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William Schwenk GILBERT (1836-1911) and Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)

The Sorcerer
(1877): Overture [5:34]; Act I [41:57]; Act II, part 1 [14:11]; Act II, part 2 [20:42]
Fisher Morgan – Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre
Neville Griffiths – Alexis
Jeffrey Skitch – Dr. Daly
Donald Adams – Notary
Peter Pratt – John Wellington Wells
Ann Drummond-Grant – Lady Sangazure
Muriel Harding – Aline
Beryl Dixon - Mrs. Partlett
Yvonne Dean – Constance
D’Oyly Carte Opera Company Chorus
New Symphony Orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Recorded 8th, 10th, 16th, 21st, 23rd, 24th, 29th and 30th July, 1953, London, UK ADD

Highlights from The Sorcerer – 1933 Recording [37:33]
Darrell Fancourt – Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre
Derek Oldham – Alexis
Leslie Rands – Dr. Daly
Stuart Robertson – Notary
George Baker – John Wellington Wells
Dorothy Gill – Lady Sangazure
Muriel Dickson – Aline
Anna Bethell - Mrs. Partlett
Alice MoxonConstance
D’Oyly Carte Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Recorded
12th-13th September 1933, London, UK. ADD
NAXOS 8.110785-86 [61:42 + 58:15]

 

 

Though it is not the most familiar of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, historically The Sorcerer must be considered a milestone. It was their first collaboration for a full-length comic opera. It was also their first full-length commissioned work for their most important patron, Richard D’Oyly. In retrospect, many consider it a second-tier operetta for the renowned duo, but at the time it was well received. After all, its initial run was for a very respectable 178 performances. If it weren’t for that success, H.M.S. Pinafore would likely not have been created, and we would have had quite a different history of English musical theatre.

The show may feel a bit dated to the modern listener. It is very much a product of its time. The plot is based on a story by Gilbert that had previously appeared in Graphic Magazine in December 1876. In true Gilbertian fashion, the love potions sold by John Wellington Wells, “a dealer in magic and spells”, wreak havoc on the inhabitants of the village because they fall in love with the next person they see. In many ways, this is a Victorian version of Puck playing with the hearts of mortals in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Act I begins at Sir Marmaduke Poindextre’s mansion with the betrothal of Alexis to Aline, the daughter of Lady Sangazure. It is immediately revealed that Constance is actually in love with the elderly vicar, Dr. Daly. Then Sir Marmaduke appears to admit that he and Lady Sangazure were once madly in love, but were too discreet to admit it in public.

Aline is now engaged to Alexis, who wants to share his sense of love with everyone. Therefore the elderly Notary who helped with the marriage contract engages a sorcerer to provide a love philtre. The sorcerer, Wellington Wells, then appears and, with Alexis, brews this and two similar phials in a large tea-pot. The contents are then given to the villagers who, in 12 hours, will fall in love with the first person of the opposite sex that they see. Before long the charm is working, and the curtain falls as everyone who has partaken of the potion falls unconscious on stage.

Act II starts at the same mansion that held most of the action in Act I. However it is now night and the villagers begin to awake and fall in love with each other. Constance falls in love with the deaf old Notary. Alexis tries to get Aline to drink the potion, but she says that her love for him is so strong that there is no need. Additionally, she wants no chance of change.

The whole village has paired off, but there are a collection of ill-assorted unions. At first Alexis is delighted, until his father appears with Mrs. Partlet the Pew Opener on his arm. At that point he reconsiders. Lady Sangazure becomes enamored of the sorcerer himself, and Aline changes her mind and drinks the philtre in secret. When she recovers however, she falls in love with Dr. Daly.

Now Alexis realizes what havoc the sorcerer John Wellington Wells and he have created, he convinces Wells to reverse the spell. The downside of this is that either Alexis or Wells must die in order to restore the former loves. There is a vote, and it is decided unanimously that the sorcerer must pay the penalty. Wells submits, and is put to the torch.

The piece satirizes many Victorian customs and the character of the delicate curate who receives slippers and other effeminate articles from kind-hearted maidens. As such, though there have been some revivals in recent years, the work’s storyline subject is dated. Additionally many of the melodies used by Sullivan are neither as catchy nor as familiar as those used in the later great operas that he and Gilbert would produce. However the Vicar’s two songs and the introductory song of John Wellington Wells are fine examples of G&S’s collaborative work.

The overture in many places is composed in a military style reminiscent of Sullivan’s roots in military bands. The performance here is quite good, and has been well restored. Though there are still some traces of the age of the recording, this has no audible tape noise and reasonable fidelity.

The featured cast, from 1953, is resplendent with D’Oyly Carte stars. Aside from Fisher Morgan, all the primary cast were leading lights for at least a decade. Isidore Godfrey conducts with a knowledge and confidence born of decades of specialization. Fisher Morgan was a celebrity stalwart from 1950 through 1956. Jeffrey Skitch was featured in nearly every Gilbert & Sullivan operetta that was written, performing named roles from 1952 to 1965. Peter Pratt is one of the great names in G&S comic roles, still referenced and studied by any serious practitioner in the genre. Donald Adams assumed most of the bass leads for D’Oyly Carte from 1953 to 1969, and continued touring the world as a featured performer until 1996. Neville Griffiths also continued in the grand Gilbert & Sullivan tradition by performing many leads from 1948-58, then by joining the Sadler’s Wells Opera in various tenor roles. In short, this particular cast represents many of the most durable names in the Tradition.

It is evident when listening to the cast why so many enjoyed such longevity. With the exception of Anne Drummond-Grant, who sounds at times as if she is singing well below her range, each performer is very nicely cast. They are all prototypical examples, each performing a stereotype that would be revisited in each successive operetta. The performers are all polished and everything is in its right place.

In the 1953 recordings, the mastering job is notably good. Much like the overture, there is some noise, but it is easily ignored. There are symptoms of old tape or technologically inferior microphones (when compared to the modern day) such as lack of the highest fidelity. This is not uncommon in old recordings. Unless your expectations are unrealistic, you will not be disappointed.

The additional recordings from the earlier D’Oyly Carte cast are quite remarkable in their clarity. There is noticeable hiss, and on a rare occasion a ‘pop’ can be heard. However, these are recordings from what amounts to the iron-age of recording. The voices are brilliant and the recording very well restored. In fact, it was hardly noticeable when the CD switched from the 1953 sessions to those from 1933.

It is interesting to note how stylistically the singing of the recordings from the 1930s or 1950s is different from modern revivals. There is a great deal more vibrato in the vocals, particularly in the female soloist parts, than is commonly employed in modern musical theater. It has been said that the only thing that changes more frequently than styles in singing is styles in fashion. This is further proof of the axiom. It is not the place of this reviewer to decide whether modern style is superior to the former, or vice versa. However, much as operetta is itself very much a product of the Victorian age, so the singers are easily placed in their respective eras.

While this particular operetta is less familiar than many in the G&S catalogue, these recordings are quite good. The casual fan will likely skip this set due to the lack of familiarity. The true aficionado would do well to seek it out. There are nearly two complete recordings of The Sorcerer here, and both are among the best of their era. Indeed, between the two casts, one would be hard pressed to find a better rendition. Even with the sonic legacy of aging recordings, any true fan should consider this worthy of attention.

 

Patrick Gary

 

 




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