neither of whom ever before wrote for the musical stage.
To complicate matters even more, each man saw the work in a different light–opera, operetta, music drama—each of which called for a different musical approach. And worse yet, neither author was willing to make any of the changes that Sullivan suggested. However, given the stilted medieval-like lines and the almost complete lack of humor, there was little Sullivan could have done to save the day. As it turned out, the production closed after only 50 performances and has seldom been revived.
But now we can hear the work in more or less complete form on a Chandos set of two CDs, with Roy MacDonald conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The excellent program notes give a full history of the work and a deep analysis of Sullivan’s score, which the writer deems one of his best. Still, one familiar with his works with Gilbert had best put them out of mind and judge “The Beauty Stone” on its own merits.
The only line that made me laugh is when a contest entrant declares how beautiful her small foot is and the chorus asks that who cares “That she wears a smaller shoe/ Than some other maidens do?” and comments about another that it was a long time ago that she fell in love with herself. The lyrics should have a lot more of that sort of thing.
The cast includes the not very Mephistophelean Devil (Alan Opie), the handicapped Laine (Elin Manshan Thomas), who outshines all her rivals at the beauty contest because of the stone, Laine’s father Simon the weaver (Stephen Gadd), her mother (Catherine Wyn-Rogers), and the nobleman Guntran (David Stout).
G&S lovers and students of the musical theatre will find this set a must. Play it first following the libretto, and from then on for the music alone.