Sullivan's The Beauty Stone

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One Sunday afternoon at the beginning of February, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales emerged, blinking, into the 'sunshine' of Cardiff Bay.

For the previous six days, it felt as though we were captive residents of Hoddinnott Hall, as we undertook our second Arthur Sullivan operatic recording, The Beauty Stone (our first Sullivan effort, Ivanhoe, was nominated for a Grammy a few years back - not bad, eh?).

At times, it felt like we would never get there, but aided by much caffeine and many sugary treats, and the gentle, but firm guiding hand of the lovely Chandos production team, we did.

Arthur Sullivan is best known for his work with the librettist WS Gilbert, a partnership that gave us gems such as The Mikado, HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. However, he also composed around 10 operas with other librettists, and The Beauty Stone is one of these.

If you would like to know more about this prolific Victorian composer, check out the web pages of the Arthur Sullivan Society, who were present for the recording, just as they had been for the Ivanhoe sessions. Incidentally, they were among the best behaved studio guests ever.

We were joined by a stellar cast of soloists - my personal favourites being Alan Opie in the role of the Devil, Rebecca Evans as the exotic Saida, and Toby Spence as Philip, Lord of Mirlemont - and our own truly fabulous Chorus were fantastic.

In my humble opinion, this is really good music. It is catchy, memorable (goodness, it is catchy and memorable - I'm still humming bits of it), tightly constructed, pleasing to the ear, good music. However, the viola part is not particularly scintillating; I've now played enough off beats, repeated quavers and off beats to see me through until next year's New Year's waltzes and polkas rear their ugly heads again.

The plot of the opera is one part Faustian saga, one part Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Let me give you the gist of it. A young girl, Liane, has a beautiful soul, but is not aesthetically pleasing, and dreams of marrying a Prince. The Devil gives her the Beauty Stone. It all goes a bit wrong, and the stone is passed around the whole cast, with many confusions resulting. There is a beauty contest. The prince realises the beauty of Liane's soul and marries her.

The sessions on Saturday were awkwardly scheduled, clashing with the first game of the 2013 Six Nations. However, Wales and Ireland lined up against each other at the Millennium Stadium just as we got our lunch break, allowing me to see Ireland storm ahead in the first half.

We had to return to the studio before the second half, but were kept updated by hand signals from the percussion section, who were not needed for all the numbers and were therefore outside the studio watching the match on the monitors.

I don't know when the recording receives its commercial release, but I will keep you posted. He doesn't know it yet, but my dad is getting it for Christmas - though the catchiness of the arias will have driven my mother batty by New Year!

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