Makes a compelling case for a work that deserves a modern audience.
Graham Rogers 2010-02-09
With Ivanhoe Arthur Sullivan finally fulfilled his life-long ambition to write a grand opera. Though his worldwide fame today rests on the still phenomenally popular comic operas he wrote with W S Gilbert, Sullivan considered himself to be primarily a ‘serious’ composer whose prodigious talents were wasted on such frivolities.
Posterity has disagreed: for years Ivanhoe has been relegated to a mere footnote. But now, thanks to this first professional recording, we have the chance to reassess a work that enjoyed an astonishing initial run in 1891 of 155 performances – the like of which composers today can only dream – and which stands as an important milestone in the development of English opera.
Sullivan frequently complained that he was fed-up with Gilbert’s Topsy Turvy world (though his sparkling musical settings suggest otherwise) and longed for human emotion. So it was natural that Walter Scott’s popular romantic novel, set in England at the time of the Crusades, appealed. The story (elements of which are familiar today as Robin Hood tales) had the additional attraction of nationalist themes well-tailored for Victorian tastes; arguably, these have made the opera less palatable to subsequent generations, but its swashbuckling excitement and engaging love-tangles are timelessly captivating.
Sullivan’s epic score is highly inventive. Listeners expecting the bubbly tune-smithery of the Savoy Operas will generally be disappointed: there are some memorable lighter moments, such as Friar Tuck’s “Ho, Jolly Jenkin” song, in a winsome “Olde English” style, but on the whole the music is enthrallingly serious. Substantial stretches, particularly those involving the menacing Templar Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, have great Wagnerian depth, and the score is woven through with effective leitmotifs.
This new account, boasting a strong cast of top British singers, is thoroughly committed, with vibrant playing from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the steady hand of David Lloyd-Jones. There are a few passages where inspiration seems to flag – either from composer or conductor – but in general this is a terrific achievement. From the lively pomp of the jousting scene, with its brilliant double chorus, to moments of exquisite tenderness and passion, to thrilling battles and powerful drama, this recording makes a compelling case for a monumental work that deserves a modern audience.