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Alfred CELLIER (1844-1891)
The Mountebanks (1892) [121.56]
Suite Symphonique (1878) [16.05]  
Soraya Mafi (soprano) – Teresa: Thomas Elwin (tenor) – Alfredo: James Cleverton (baritone) – Arrostino: Sharon Carty (mezzo-soprano) – Minestra: John-Colby Gyeantey (tenor) – Risotto: Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano) – Nina: John Savournin (bass-baritone) – Bartolo: Geoffrey Dolton (baritone) – Pietro: Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano) – Ultrice: Martin Lamb (bass-baritone) – Elvino: Olivia Robinson (soprano) – 1st girl: Nancy Cole (mezzo-soprano) – 2nd girl: Tom Raskin (tenor) – Ravioli: Andrew Rupp (baritone) – Spaghetti
BBC Singers and Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum
DUTTON EPOCH 2CDLX7349 [59.52 + 78.09]

The late British comedian Bob Monkhouse used to tell a story about the days of his youth, when he had found his ambition to amuse audiences treated with scorn by his friends and contemporaries. “They’re not laughing now,” he wistfully concluded. I find it hard to believe that Monkhouse, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of his craft, would not have been aware of the origins of this joke in Gilbert’s libretto for The Mountebanks, although I suspect he may well have encountered it, not in the original, but in Hesketh Pearson’s 1935 biography of Gilbert and Sullivan (issued as a Penguin paperback) where the whole extended passage was quoted in full. Pearson indeed cites Gilbert’s text as fully the equal of any of those he provided for Sullivan, and I also seem to detect in it elements of a bitter reaction to the manner in which the playwright’s own contemporaries treated his work. A couple of years earlier, the reaction of Victorian court circles to his persistent sniping at the privileged classes led to the omission of his name altogether from a command performance of The Gondoliers for the Queen at Windsor, and Gilbert had to wait for the accession of Edward VII before he received the knighthood already bestowed many years before on Sullivan. This sense of bitterness was to overflow in his text for Utopia Limited a year later (written for Sullivan, but long since excluded from the standard canon of their works); but already here Gilbert is having great fun satirising class divisions, and especially the manner in which the undeserving peerage can command the unthinking respect of the ‘lower orders.’

Not that any of this satire comes across in this recording, in which we are provided with no synopsis of the action, or any vestige of Gilbert’s dialogue (which the purchaser has to print out from the company’s website in a decidedly unfriendly format – thirty pages of print and ink). The booklet instead provides us with an extensive essay on the music of Cellier’s score, and the manner in which it was edited for performance following the composer’s early death (interesting, although there is a good deal of inessential detail), and extensive biographies of all the singers involved (much of which will inevitably become dated almost immediately on publication) - which is rather odd, because most of the interest in this release will centre around Gilbert’s libretto rather than Cellier’s music.

Gilbert had long hankered for an operetta centred around the idea of a ‘lozenge’ which had the property of making people into the characters they pretended to be – a hypocrite into a really good person, or a young woman into an old one – but the idea never really got anywhere, because Sullivan consistently rejected the notion as being artificial and therefore uninteresting. Following his row with Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte, Gilbert immediately resurrected the idea (with the lozenge now transformed into an alchemical potion) and engaged the services of Cellier, whom he already knew well from the Savoy Operas where he had conducted most of the performances (Sullivan only put in an appearance for first nights or when royalty was in attendance), and had also been entrusted by Sullivan with the preparation of overtures for which the better-known composer then took the credit. One can immediately tell from the sound of the music for The Mountebanks that Cellier was a master orchestrator, and some of his effects – for example for his band of strolling players – have a real sense of innovation which the more conventionally-minded Sullivan might have shunned. Mind you, Sullivan tended to write his scores in sudden bursts of activity, often very close to the deadline for the first night; Cellier expended much more time on his writing (and like Sullivan he suffered from debilitating ill health), and the result sometimes shows.

Where Cellier does not match Sullivan is in his sheer tunefulness. The music fits Gilbert’s lyrics like a glove, but the sense of memorability, the catchiness of the melodies, do not match the Savoy operas. When, after Cellier’s death and the bankruptcy of the company that produced The Mountebanks, the operetta was taken ‘in-house’ by D’Oyly Carte, it rapidly became the province of amateur operatic societies – and eventually not even that, as the orchestral material degenerated to the extent that it could no longer be loaned. This recording is the first opportunity for years that we have had to hear The Mountebanks and it is much to be welcomed, since for sheer enjoyment it outstrips Sullivan-without-Gilbert comic operas such as Haddon Hall or The Rose of Persia, both of which have received worthwhile revivals in recent years.

The best-known number in the score is the comic duet Put a penny in the slot, sung by two actors after they have been transformed into fairground marionettes. This comes towards the beginning of the Second Act, and it is noticeable in this recording that the music after the interval is rather less memorable than in the earlier part of the score. It is also oddly balanced in dramatic terms: at the outset there is a substantial amount of spoken dialogue, but this progressively decreases as the evening proceeds until the music becomes very nearly continuous for the last half-hour or so (precisely the opposite from the norm in operettas). This would be less noticeable were the music itself more varied, but much of it proceeds in a sort of jog-trot tempo interspersed with sentimental ballads, and it is not until the finale (a reprise of High Jerry Ho! from Act One) that we get any really lively passages. Even Put a penny in the slot seems to derive its melodic appeal from a close imitation of a passage from The Beggar’s Opera, and Pietro’s solo When your clothes does not develop into the ‘patter song’ that Gilbert’s libretto seems to expect (it was cut before the first night, finding its way subsequently into The Grand Duke in a new Sullivan setting, and is here provided with an orchestration by John Andrews).

After the opening night Gilbert seems to have recognised that the action in the Second Act seemed to hang fire, and he and the conductor Ivan Caryll made a number of deletions to the music. Some of these, such as the excision of the really rather unpleasant song When hungry cat, would have tightened up the action, although it is surprising that the finale was also truncated at this time. The edition here by Robin Gordon-Powell restores these omissions, which is surely correct in the context of a complete recording; but one suspects that Gilbert and Caryll’s instincts may have been right in terms of theatrical performance. Caryll also made a number of minor amendments and filled out the orchestration of some numbers after Cellier’s death, and these are included in this recording.

The singers here all enter enthusiastically into their roles, and Thomas Elwin makes quite a heroic impact in his big solo In days gone by. Not that there are a lot of solo sections, Cellier and Gilbert preferring rather to ring the changes in ensemble passages with comic verve and a wide variety of rhythmic tricks. John Andrews gives us plenty of pace where Cellier allows and the contributions of chorus and orchestra are fully worthy of a score which, although it may be patchy, contains many passages of enjoyment which will fully appeal to all G&S fans. As a filler we are given Cellier’s earlier Symphonic Suite, where three movements in an Elgarian light-orchestra vein are followed by a rather splendid finale which was later employed in place of an overture to the first stage presentation of The Mountebanks. Given that fact, it might have been a good idea to place the orchestral score before the operetta rather than after it: but no matter.

There was at one time a 1964 complete recording with dialogue of The Mountebanks available on LPs from the Lyric Theatre Company of Washington, but this seems to have totally vanished from the catalogues, and in any event, I cannot imagine that the musical material would have been as comprehensive as it is here. G&S fans will therefore welcome this new release, and all those interested in English comic opera of the era will find a score which will delight them despite its problems. What is clear is that The Mountebanks is yet another of those works whose total neglect is undeserved, and we should be grateful that the performance here is so worthy of it. The recording is excellently balanced, and the words are usually as clear as Gilbert would doubtless have demanded.

Incidentally, I notice from George Bernard Shaw’s review of the original production (he rather liked it, although oddly it seems that he attended the dress rehearsal rather than the opening night) that the comedian given Gilbert’s line about “they’re not laughing now” was originally enacted by a “Mr Monkhouse”. So far as I can discover, he was no relation of his latter-day namesake but it’s a positively Gilbertian coincidence.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Raymond Walker


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