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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Contrabandista, 2 act Comic Opera (1869)
Words by Frances Burnand
The Foresters, Incidental music (1892)
Words by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Claire Rutter (sop), Frances McCafferty (mezzo), Ashley Catling (ten),
Donald Maxwell (bar), Richard Suart (bar), Geoffrey Moses (bass)
London Chorus, New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp
Rec. Henry Wood Hall, Borough, London, January 2004. DDD
HYPERION CDA 67486 [76:16]


A facsimile of the original vocal scores with full libretto and historical notes is available for The Contrabandista and The Foresters. Details are available by e-mail:

Further reading: ‘Sullivan: A Victorian Composer’ by Arthur Jacobs (1991) ISBN 0-85967-905-5

Amongst the reissues it is good to find something fresh and new again coming from the Hyperion stable. These are première professional recordings of two little known works by Sullivan. Hyperion has been releasing a premiere Sullivan work every year over the last three years.

Collectors of Victorian operetta will be delighted that The Contrabandista, an early work, has at last has been professionally recorded, for it completes that gap in Sullivan’s known operetta music between Cox & Box (1866) and Trial by Jury (1875). To some, the holy grail is the lost Thespis (1871) whose music has only survived as three numbers, and its ballet (recorded on Marco Polo). A study of the music composed for The Contrabandista and Trial by Jury is the only clue to help one appreciate what Thespis must have been generally like. Mention of this may seem pedantic but I know how seriously collectors take this genre.

Despite a mundane book about Spanish brigands by Frances Burnand (who would later become Editor of Punch) there are good musical ideas in The Contrabandista. These anticipate the more mature Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. In The Contrabandista, Sullivan attempts a good variety of musical styles. At times these are more reminiscent of Offenbach than the German and Italian operatic masters that Sullivan is likened to. Of particular merit in The Contrabandista is the aria, Only the night wind sighs alone (tr. 5) brought to our attention some eight years ago by Lesley Garrett. The catchy Hullo! What was that? (tr.8) with its bird calls and rippling accompaniment also deserves mention while a master stroke of ingenuity is Sullivan’s delicate and most simplistic of settings in the tenor’s opening aria to Act 2, Wake, gentle maiden (tr.11). These are indicative of the competent composer learning his craft.

Coupled with this very early operetta is also the première recording of one of his later works, The Foresters. This work has none of the sophistication usually expected of a mature composer where layers of complexity are added to his compositions. There is a reason for this. Theatre manager, Augustin Daly of New York had persuaded a reluctant Sullivan to accept his commission for musical interludes to lift a rambling play of the aging Tennyson. Both men were not in good shape and were unlikely to give of their best. Sullivan and Tennyson had bitterly fallen out over a project in 1871, The Window song cycle, and had trodden separate paths throughout their careers. Daly now intended to bring them together again despite the previous differences. There is little of merit in the lyrics. Listen particularly to No.6 (tr.22) with Tennyson’s humdrum fairy words. Despite this, Sullivan seems to have injected some fresh air that lifts the piece from total banality. Elsewhere in the piece his contributions are brief, often lasting little more than two minutes.

The singers on this disc are well known to those who follow this genre of music and they do not disappoint. Claire Rutter started her recording career on the Tring label with Puccini and continues to be precise in her delivery with a clear top. Her rendering of Only the night (The tinkling sheep bell song) (tr.5) is appropriately breezy and gentle. Frances McCafferty is well grounded in Sullivan on the TER label and here is as sumptuous as ever with velvety timbre and perfect diction in The peaceful plain (tr.3). Donald Maxwell and Richard Suart are familiar names who are on form in this recording. My only reservation is with Ashley Catling, a light tenor who sounds quite odd in the quintet, Hand of fate (tr.6). True, the vocal score asks for the lines to be sung ‘in a feigned voice’, but the interpretation here does not sound right. In the next track he recovers and sings competently, yet later, the Wake gentle maiden is better matched by a singer with purer tone. The notes fail to mention that a good amateur Edinburgh performance of The Contrabandista was recorded in recent times to add to the Sullivan Society professional concert performance of 2002 that served as a model for this recording. On that occasion its tenor, with particularly pure tone, Stephen Brown, should have been ideal for this CD.

Richard Suart, taking the comic role of Mr. Grigg, gets so carried away in I fired each barrel (tr.15) that clarity of delivery is lost. His main patter song on the other hand is sung to perfection.

In The Foresters, an excellent ‘English’ hunting song, sung by Will Scarlet, has energy with interesting rhythm, vibrant horns and good singing from Ashley Catling. The short chorus number, To sleep, to sleep, brings thoughts of early Sullivan and his King Arthur and Merry Wives of Windsor. It is sung by the chorus and soloists with much feeling and is indicative of Ronald Corp’s sensitive handling of his singers and orchestra.

The detailed and excellent notes by David Eden and William Parry (of the Sullivan Society) cover a lot of background to both works and provide a detailed synopsis. The Hyperion recordings owe much to the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society for sponsorship of their three Sullivan recordings.

Raymond Walker

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