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Alfred CELLIER (1844-1891)
Dorothy (1886) [70.52]
Majella Cullagh (soprano - Dorothy)
Lucy Vallis (mezzo-soprano - Lydia)
Stephanie Maitland (mezzo-soprano - Phyllis)
Matt Mears (tenor - Wilder)
John Ieuan Jones (baritone - Sherwood)
Edward Robinson (baritone - Bantam)
Patrick Relph (baritone - Tuppitt)
Michael Vincent Jones (tenor - Lurcher)
Sebastian Maclaine (tenor - Strutt)
Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. 2018, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK
NAXOS 8.660447 [70.52]

The previously minimal representation in the catalogues of the music of Alfred Cellier has come on by leaps and bounds in the past year, firstly with the issue of his posthumous opera The Mountebanks on Dutton which I welcomed in a review for this site last summer, and then with this new Naxos release containing his earlier opera Dorothy which proved to be his greatest success during the composer’s own lifetime but has hardly been heard since the First World War. As so often with these revivals of almost totally forgotten scores, this new recording owes much to the indefatigable researches and enthusiasms of Richard Bonynge who has provided us with some considerable enlightenment in the field of nineteenth century music over the decades. He is supported here by an admirable cast of young singers, as well as Majella Cullagh whose contributions to the field of operatic rediscovery over the years has bid fair to rival that of Bonynge himself. The Victorian Opera chorus is drawn from students at the Royal Northern College of Music, and they have already, as an organisation, placed us in their debt with recordings of Balfe’s Satanella and The Maid of Artois, Wallace’s Lurline and Macfarren’s Robin Hood, all of them operas of more than passing interest.

With obscure works of this nature, more than usual importance attaches to the information provided with the recordings themselves. Although the Dutton issue of The Mountebanks last year supplied a wealth of information on the music and the revisions which it underwent before its première following Cellier’s death, it rather let the side down by its failure to provide any synopsis of the action and by making the libretto available only as an extravagantly formatted download. By contrast Naxos’s booklet does include a one-page cued (albeit brief) synopsis of the action, and their website provides the complete text (including spoken dialogue) in a more economical format for printing – although this still runs to 25 pages. Victorian Opera themselves also advertise a commemorative “illustrated CD booklet with full libretto” available for purchase at £2.00 from their own sales department.

As Raymond Walker points out in his booklet notes, the extraordinary commercial success of Dorothy – it proved to be more popular at the time of its first performances than even The Mikado and Ruddigore – is even more surprising since much of the music was recycled from an earlier and unsuccessful Cellier operetta on the subject of “Nell Gwynne” [sic]. A completely new text was commissioned from B.C. Stephenson (who had already written a pseudonymous libretto for Sullivan’s The Zoo) who clearly struggled to find much inspiration when attaching fresh lyrics to already-composed music but fared somewhat better with newly composed numbers and the spoken dialogue. Even so, comparisons with Gilbert – who wrote the text for The Mountebanks – are inevitable under the circumstances; and it is abundantly clear that Stephenson is no Gilbert, with dialogue that is functional but very rarely funny. And from the opening chorus onwards, nonsensical lines such as “by quick complying your senses prove” leave the listener flabbergasted by their sheer ineptitude. George Bernard Shaw, who was later to quite enjoy The Mountebanks, reviewing a performance in 1889 described the text as “one of the silliest in modern theatrical literature” and subsequent revivals in London appear to have dried up as early as 1908.

But then Gilbert was one of a kind, and it is vain to look for similar inspiration in the work of his contemporaries. Cellier and Sullivan are much more closely matched, and as I pointed out in my review of The Mountebanks, Cellier was often the more musically inventive of the two even when he failed to match Sullivan’s sheer melodic flair. Dorothy is a considerably shorter score than The Mountebanks, although Raymond Walker informs us that “the script was tightened and much improved” following the initial run of performances, and it is unclear whether this tightening also applied to the music as heard here in a “performing edition” prepared by Richard Bonynge himself. Unusually for a British comic opera, there are three Acts as opposed to the usual two; but the music for the third of these runs to less than twelve minutes, of which over a third consists of dances, and the duration is made up by whole reams of not very comic dialogue which probably would run out at well over a quarter of an hour. Cellier had prepared the overtures for many of Sullivan’s Savoy operas, and here he supplies one of his own for Dorothy (there was no such provision for The Mountebanks) which at nearly eight minutes is the longest musical item in the score, the usual sort of pot-pourri of musical numbers at which the composer was so adept.

This overture immediately makes it apparent that Bonynge is adopting a decidedly upbeat approach to the music, as is indeed appropriate; the small orchestra is expertly balanced, with violins never overpowered by the woodwind, which is testimony not only to Cellier’s skill but also to the playing of the players themselves, who had made such a positive contribution to the earlier Victorian Opera set of Satanella. The chorus too is lively and well in the picture, but unfortunately the principal singers are a somewhat mixed collection. The female side, led by the experienced Majella Cullagh, is fine; but the use of young singers, many of them fresh from the Royal Northern College of Music, brings drawbacks in the multitude of young male leads. Many of these lack the sheer sense of presence and body to their voices which comes with maturer years, although John Ieuan Jones acquits himself well in his song ‘Queen of my Heart’ (perhaps the best-known number in the score, which otherwise focuses more on ensemble items). The problem really rises however with the matter of dramatic engagement, where the lack of involvement among the men is really serious in the whole scene of the bungled fake burglary at the end of Act Two, so that the comic situation falls flat. More experienced G&S hands, too, would have better realised such occasional sparks of Gilbertian wit as “half the world sighs for the other half’s wives, with the risk of a change for the worse.”

On the converse side of the coin, the singers here have no truck with the besetting sin of those same experienced G&S performers, approximation of pitch and rhythm. Every note is clearly and precisely in its place, and the diction, if not impeccable, is thoroughly comprehensible. We are given almost none of the spoken dialogue, but from my reading of the text (Naxos give the complete libretto from the Chappell edition online, which differs in only minor details from that sung here) we should be glad to be spared most of Stevenson’s verbiage. Indeed, it would seem to me that the dialogue is the principal obstacle standing in the way of a successful revival of Cellier’s Dorothy; a revised edition might improve its otherwise negligible chances of holding the modern stage, although it is never again going to rival The Mikado in popularity.

When reviewing The Mountebanks I noted that there had been a previous recording of the score; but it does not appear that, despite its initial success, Dorothy has ever been accorded even a semi-complete performance on disc (there was a 1931 “selection” played by military band!) before this Naxos release, and Naxos indeed claim it as a “world première recording”. As such it will inevitably be an essential purchase for all lovers of British nineteenth century operas, attracted as much by their foibles as their successes. Our thanks are due to Richard Bonynge and the Victorian Opera for so successfully supplying a recording to fulfil that demand. The time is surely right for listeners to put aside their prejudices, and allow themselves to enjoy a work which still has the power to charm and delight after a century of neglect.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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