Alfred Cellier: The Mountebanks (1892), Suite Symphonique (1878). Soraya Mafi (Teresa), Sharon Carty (Minestra), Catherine Carby (Nita), Madeleine Shaw (Ultrice), Nancy Cole (1st Maiden), Olivia Robinson (2nd Maiden), Thomas Elwin (Alfredo), John-Colyn Gyeantey (Risotto), Tom Raskin (Ravioli), James Cleverton (Arrostino), Geoffrey Dolton (Pietro), John Savournin (Bartolo), Martin Lamb (Elvino), Andrew Rupp (Spaghetti), BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, c. John Andrews. With Cellier’s Suite Symphonique.
Dutton Epoch 2CDLX 7349 (2 CD) [138:07]
The Spanish are fortunate in having a range of nineteenth-century zarzuela composers represented on CD. The Viennese, too, have not only Strauss but Suppè, Millöcker, Zeller, Ziehrer and Heuberger. As for the French, even the overriding celebrity of Offenbach has not prevented recordings of Lecocq, Audran, Varney, Planquette, Chabrier and Messager. But the British? Well, there’s Sidney Jones’s The Geisha and the recent Retrospect Opera double-bill of Pickwick and Cups and Saucers (with piano accompaniment). Otherwise there’s just been Sullivan.
All credit then to Dutton Epoch and their sponsors for giving us – for the first time from a major company – a work by Alfred Cellier (1844-91). Cellier was a close associate of Sullivan – a boyhood contemporary as chorister at the Chapel Royal, and musical director not only for the original London runs of The Sorcerer and HMS Pinafore but also for The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe in New York, as well as other works in Australia. He was also the composer of Dorothy, which outstripped all Gilbert and Sullivan works in London with a record 931 consecutive performances. A pioneering recording of that from Victorian Opera Northwest under Richard Bonynge is happily also in the can.
For the present, here is The Mountebanks, famous firstly as the work on which W. S. Gilbert collaborated while he and Sullivan were estranged following their notorious ‘carpet’ quarrel. While Sullivan occupied himself with his serious opera Ivanhoe, Gilbert was busy buying a new country estate and taking up the office of Justice of the Peace alongside working out his libretto for Cellier. Its basis is the ‘lozenge plot’, in which a device such as a lozenge or potion changes an individual’s personality. Gilbert had already used the device in his Sullivan collaboration The Sorcerer, and Sullivan had three times subsequently rejected Gilbert’s attempts to foist it on him again. Cellier proved more amenable.
Alas Cellier was then seriously ill with tuberculosis, which even a voyage to Australia – taken after agreeing to collaborate with Gilbert – failed to ameliorate. On returning to England he installed himself in balmy Bournemouth to work on Gilbert’s libretto. However, progress was painfully slow, and the premiere was repeatedly put back. Cellier went up to London for the final rehearsals, only to expire in the London fog. Fortunately his work was sufficiently advanced for the premiere to take place just a week later, with Gilbert making hasty adjustments to his book, musical director Ivan Caryll arranging an entr’acte from a number in Act 2, and the final movement of Cellier’s 1878 Suite Symphonique being pressed into service as overture.
This, then, is the work now recorded professionally for the first time, and I’d like nothing more than to echo the booklet note (by the owner of the autograph score) in declaring it “a masterpiece in its own right”. That it certainly is not. Yet its merits are far from negligible. The way in which Gilbert sets up his various characters in Act 1 is ingenious. By Act 2, by drinking the potion, they have all become what they were pretending to be in Act 1. However, this does create an over-elaborate plot, with much reference to a Duke and Duchess who never actually appear. Curiously, too, it requires of Cellier a score longer than any Gilbert asked of Sullivan. There are some typically clever Gilbert lyrics, though seldom up to the standard of his major collaborations with Sullivan. As for Cellier, even in full health he was no Sullivan. Yet there are agreeable melodies and some particularly deft orchestral touches. The ‘Put a penny in the slot’ duet, sung by two automata, has rightly been cited as the stand-out number, but others are well worth discovering, including duets for Risotto and Minestra in both acts, Teresa’s ‘These days of old’ and ‘Whispering Breeze’, and some sprightly choruses and ensemble numbers.
The performance is all one might expect from a team of singers who may not be household names but have impressive enough CVs. Soraya Mafi is outstanding as Teresa, with joyous interpretations of some good numbers in both acts, and Sharon Carty and John-Colyn Gyeantry make an attractive pair of newly-weds. The one real disappointment is Thomas Elwin’s somewhat sharp-edged tenor. John Andrews – a seasoned hand in this class of music – conducts the BBC forces with flair. Dutton’s presentation, though, leaves something to be desired. The omission of dialogue is fair enough, but an online libretto is then inadequate substitute for a synopsis explaining what is going on. Disappointing, too, is the placing of the Suite Symphonique after Act 2 rather than before Act 1, where it would enable anyone so inclined to enjoy its final movement as overture to the comic opera, as in the original production. In both respects, a 1964 recording of an amateur production by the Lyric Theatre Group of Washington – with dialogue, and with the Suite Symphonique movement getting the work off to a lively start – is not completely superseded. It’s available for download here.
Pluses and minuses, then. However, the value of the recording is never in doubt. As for the Suite Symphonique, it’s an agreeable example of Cellier in full health. When he conducted its first performance at the Brighton Musical Festival in February 1878, The Musical Times reasonably questioned the word ‘symphonique’. As an example of 1870s British light music, though, it sits happily alongside Sullivan’s Overture di ballo.
© Andrew Lamb and zarzuela.net, 2018