SOUSA: El Capitan.
Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of the Ohio Light Opera Company/Steven
Albany Records TROY 1236/37 TT: 96:50 (2 CDs).
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John Philip Sousa thought of himself not as a specialist in marches, but
as an all-round composer. He composed songs and instrumental suites and
really wanted to succeed in operetta. His credentials promised much. He
played under Offenbach and composed the International Congress fantasy
which Offenbach conducted. He arranged the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
(then produced in the United States in pirated productions), and his orchestration
won the praise of Sullivan himself. El Capitan (1896) easily counts as
Sousa's greatest stage success, becoming the most popular operetta of its
day. It hasn't lasted, except for the incarnation of some of its music
as the El Capitan March (also 1896).
Sousa's operetta style owes much both to Offenbach and to Sullivan. With
a libretto by Charles Klein, El Capitan is a fairy-tale farce
about a revolution in Peru. The people demand the removal of the viceroy,
whom they've never
seen. The viceroy, a stereotypical sly poltroon, conceives the idea of
disguising himself as the fearsome and notorious El Capitan, whom he
knows to have died at sea. Hi-jinx ensue. Quaint. The prominent comedian
era, William DeWolf Hopper (Hedda was the fifth of his six wives), played
the title role. The gags are old wheezes on the theme of the coward who
must fake courage. The sophistication of Offenbach and the moral satire
of Gilbert are nowhere to be seen. Sousa's music sounds like both Offenbach's
and Sullivan's, but nothing really catches fire. He's particularly fond
of the Sullivanesque "double song," two apparently different
melodies offered in alternation and then sounding simultaneously at the
end. In Sullivan's operettas, the device has a comic, often ironic point,
as in the battle between the pirates and the policemen in The Pirates
of Penzance. Gilbert sometimes even provides different words to flesh out
the drama. In Sousa, it's little more than shtick -- very mechanical --
and he resorts to it time and again.
I would call the performance by the venerable Ohio Light Opera Company
semi-amateur -- a slightly-above-average college try. The acting is as
arch as Trajan's. The voices are okay, the pit band a little raggedy. I
don't know how one could have made El Capitan palatable to a present-day
audience, but this production ain't it.
S.G.S. (May 2011)