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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842 - 1900), W.S. GILBERT (1836-1913)
The Yeomen of the Guard: Overture [4.55], Act I [46.34], Act II [32.23]
Orchestral excerpts from operettas [20.06]
Martyn Green (Jack Point), Darrel Fancourt (Sergeant Meryll), Leonard Osborn (Colonel Fairfax), Richard Watson (Wilfred Shadbolt), Muriel Harding (Elsie Maynard), Ann Drummond-Grant (Phoebe Meryll), Ella Halman (Dame Carruthers), Donald Harris (Sir Richard Cholmondeley), Neville Griffiths (Leonard Meryll, First Yeoman), Geoffrey Sanders (Second Yeoman), Deidree Thurlow (Kate)
D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, New Promenade Orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Recorded 18th July 1950, London ADD

The Decca series of recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the early days of LPs prior to the era of stereo recordings. What a pleasure, then, to have these recordings back in the catalogue in the Naxos series! The soloists on this recording are amongst the finest that the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company ever produced. The part of Jack Point is taken by Martyn Green, arguably the most famous of the D'Oyly Carte comic baritones of the modern era (followed, of course, by John Reid as a very close second!)

The conductor on all these recordings is the inimitable Isidore Godfrey, perhaps the greatest Gilbert and Sullivan conductor of his generation. Whilst the sound is good, the recording certainly shows its age as far as the diction of the soloists is concerned. Just listen to the first contralto solo "When our gallant Norman foes", sung by Ella Halman with a true booming and opulent contralto. We certainly don't hear it like this any more! The enunciation of Muriel Harding who sings the part of Elsie Maynard is even more twee and reflects a bygone era, reminding one forcefully of the Ealing comedies! In general, however, the singing of both soloists and chorus is exemplary and Godfrey paces the work extremely well with wonderfully crisp tempi, especially in the finale to Act 1.

Of course, opinions vary as to the importance of this work in the Gilbert and Sullivan series of so-called comic operas. Unlike most of his previous and indeed succeeding operettas, Gilbert treats the subject in the Yeomen of the Guard very seriously. Thus, we are able to identify with the characters as real people. In works such as the Mikado, the possibility that Ko Ko and his partners in crime might have boiling oil poured over them does not cause us any loss of sleep because the subject matter and the characters are so outside our common experience. However, the reality of the characters in the Yeomen of the Guard must make us take their fate and unhappiness far more seriously. In performance, it is difficult for the actors to play comedy with tragedy just around the corner. Thus, the scene where Phoebe tries to wangle from the head gaoler the key to the cell in which her beloved Colonel Fairfax is being held prior to execution, is often done as burlesque. This may raise a few laughs but it is not what Gilbert intended and it also tends to detract from the excellent solo "Were I thy bride". The end of the Opera is also problematic as the rejected Jack Point falls "insensible" at the feet of his sweetheart, now married to Colonel Fairfax. The pathos of this scene can also be obscured if the music is taken too quickly and accelerates towards the conclusion of the opera. Needless to say, this authentic production does not fall into any of these traps.

What of the competition? This work, often referred to as the nearest that Gilbert and Sullivan came to producing a full-scale opera, is well represented in the catalogue. We have versions by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Neville Marriner conducting a cast probably unequalled in any English opera, the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Mackerras, and an early stereo version conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. All these three versions are currently available (just - I should mention that the Marriner Phillips version is now deleted but is still obtainable from online CD suppliers) and benefit from much better sound than found on this recording. In addition, all three later versions have top-class opera soloists taking the leading roles, such as Robert Lloyd, Bryn Terfel, Sylvia McNair and Thomas Allen for the Neville Marriner version and, good as they are, the D'Oyly Carte soloists cannot compete. Herein, though, lies the dilemma - on stage, with full libretto, the D'Oyly Carte soloists would probably trounce the opposition. However, apart from a truncated dialogue in the Marriner version, the others, including this one, only contain the music. I would only recommend this version if one was really determined to have an authentic recording of the glorious days of D'Oyly Carte. In all other respects, the other versions are superior and can be confidently recommended. The second CD concludes with an historical recording of excerpts from the operettas made in 1935. It sounds remarkably good and is a welcome filler.

Em Marshall

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