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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Rose of Persia (1899) a comic opera, words by Basil Hood
Overture di ballo
HMS Pinafore overture
The Pirates of Penzance overture
The Mikado overture
The Yeomen of the Guard overture
Macbeth overture

Richard Morrison (baritone) - Sultan; Richard Suart (baritone) - Hassan; Ivan Sharpe (tenor) - Yussuf; Jonathan Veira (bass) - Abdallah; Ian Caddy (baritone) - Grand Vizier; Sally Harrison (soprano) - Rose-In-Bloom; Claire Henry (soprano) - Heart’s Desire; Marilyn Hill Smith (mezzo) - Scent-of-Lilies; Marcia Bellamy (mezzo) - Dancing Sunbeam
Southwark Voices
Hanover Band/Tom Higgins
Recorded at The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, England, 27 January–2 February 1999. DDD
CPO 777 074-2 [67:34 + 77:32]


 

This comic opera was the last to be fully completed by Sullivan before his untimely death in 1900. One might assume that his musical gifts were by then on the wane, but despite his ill-health and the likelihood of being in continual pain during composition, the Rose of Persia contains delightfully warm moments. It certainly deserves a worthy place in the Savoy Opera repertoire. Its libretto by Basil Hood is written in Gilbertian style and has some typically amusing dialogue. The plot is modelled on The Mikado where the Lord High Executioner, Ko Ko, is replaced by Hassan. The twist here is that to escape death for flirting, Hassan has to tell the powerful Sultan (a Mikado substitute) an original story that must have a happy ending. If so, his life will be saved. In telling the story of his own life, Hassan reveals that his happy ending is in being pardoned by the Sultan, and so Hood’s Gilbertian predicament is resolved.

There are places where we hear a pleasingly different Sullivan who clearly is displaying his ability to move with the advancing musical trends of the time. One number could easily have come from an Edwardian music-hall written ten years later: it is Musical Maidens (tr. 1/11) with its elegantly moving opening. On the negative side, there are a few uninspired and mundane numbers like We have come to invade, and a few monotonous ones including Dancing Dervish. Nevertheless there’s plenty to refresh the lover of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Prior to this recording only one LP recording of Rose of Persia existed; that by the Prince Consort of Edinburgh in 1986. At the time theirs was a gallant reading, but their resources did not allow full justice to the musicality of work. The CPO version is a good modern recording made possible by sponsorship from members of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and initially released by BBC Music Magazine in 1999. I was interested to compare this commercial release by CPO to see whether adjustments had been made. Not so, the same acoustic and mastering seem to have been used and my hope that certain numbers might have been speeded up meets disappointment. The set may well have been pressed from identical masters.

There is a strong cast who give excellent performances with good diction. The blend of voices in If you ask me (tr. 1/6) is particularly lovely and well balanced. The innocence of Rose in Bloom (lead soprano) comes across well with Sally Harrison’s bright tone and light unobtrusive vibrato. Yet because this is a comic opera where a lot of the female voices are given equal weighting Rose has less solo work to do than is usually found in the genre. Richard Suart, now well known for his portrayal of the comic roles in G&S, is on form here and portrays a convincing Hassan. The hit is Drinking Song, I care not if the cup I hol (tr. 1/10) here well delivered by an energetic Ivan Sharpe. Marcia Bellamy, whose roundedly warm mezzo makes her rendering of O Life (tr. 1/4) and I’ve always known (tr. 2/2) quite special.

The choice of orchestra, the Hanover Band, is unusual yet they read the score with good accuracy although at times I found the pace disappointing. I don’t know the background of Tom Higgins’ theatre experience, but there is a noticeable lack of energy caused by dragging out certain numbers. This is particularly so in sections of the Act I finale. A Moderato marziale written in the score with a change to Allegro agitato will understandably be read differently by different musicians, yet one has to carry thought of stage action if one is to provide a convincing imaginary performance.

The bonus of this set is that it carries excellent performances of two lesser known Sullivan overtures, Macbeth and Di Ballo. The Macbeth is suitably atmospheric and is as good a reading as the benchmark recording by David Lloyd-Jones on Hyperion CDA 66515. However a much better speed for Di Ballo is found in the 1960s Reader’s Digest Classical LP box set which seems more appropriate to Sullivan’s intentions.

The notes contain a full libretto, and although CPO is a German company it seems strange that they have put the English notes last when it is an English work and the libretto is only given in English. Sadly the names of the many sponsors and subscribers who made this recording possible have been omitted from the booklet, an error made at the time of the first release.


Raymond J Walker



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