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CD: MDT AmazonUK

Gilbert & Sullivan - A Motley Pair
Simon Butteriss (narrator and baritone); Victoria Byron (mezzo); Bruce Graham (baritone); Gareth Jones (baritone); Charlotte Page (soprano); Jill Pert (contralto); Oliver White (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra/Tony Britten
Format 16:9; all regions; NTSC AC3
+ Bonus Disc - A Salaried Wit written, presented and performed by Simon Butteriss [59:00]
CAPRIOL FILMS CAP107 [150:00 + 59:00]

Experience Classicsonline

The best way to introduce the newcomer to any work of art is simply to let them experience it for themselves. For many Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts one trip to the theatre as a child, even if only to an amateur performance, was enough to ignite and lifetime’s love of these works. But that leaves those who missed out on such an experience, or who saw a performance, amateur or professional, which was essentially a travesty of the work, or who are influenced by the low reputation the operas have in some circles. I assume that these DVDs are intended for such people, and they try very hard - possibly too hard - to counter both ignorance and received wisdom on the subject.

The main disc consists of five half hour programmes originally shown on the Sky Arts Channel. The material in each is presented in roughly chronological order although this is far from rigidly adhered to and anyone unfamiliar with the works or their chronology might find themselves mystified at times. Simon Butteriss presents each programme in a way that some will find delightful and others exaggerated. Personally I prefer to have a knowledgeable and interested presenter rather than an all-purpose “celebrity” as is all too often the way with television documentaries today. He sings many of the patter roles and has a fine array of soloists to sing the other brief excerpts when required. I should emphasise the word “brief” as seldom is a number allowed to run its course uninterrupted and usually only a few lines are allowed. Whether this is likely to persuade the newcomer to want to hear more I do not know, but personally I found it increasingly irritating. Indeed my main concern with these programmes is that little opportunity is allowed for the text or music to speak for themselves without someone feeling it necessary to explain or praise it. Even with Shakespeare’s most obscure jokes I find that any necessary explanation tends to kill whatever potential humour there is stone dead, and surely for the most part Gilbert is not so obscure as to need help in this direction. It would have been much better if each programme had been followed by a similar length selection of complete excerpts by the same performers using the sets and costumes provided for the brief extracts. Better still, what about a complete opera (or two) using these performers. That would show the newcomer what the real force of these works can be. I understand that when they were shown on Sky Arts they were in fact followed by complete performances albeit with different performers.

In each programme from time to time a few comments are made by such distinguished names as the late Sir Charles Mackerras, Valerie Masterson and Sir Nicholas Hytner, all of whom are clearly very much in favour of the Savoy operas. Comments by Jonathan Miller and Germaine Greer on the other hand are not, which gives some semblance of being evenhanded although personally I could have done without any of these commentators. It is difficult to see who would be influenced to like the works more or less just because of what these people say, and what little analysis they are permitted to make in the brief time allowed to them is necessarily at best superficial. It would have been better to have used the time for a more detailed commentary by Simon Butteriss whose script is very much to the point and full of interesting remarks but is equally crammed with potential half-truths and comments that need further elucidation.

The “Bonus Disc” examines the connection between George Grossmith and Gilbert and Sullivan. Again Simon Butteriss narrates but this time he is permitted much longer musical extracts, to their considerable benefit. Even if little of the information or material will be new to the aficionado it is put across in a way that is likely to be as interesting to them as to the newcomer.

Much use is made on both discs of a fascinating and wide array of drawings, photographs, and locations which will certainly mean that even those with a wide knowledge of the subject will want to repeat these films for these incidental delights. Indeed I am in no doubt that these programmes are unquestionably far superior in quality and depth to the majority of arts documentary programmes seen on the television today. It would be good to think that they might succeed in encouraging newcomers to the Savoy operas as well as giving pleasure to those who know them already. Despite my reservations there is much to enjoy here.

John Sheppard

















































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