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Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Haddon Hall, light opera in 3 acts (1897) Libretto by Sydney Grundy (1848-1914)
François CELLIER (1849-1914)
Captain Billy, operetta (1891) Libretto by Harry Greenbank (1865-1899)
Ernest FORD (1858-1919)
Mr Jericho, operetta (1893) Libretto by Harry Greenbank (1865-1899)
John Manners/Christopher/Horace, Ed Lyon (tenor); Sir George Vernon/Samuel/Michael, Henry Waddington (bass-baritone); Rupert Vernon/Capt. Billy/Jericho, Ben McAteer (baritone); Oswald, Adrian Thompson (tenor); McCrankie, Donald Maxwell (baritone); Dorothy, Sarah Tynan (soprano); Lady Vernon/Widow Jackson/Lady Bushey, Fiona Kimm (mezzo); Dorcas, Angela Simkin (mezzo); Polly/Winifred, Eleanor Dennis (soprano)
BBC Chorus & Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. 2019, Watford Colosseum, England
DUTTON 2CDLX7372 SACD [75:28 + 74:57]

Sullivan’s Haddon Hall is barely known nowadays yet it was once well-known as one of the operas that played at the Savoy Theatre after the G&S partnership floundered following The Grand Duke. Librettists of the calibre of Gilbert were never easy to find during the 1890s, yet Sidney Grundy seemed to be one with whom Sullivan could collaborate. To use a grand medieval hall like Haddon for a storyline seemed ideal, but working out an elegant plot was not so easy. The comparatively short run that followed for this opera was principally due to Grundy’s book and his manipulation of history rather than inadequacies in the music, for George Bernard Shaw thought that this was the best music Sullivan had ever written. The plot concerns the true story of how Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire dared to elope with John Manners to the disgust of her Royalist father Sir George, who expected her to marry their simple-minded cousin, Rupert. 

Last year saw a professional stage performance of this opera at the Harrogate G&S Festival, the first since its production had stopped touring in 1899 (review). Now we have a professional recording with a fresh cast and new forces, enabling us to assess it and agree with some of what George Bernard Shaw said. After paying two visits to the Duke of Rutland’s estate in Derbyshire when a teenager, I acquired a vocal score and have always itched to know this music. Having seen the BBC’s Music Library catalogue, its entries for Haddon Hall showed the existence of the full opera as well as Selections by Godfrey, so it would have been heard on the wireless during the 1920s and 30s.

We learn from Martin Yates’ excellent notes that Sullivan enjoyed a very good relationship with his librettist, Grundy, which had not always been the case with Gilbert. Grundy had even obliged Sullivan by offering two versions of the lyrics to help the composer give of his best. Once the opera had opened at the Savoy Theatre, Sullivan decided it could be improved by removing an Act I scene between Manners and Dorothy. In this recording, that deleted vocal number is restored. Full libretti of the opera and operettas can be found on the Dutton website.

In Grundy’s book, the action is set 100 years later than Dorothy Vernon’s historical elopement from Haddon Hall in order to introduce character contrasts and a touch of humour. The use of a chorus of solemn puritans and a comic Scot from the Isle of Rum is clearly designed to lighten proceedings, something which the Savoy audiences expected in their staple diet of light opera.

Although the structure of the opera may be uneven, the Act I opening shows originality of staging, since it dispenses with an overture, and instead uses an introductory backstage chorus to set the historical setting, “Ye stately homes of England”. The tabs open to reveal a glorious dance sequence with the medieval Hall backdrop. This is perhaps one of the nicest and catchiest country dances Sullivan had ever written. Part of the opening sequence is a madrigal, often a requisite of many Sullivan operas. It is beautifully set and here is elegantly sung with lush harmonies weaving through its parts. The Act I music is particularly colourful and charming. In his brisk tempi, conductor John Andrews throughout provides an energy which matches well with Sullivan’s musical style. The standard of performance from all singers is high standard, with particularly nice moments from Ben McAteer (as Rupert Vernon, Captain Billy & Mr Jerrico), Ed Lyon (as Manners, Christopher & Horace), Sarah Tynan (as Dorothy), Eleanor Dennis (as Winifred & Polly), and popular G&S aficionado, Donald Maxwell, who reaches for his Scottish roots to portray a likeable and authentically comic McCrankie. The contribution of a strong chorus is appreciated; they handle the patter lines well and are bathed in a suitably warm acoustic.

Gilbert & Sullivan lovers will appreciate the bonus of two delightful one-act operettas in this set. These ‘curtain raisers’ accompanied the main G&S works playing at the Savoy during the 1890s and Mr Jerrico was the curtain raiser to Haddon Hall, as on this recording; Captain Billy follows as an ‘after piece’. One is able to assess the merits of the two pieces for the first time since no recordings are extant of any François Cellier or Ernest Ford works. There is in general a flavour of the classical music hall ballad in some of the numbers, and the addition of duets and quartets widen the interest. In Captain Billy I am aware of musical phrases reminiscent of Cox & Box, an 1869 curtain raiser which joined the D’Oyly Carte repertoire in 1895, four years after Captain Billy was composed. Captain Billy is a jovial piece with bright jaunty melodies and has orchestration of substance. The hornpipe is a delight, as good as the one found in Ruddigore. Mr Jericho is an equally well-written piece and shows us that Ernest Ford can conjure up a variety of settings with good compositional skill.

It is interesting to note that the recording was made at Watford Coloseum (formerly Watford Town Hall), a venue with good acoustics where, 50 years earlier, Isidore Godfrey of the D’Oyly Carte cut a series of Decca discs of Sullivan’s Pinafore, Patience, and Iolanthe. As might be expected, the quality and balance of the BBC Concert Orchestra are first class and John Andrews sets appropriate tempi throughout — apart from one rather rushed, “We have thought the matter out”, where the libretto is needed to decipher some garbled lines. Diction is otherwise generally clear, especially when the soloists are placed forward on the soundstage as in, “My name is McCrankie”, “Hoity Toity” or “A Pirate Bold”. Their balance is ideal and preferable to Rupert’s rather spacious-sounding, “In Days of Old”. The soloists in the operettas are all nicely balanced.

Presentation has been carefully thought out and the chapter headings, The Lovers/The Elopement/The Return help give order to the plot. It may be that the track titles embedded on the discs had to be set in a hurry for some there is some unexpected typesetting. The works here, particularly the curtain raisers, make this a most attractive set.

Raymond J Walker

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