Sullivan: The Rose Of Persia, Overtures / Higgins, Et Al

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Sullivan didn’t have many years left to his life after the much-publicized break with Gilbert in 1896. The composer had suffered painfully from kidney stones for nearly a quarter-of-a-century, and this would ultimately kill him in 1900. In the meantime, he composed a ballet, several pieces of incidental music, and three more operas. Of these, the first was The Beauty Stone , while the third, The Emerald Isle , was left unfinished at the time of his death and completed by Edward German. The last completed opera of Sullivan was The Rose of Persia , set to a libretto by Basil Hood. Produced at the Savoy Theatre in 1899, it racked up a respectable 220 performances. (By comparison, Utopia Limited , the next to last Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, managed 245, while its predecessor, the extremely popular The Gondoliers , had an initial run of 554 nights.) The work was praised highly in the press, but did not fare well over time. Reading between the lines of contemporary reviews, I come away with a sense that the players and production values interested contemporary critics rather more than the book, lyrics, and music, which were admired in general.

It’s easy to understand why The Rose of Persia didn’t last, after listening to this new recording. The pseudo Arabian Nights setting is used as backdrop to a complex plot whose characters are frequently uninteresting and whose lyrics are usually dull. There are exceptions, as in the delightful act I quartet where the Sultan takes stealthy trips in disguise among commoners followed by his vizier, physician, and executioner—each referring back with increasing convolution on all those who proceed him. As a rule, though, the lyrics forego sparkle; and while the dialog is better, the intense and varied humor of Gilbert is sadly missed. That’s not to say the contemporary field lacked for good alternatives to the splenetic Gilbert; just that Hood wasn’t among these. Happily, this first commercial release of the opera contains all the music and lyrics, though most of the dialogue is missing.

That music is undeniably appealing. As in The Grand Duke , the last of the G&S collaborations, Sullivan seems frequently at his best in numbers that challenge standard form, or those that venture onto satirical ground. Hassan’s private buffet of food, song, and dance in act I is an example of the former, while Sunbeam’s act II solo, with its skewering of social snobbery, is an example of the latter, rendered all the more charming by a lengthy concluding orchestral passage that launches delicately onto modal turf. There are a few moments in the score of ersatz local color, made effective by Sullivan’s usual good taste. For the rest, it is less notable for memorable tunes than subtle orchestral touches and moments of harmonic elaboration: the cello solo that accompanies Hassan’s awakening in act II, for instance, or the least thematically repetitive glee Sullivan ever wrote, later in the same act.

The cast is generally good. Richard Stuart has the character and rather more voice than the average Grossmith interpreter. (So called in honor of George Grossmith, a great musical theater comic and the original for many parts in G&S operas; though the first Hassan was actually one of Grossmith’s most distinguished successors, Walter Passmore.) Ivan Sharpe brings to mind Derek Oldham, whose delicate, persuasive charm graced several G&S recordings back in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Richard Morrison’s Sultan is suitably authoritarian and robustly delivered. On the distaff side, Sally Harrison’s beautifully centered tone is a great asset to Rose, though she understandably takes the alternate lower reading on “’Neath My Lattice”—the part was written for Ellen Beach Yaw, who was required to hit an F in alt (not coincidentally the highest note she sang as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte ). As Scent, Marilyn Hill Smith’s voice is a thin reed, and her habit of approximating pitch in faster passages does her scant justice. Marcia Bellamy’s embryonic wobble may be in character as the slightly-over-the-hill Sunbeam, but I suspect it’s real rather than assumed. She enunciates and emotes well, however.

Tom Higgins is inclined to moderate tempos, perhaps feeling that the faster numbers are beyond his soloists’ capabilities, and that the slower ones can’t sustain their inspiration at an appropriate pace. Regardless, he conducts with energy and an awareness of the score’s orchestral beauties, offering good support to his soloists. The filler overtures show less attention to detail and more scrappiness in performance than the main work, with the ends of phrases at times too clipped. While the inclusion of the Overture di ballo is appreciated, the reading is foursquare, and I still give the palm to Mackerras and the Philharmonia (currently on London B0001998).

The sound is clear and well balanced between singers and orchestra. There’s a strange essay included that tries to make The Rose of Persia into a genuine expression of Sullivan’s love for exotic cultures. (Sullivan’s foreign forays usually extended from the gambling dens of large urban centers to their theaters, and back again.) Text for all numbers is provided, though not the entire libretto.

I doubt that The Rose of Persia will take G&S aficionados by storm. It is a pleasant piece, worth hearing for Sullivan and intermittently for Hood, though lacking the more concentrated response that Gilbert invariably drew from his musical colleague. No Savoyard will want to do without it, however.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777074-2

  • UPC: 761203707423

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Arthur Sullivan

  • Conductor: Tom Higgins

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Hanover Band, Southwark Voices

  • Performer: Alison Roddy, Claire Henry, Claire Pendleton, Ian Caddy, Ivan Sharpe, Jonathan Veira, Lynton Black, Marcia Bellamy, Marilyn Hill Smith, Richard Edgar-Wilson, Richard Morrison, Richard Stuart, Sally Harrison