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An Introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan
Written by Thomson Smillie, Narrated by David Timson
Produced 2005
24 page booklet
NAXOS OPERA EXPLAINED 8.558166-67 [79:29 + 78.40]


I heard Peter Maxwell Davies - relatively recently appointed Master of the Queen’s Music - on the radio last week. He was asked "how did it all begin?" The reply may be a surprise for those many music lovers who find the composer’s music too radical to stomach. He said he was taken to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera performance when an extremely young child and that was it: "I was hooked". Music had to be his life.

Gilbert and Sullivan also played a part in my own early childhood attachment to music although not quite in that "Road to Damascus" category. Of the handful of records in our house, it was Vocal Gems from the Gondoliers that turned me on. The combination of melody and rollicking rhythms had me playing the record over and over again.

However, it is my experience that when Gilbert and Sullivan comes up as a subject among those who know the works (and it will tend to be an older generation) then the majority view is of vehement antipathy. There are several reasons why this is the case; the main one, I suspect, being that the first encounter many people had with one of the operas would be an amateur production that did not do full justice to the work. Although such productions in school and church halls throughout the land constituted a great British tradition, they did not necessarily do the cause much good. Gilbert and Sullivan did not write for amateurs. On the other hand, the copyright stranglehold that the D’Oyly Carte Company had on professional performance up to forty years ago did not help either because it preserved a Victorian style of delivery that, to many, seemed stuffy and outmoded.

This opera guide is one of over twenty Naxos has now produced and is in accord with the usual format of a musically illustrated talk. Untypically, there are two generous discs adding up to a total of nearly two hours forty minutes. The first quarter hour is taken up with biographical background on the two men and then we are taken chronologically through all the Savoy operas but concentrating on the better ones. There is some detailed analysis which helps to show the skill with which Sullivan set the words and this is backed up by discussion of the context and sources of Gilbert’s biting satire, his targets including the law, the House of Lords, the forces and so on. What struck me, on being taken through the operas, is not how dated the satire is but how relevant much of it is today. This may say more about the slow rate of institutional change in Britain than it does about Gilbert (1836-1911).

Considerable justice is done to Sullivan (1842-1900) as a composer and there is time to well illustrate his own satirising skill in pastiche-ing musical styles from Baroque counterpoint to Rossini coloratura. I felt a little more could have been made of Gilbert’s skill in providing internally rhythmic verse that went well beyond rhyming couplets. He may not have been particularly musical but his gift for poundingly rhythmical alliterative lines was a gift to Sullivan and was an ability much admired by subsequent lyric writers, notably Cole Porter.

Thomson Smillie’s script, as in other guides, is comprehensive and well paced, and David Timson’s narration delivered in artificial actors’ diction, something that irritates me but may not bother others. The booklet is good value with a substantial essay by Smillie.

This package will be informative and possibly (and hopefully) inspiring to newcomers but, with its wealth of musical old favourites, should satisfy old hands.

John Leeman

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