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Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Grand Opera ‘Ivanhoe’ and its Theatrical and Musical Precursors
by Jeff S. Dailey
Edwin Mellon Press
ISBN 978 0 7734 5068 4
220 pp.
£69.95
Experience Classicsonline

It is unusual to come across a book devoted to one opera, especially when that opera is relatively unknown. However the story behind the creation of Sullivan’s Ivanhoe is particularly interesting. It was composed by the best known of Victorian composers and is to my knowledge the longest running English opera ever staged. It stretched to 155 consecutive performances with a double cast, all of whom were trained by Sullivan who had the work completed within a schedule of six months. In 1995, the British public were reminded of the work when Roderic Dunnett (‘Opera Now’ magazine reviewer) in his BBC radio ‘Britannia at the Opera’ series presented a compressed version of Ivanhoe in a new studio recording in an hour-long version.

Readers of this book are likely to be those to whom the Savoy operas and some of Sullivan’s orchestral works are known. Many will be fascinated by the detail surrounding this opera, penned only a decade before the composer’s death. For some time, Sullivan had been criticised by the establishment and told that his talents were being frittered away on his lucrative comic operas. He, himself, believed that Gilbert’s lyrics were cramping his style. It therefore comes as no surprise to find that as early as 1885 he told Richard D’Oyly Carte that he wished to move on from the comic opera tradition. Following a suggestion by Queen Victoria to write a grand opera he was duly motivated. This in turn motivated D’Oyly Carte to build a new theatre for the work. The opera’s subject would need to be popular and lend itself to presentation as a spectacle so that it could draw in large audiences.

Jeff Dailey has researched his subject thoroughly and one wonders whether this book originally formed the backbone of a thesis, for the detail is exacting and the footnotes extensive. I found it a fascinating read. He has a clear style of writing, free from Americanisms. He always presents his material in context to explain to the reader those events that relate to the situation under discussion. He identifies that only top performers are likely to cope with Ivanhoe, which he likens to Lohengrin or Les Huguenots in complexity and length.

Recordings (apart from the 60+ 78 rpm records that exist) are detailed and valid comments about them are made. Dailey rightly explains that one cannot form a fair opinion of the quality of the work from these non-professional recordings. Of those listed, however, he seems to have overlooked what is probably the finest recording of two soprano arias from Ivanhoe found on an English Opera disc. They show off Sullivan in a good light. These are sung by Deborah Riedel with Richard Bonynge and the Opera Australia orchestra (Melba MR 30110 - see review).

Dailey teases out some interesting facts that make fascinating reading. From diary entries and elsewhere we are given an accurate picture of how Julian Sturgis came to be chosen as librettist and the way Sullivan wrote the piece. Having given himself only six months to complete his task, Carte realised that the composer might not finish in time so he put a clause in the contract to make sure the finished score was delivered and rehearsal process accomplished in time for the production to open on the day the theatre building was completed. Sullivan delivered late and had to pay Carte £3000. An interesting point concerns the orchestra and compares its size with that used for The Golden Legend and for Savoy operas like The Mikado.

As a literature scholar, Dailey is clearly knowledgeable about Scott and the writers of the various Ivanhoe stage productions. He shows how certain arrangements of plot order can work on the stage. It also helped that the audience of the day would have known the Ivanhoe story in detail before they set foot in the theatre. As a musician, he analyses quite carefully in a long section the various musical motifs applied to build the framework of the score. Interestingly, these motifs play a strong role in the first two acts and not the third. Is this intended - an oversight or was Sullivan so pushed for time that he ignored the fact? Dailey provides insight into the detail of the band parts: again this makes interesting reading. Meticulous over scoring detail, Sullivan apparently added a ‘G flute’ to the piccolo part at a late stage of rehearsal to accentuate the brilliance once he had been able to assess the acoustics of the new theatre. Leaving no stone unturned, we are provided with detail (and the critics’ backgrounds) of those who spoke against Ivanhoe so that the reader can make a fair assessment of the work in the 21st Century.

It is a pity that we are not given any cast lists and no comment/information is made about the leading singers of the double cast. Ben Davies, Charles Kenningham, Esther Pallister, and Margaret Macintyre were names associated with grand opera and some of them appear in photographs within the book. The fact that five were American and that the casts revolved so that the lead opposites would vary might have interested the readers. From a letter by Miss Macintyre to Sullivan we find that the rehearsals ran each day from 12.30 to 4.00 pm and that the singers’ contracts required attendance at all rehearsals. Mention is made of the scenery designers, but readers interested in staging will be disappointed that no comment is made on how Ivanhoe’s nine scenes might have been achieved on stage. Drawings must exist and reviewers do in fact make some reference to visual detail. The only detail given is that the striking of the Burning Castle scene requires a 12 minute interlude, unhelpful to Sullivan’s wish that the opera be staged in three acts.

The ten illustrative plates are for some reason placed together - usually so only when a different high definition gloss art paper is used. The pictures could have used up the page size more profitably. They mainly focus on members of the cast and on a very young Julian Sturgis. More would have been welcome as there is plenty of illustrative material to be found in The Graphic and the Illustrated London News. The only scene from the opera is shown on the book cover.

There are 50 pages of well-spaced appendices, covering the various adaptations, places of performance and synopses of Scott and Sturgis’s Ivanhoe for comparison as well as Harris’s La Basoche. Despite the book’s high price, which will sadly restrict circulation, this is excellently researched material whose publication is timely since a professional recording of Ivanhoe by Chandos is being planned for release in 2009-10.

Raymond J Walker


 


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