We have waited a long time to hear those Sullivan works that are non-Gilbert yet which were presented by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre. After the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership had collapsed in 1896, Sullivan began to work with a number of well-respected librettists, two of which were Arthur Wing Pinero (of The Magistrate fame) and J. W. Comyns Carr (who had written a medieval play, King Arthur). Their collaboration in 1898 resulted in The Beauty Stone, a gothic Faustian legend where a crippled girl of tender heart and little beauty wishes to be released from her disfigurement and meet a handsome lord. She is offered a Beauty Stone by the Devil, which gives the wearer perfection in beauty and in so doing provides an opportunity for her to meet the King. The King falls in love with her before going off to war where he is blinded. In the meantime jealous Princess Sadia snatches the stone in an outrage of jealousy to regain the King's attention. Without the stone the girl returns to her previous ugly state. However, the King recognising her voice associates it with her and so continues to hold his love for her. Despite the work lasting for only a short run at the Savoy, the Carl Rosa Opera Company took on The Beauty Stone and played it successfully on a few of their provincial tours.
The appearance of this recording is particularly welcome for it lets the opera collector analyse a style of Sullivan's theatre music only hinted at in his comic operas. With its elegant mood flow, the score is a notch higher than Sullivan’s grand opera Ivanhoe. For example, the extended concerted section that includes the Beauty Contest and Finale to Act I is superbly written. It shows that Sullivan was not growing stale and that fresh musical ideas continued to flow two years from his premature death. Perhaps the only weakness is in the scene-changes and entr’actes where Sullivan tends to overuse the Mirlemont march theme. It seems likely that a need for the extra music to assist scene-changes would only have been realized during the final stage rehearsals and so the music had to be hastily written.
Conductor, Rory Macdonald, may be new to this genre of 19th century opera yet his exacting skill in the handling of pace, dynamics and texture is very much admired. The teasing out of nuances in the score allows the listener to appreciate the reasons why Sullivan is set on a higher plane than many of his contemporaries. The trio, Look yon with its multi-layered harmonies is a joy to hear. I am amazed that the chorus members can sing effective ‘agitato’ with such speed in tr.3’s Hobble, hobble without artificially speeding up the recording. The effect is good even if the words are totally lost. The chorus are excellent and on good form in their opening to Act I, Sc. 2, both in strength and balance. Madeleine Shaw in the bouncy duet, My name is crazy Jacqueline (tr.12 CD1) delivers with excellent diction and manages the necessary tricky, quick breathing without problem. Alan Opie as a rich and velvety-toned Devil responds magnificently. Elin Manahan Thomas, a light soprano, has a believable air of innocence that is right for the part. The addition of thunder and wind effects enhances the atmospheric appeal of the Devil’s scene.
This production follows the Ivanhoe release by Chandos, thanks to extensive financial support again provided by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and its subscribers. The Beauty Stone recording surpasses Ivanhoe in having a cast where one can appropriately visualise the soloists in their character parts.
The 164pp booklet in English, German and French with numerous contemporary illustrations and pictures contains an excellent essay by William Parry, which is justifiably supportive of the quality of the piece. A Daily News interview with Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1898 is transcribed and is revealing in the way Sullivan talks about the composition process. He mentions that he tried to give one scene unconventional colour by adopting a musical scale of his own. This is explained in more detail by Martin Yates in a further interesting essay discussing some of the technicalities of the music ofThe Beauty Stone and the way it is used to enhance the colours of the characters. A most enjoyable find.
Raymond J Walker