Chandos CHAN 10578(3) (3 CDs)
The biographical details are now better known than music that has hardly been heard professionally for more than a century. After completing The Gondoliers Sullivan put his conscience about writing a serious grand opera fully to the test. He completed a three-act work to a libretto by Julian Sturgis (W.S. Gilbert’s suggestion after he himself had declined) based on the Walter Scott novel set in the mythical England of Robin Hood’s time. An England (apparently) split between Saxon and Norman, bad Prince John and good King Richard, and Christian and Jew – they all put in an appearance – provided a feast of private/public conflicts situated somewhere, operatically, between Lohengrin and Il trovatore.
The result is a lyrical work of some beauty and imagination, its sequence of scenes and the time allotted to them honed by composer and librettist to a point sharp enough for a modern Broadway or Hollywood producer to admire. Perhaps predictably for a Leipzig-educated Mendelssohnian, Sullivan was not so inspired by the brash, heroic moments that he was wonderful at mocking when setting Gilbert’s libretti. Although he had clearly taken note of Wagner’s use of dramatic recitative and choral narration in Lohengrin, the master parodist did not become a mere imitator.
Sullivan is at his best in Ivanhoe when conjuring up a range of ‘Jewish’ (that is to say, mock-middle Eastern) orchestral color and harmony for Rebecca, the ‘beau role’ on whom both the creators of and characters in this story want to get their hands. Her Act II prayer, ‘Lord of our chosen race’, and the ensuing duet, ‘Take thou these jewels’, with Bois-Guilbert, Commander of the Knights Templar, are equal to the darker corners of The Mikado and The Yeomen of the Guard. It is the serious moments of those two Savoy operas that come closest to answering the question: ‘What does Ivanhoe actually sound like?’ Only in the touchingly dated pastoral scene in Act II between Friar Tuck and the disguised King Richard, with its choral refrain ‘Then ho, jolly Jenkin’, does the opera resemble at all the familiar G&S balladeering.
This new performance is actually the opera’s third on record, although the first professional one; the musical standard of its predecessors was simply not sustained enough to give it a fair hearing. David Lloyd-Jones’s experience with the most diverse forms of 19th-century French and Russian opera is reflected in the fine overall pacing here and the careful weighting of each scene’s musical drama.
It would be invidious to cherry-pick from the cast, a collection of established and establishing British talent assembled originally for the late Richard Hickox. They all set to with determination and many a fine tone but could have risked, like the chorus, more sex and violence in their handling of the words. Sturgis’s libretto has the veil of Scott’s archaic English, but he does succeed in letting through the rawer emotions of the novelist’s characters. Recorded with Chandos’s habitual clarity and naturalness of balance, this is a strong introduction to the work.