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Alfred CELLIER (1844-1891)
The Mountebanks, comic opera (1892)
Suite Symphonique (1878)
Teresa – Soraya Mafi (soprano)
Alfredo – Thomas Elwin (tenor)
Arrostino – James Cleverton (baritone)
Minestra – Sharon Carty (mezzo)
Risotto – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Nita – Catherine Carby (mezzo)
Bartolo – John Savournin (bass-baritone)
Pietro – Geoffrey Dolton (baritone)
Ultrice – Madeleine Shaw (mezzo)
Elvino – Martin Lamb (bass-baritone)
Ravioli – Tom Raskin (tenor
Spaghetti – Andrew Rupp (baritone)
BBC Singers/Daniel Cook
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum, UK
DUTTON EPOCH 2CDLX7349 SACD [59:52 + 62:04]

Cellier is hardly known to us today, yet between 1875 and 1900 his name was widely known in London and Manchester as a theatre M.D., composer of 6 operas, numerous curtains raisers and many parlour ballads. His fame grew as a result of residency as conductor for the Savoy operas, having grown up with Sullivan as a fellow chorister at the Chapel Royal. It is no wonder that their styles are in many respects similar. Cellier is a good melodist and an excellent orchestrator, and it is these qualities that make this work appealing. Collectors will be curious about this forgotten work written by WS Gilbert, for it was written after The Gondoliers when Gilbert was not communicating with either Sullivan or D’Oyly Carte. This first recording of Cellier’s music enlightens us to his excellent skills as a composer and provides the interesting fact that Gilbert is heard associated with composer other than Sullivan. Six years before The Mountebanks Cellier had scored a success with his comic opera Dorothy, then wrote Doris and afterwards The Mountebanks.

Here, Gilbert uses his ‘magic lozenge’ plot that Sullivan had refused to set on more than one occasion because something similar had been already provided in The Sorcerer (1877). We have to admit that this piece holds together remarkably well and moves forward both thematically and musically with considerable appeal. One of the many excellent numbers is the patter trio “Where gentlemen are eaten up with jealousy” which to my ears has a Burnand & Sullivan Contrabandista ring about it (1879). G&S fans will enjoy hearing Gilbert’s first setting of “A Broken down Critter” since the same lyrics were used four years later in The Grand Duke to a Sullivan setting.

There is a free-flowing style to Cellier’s compositions with fine lyrical detail and sumptuous orchestration with which he provides a wide variety of musical effects. Due to Cellier’s early and unexpected death, a few of the numbers had to be completed by Ivan Caryll and his modified orchestration fits well. Four numbers were scored by him from Cellier’s sketches and melody lines (Nos. 12, 14, 20 & 25). Particularly enchanting is Caryll’s Entr’acte to Act II with its pastoral setting of Teresa’s song, All Alone. It made me consider that Cellier would have made a perfect job of completing Sullivan’s unfinished Emerald Isle had he not died before Sullivan. (On that occasion the opera was finished by Edward German.) The strong cast is led by Soyara Mafi (Teresa) and Tom Elwin (Alfredo). Mafi’s light voice suits the innocence of her character and she enchants with her delightful rendering of “I’m only joking” [tk.13]. I equally warmed to the lyrical delivery of Elwin in his ballad numbers. Both singers stand out for their excellent diction and are well supported by the other members of the cast.

As sometimes happened with West End productions of this period no overture was used and a concert piece by the composer substituted. For The Mountebanks this happened to be the fourth movement of Suite Symphonique. Whether an overture was eventually written it would have been provided by Caryll yet was too late for addition to the vocal score. For Mountebanks, Cellier provides only an introductory passage (15 bars) as he did for Dorothy and Doris, (68 and 32 bars respectively), yet Dorothy did have an overture provided at a later date. The Suite Symphonique is played in full and is an interesting piece to include as it shows the composer in a different light. After a short, quirky introduction (to wake everybody up) it runs into to an energetic and rhythmic Scherzo with interesting motif. A delicate waltz Romance follows that provides a nice contrast from the Scherzo and is delicately played by the BBC Concert orchestra. The Finale reveals Cellier’s mastery in bringing the Suite to its conclusion and one can see why it was used to replace the overture with its strong melodic line. Cellier’s orchestration in both the Suite and Comic Opera is first class and will leave one wondering how such music could have been neglected for so long.

When following the lyrics (a Dutton website download is available) one is aware of the growing sophistication in Gilbert’s choice of words in his lyrics during this mature period of his writing. Clever as some of the lyrics are they may well have gone over the heads of the ‘comedy opera’ orientated audiences. There is some variation of words from those printed in the Chappell vocal score and libretto, as the production went through a number of textual changes during its run. One noticeable place is at the beginning of the Act I finale (Nos. 12 & 13). It is nice that John Andrews takes the numbers at tempi which enhances their appeal.

The balance between voices in Michael Dutton’s recording is good and the charming woodwind and brass passages in the score are never masked by excessive reverberation or vocal lines. Excellent booklet notes by Donald Smith reveal his extensive research of this work and in them he prefaces with a lucid account of Gilbert and Cellier’s background to the theatre and highlights their respective achievements that contributed to the partnership. Apparently Gilbert had reworked the libretto a number of times, by altering and cutting numbers to give an appealing final result. We find that although the production provided an initial West End run of 229 performances; it went on to run in the provinces and in America for a number of decades, and was played by amateur societies up to WW2. This is the sort of performance material that should be regularly picked up by BBC R3 for there are other good stage works by Cellier, Clay, Caryll, Monckton and Jones that we’d all very much like to be given an airing. We should not have to always rely on private beneficiaries and societies to provide the bulk of funds for such recordings and it is to them we have to offer thanks.

Raymond J Walker

 




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