Edward Solomon / F. C. Burnand: Pickwick. Simon Butteriss (Mr Pickwick), Gaynor Keeble (Mrs Bardell), Toby Stafford-Allen (The Baker), Alessandro MacKinnon (Tommy). Grossmith: Cups and Saucers. Simon Butteriss (General Deelah), Gaynor Keeble (Mrs Worcester). Stephen Higgins (Musical director / Piano).
Retrospect Opera CD RO002 [73:31]
The notion that 19th century zarzuela owes little or nothing to ‘foreign influences’ has been thoroughly exploded – mercifully without recourse to W. S. Gilbert’s Tarara, the Public Exploder of his Utopia Ltd and possibly the first and only suicide bomber in comic opera. Just because the one-act zarzuela, including the género chico classics of the 1880’s and 1890’s, is Spanish lyric theatre’s most distinctive achievement, should not blind us to the quality of similar, one-act music theatre pieces from France and England, notably those by Offenbach and Sullivan.
So it instructive and pleasurable to take a peek at a popular one-acter from late Victorian London that is not by Sullivan. Retrospect Opera’s second release – their debut was a highly successful recording of Ethel Smyth’s comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate – gives us the impossibly rare chance to hear a complete work by Edward (‘Teddy’) Solomon, dialogue and all. Reckoned in his time as the best composer of English comic opera after Sullivan, Mr Solomon gives even Sir Arthur a run for his money in the Amorous Biography Cup; but can the same be said for one of his most successful scores, the 1889 one-act ‘dramatic cantata’ Pickwick?
Much-revived at the time, and drawn from the most familiar episode in Dickens’s first novel The Pickwick Papers – Pickwick’s alleged promise of marriage to his landlady Mrs Bardell – the work boasts a good literary pedigree, especially as Solomon’s collaborator was no less than Francis Burnand, Sullivan’s librettist for Cox and Box and The Contrabandista, editor of Punch and one of the safest pairs of theatrical hands around. Woe, woe and thrice woe! By 1889 Burnand was pre-empting Alfred Hitchcock’s teasing pronouncement, that the pun was the highest form of literature. He punctiliously punishes us with a string of most punicious examples, until it is hard to see the dramatic wood for the verbal trees.
The scenario is in itself a clever one, using a hint from Dickens to develop a farcical ‘prequel’to the famous trial scene in the novel. All the more strange, that right at the heart of the plot Burnand strands Pickwick by himself on stage, to deliver no less than three comic songs in a row. Welcome though this might have been for fans of the hugely-popular Arthur Cecil – the first Pickwick, as he’d been the first Box for Burnand and Sullivan – it undermines the wafer-thin theatrical momentum. Unlike his Spanish contemporaries, the librettist of Pickwick relies too much on literary bonhomie, too little on character, plot or topical insights.
Solomon himself was no Sullivan, but then he doesn’t try to be. His score is much lighter and more populist in tone than anything in the G&S Savoy Operas … well, hardly anything. In vaudeville style suffused with the scent of music hall, it seems rather to presage the musical comedy which was to take London by storm with Sidney Jones’s The Geisha just seven years later. Solomon has an assured sense of theatre, and lets nothing go on too long. In that as well as his reliance on uncomplicated directness, his aesthetic is close to Spain’s great populist Federico Chueca. His formal simplicity and square melodic cut are perhaps emphasised by Retrospect’s understandable decision to record Pickwick with piano accompaniment – better that than nothing, as the original scoring is lost. Solomon’s most memorable tune is a lilting barcarolle (‘A Baker-Roll’, get it?) for Mrs Bardell and her erstwhile lover The Baker, but his word-setting is natural and unforced, at least when Burnand gives him the chance.
The performers, led with decorous verve by Stephen Higgins at the piano, are very good indeed. Gaynor Keble and Toby Stafford-Allen bring operatic weight to bear, while the unexpectedly refined treble Alessandro MacKinnon is in tune and musically accurate as Mrs Bardell’s son Tommy – a short role written for a boy, not a ‘breeches’ soprano. Much devolves onto Simon Butteriss’s Pickwick, and this highly experienced Savoyard brings all his skills to bear in ringing the changes during that central plateau of patter songs. His diction is faultless, his genteel late-Victorian comedy manners unfailingly polite, and he certainly conveys the sunny optimism of Dicken’s original.
Butteriss’s sense of period is even more vital when it comes to the filler, a complete performance of George Grossmith’s short ‘musical sketch’, Cups and Saucers. This 1876 duologue for the roguish General Deelah (could any Victorian scribbler avoid a pun when he saw it?) and his mature, widowed inamorata builds castles in the air around a fake piece of oriental pottery. It lasts under twenty minutes, but Grossmith packed some sharp dialogue and Thackeray-style social satire into the plot, as well as a handful of warmly charming parlour songs of his own. As it was intended for performance at private parties, the piano accompaniment here is authentic. Butteriss simply channels Grossmith – it hardly feels like acting; and Gaynor is if anything more congenially cast as the pretentious social climber Mrs Worcester than as the more down-market Mrs Bardell. Stephen Higgins’s accompaniment is again nicely judged, bringing an almost Elgarian wistfulness to the General’s sentimental little solo ‘Fare thee well, a long farewell!’
In truth, I rather preferred the coffee and mints of Cups and Saucers to the main meal: but there’s no doubting the value of Retrospect’s work in bringing these Victorian rarities back to life – or the superlative quality of their lavish artwork, graphics and gatefold presentation, featuring authoritative essays by David Chandler, Kurt Gänzl and Butteriss himself plus complete librettos. I’m glad to have heard Pickwick, even if there’s nothing here to rival such precisely contemporary Madrid masterworks as El año pasado por agua and De Madrid a París.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2017