SOUSA: El Capitan.
Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of the Ohio Light Opera Company/Steven Byess.
Albany Records TROY 1236/37 TT: 96:50 (2 CDs).

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 of the 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)