GILBERT & SULLIVAN: The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave to Duty. Sullivan selections from Edison cylinders (1899-1914).
George Baker (Major-General Stanley); James Milligan (Pirate King); John Cameron (Samuel); Richard Lewis (Frederic); Owen Brannigan (Sergeant of Police); Elsie Morison (Mabel); Heather Harper (Edith); Marjorie Thomas (Kate); Monica Sinclair (Ruth); Harry Dearth; Louise Kirkby Lunn; Edison Light Opera Company; British Military Band; London Regimental Band; National Military Band; Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Pro Arte Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent.
Pristine Audio PACO 081 TT: 110:19.
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I'm in heaven. The popularity and influence of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas have waned a bit since roughly 1960. At its height, people claimed that not a day went by without somebody putting on The Mikado. Gilbert influenced many major American lyricists from Gershwin to Mercer. I got stung by the love bug around the end of the period. However, popular music turned another way. Literary sophistication became suspect as songwriters strove to become "authentic." Although I know of no direct causal connection, this new direction coincided with public education's abandonment of the traditional literary canon. American students have very little comfort or even familiarity with writers like Melville, Dickens, Carroll, and Tennyson. Gilbert's satires might as well be Martial's epigrams.

Nevertheless, recording companies haven't yet given up all interest, since they release new G&S CDs every few years or so. G&S fans disagree over the relative merits of the operetta recordings. Many purists insist on the Decca series performed by Gilbert & Sullivan's own company, D'Oyly Carte, usually conducted by Isidore Godfrey. Others favor Sir Malcolm Sargent's series for both EMI and (confusingly) Decca which sometimes skipped the D'Oyly Carte performers for the best concert singers in Britain. I come down firmly on the side of the impurists. The D'Oyly Carte productions and performers often seemed to me to phone it in, with embarrassingly amateurish comedy. This was even true in their home theater, the Savoy, at least in the Seventies when I saw them. The joie had gone from their vivre. The end of the company in 1982 didn't surprise me. Two attempts to restore the company haven't gotten much of anywhere so far.

Others have praised Sargent's Sullivan recordings as the most musical, a judgment with which I quite agree, especially in Pirates. The orchestral accompaniments are as crisp as fresh matzo. Sargent also sees the point of Sullivan's musical jokes, most especially in the Verdi send-up in the finale of Act I. The choral diction could improve; after all, Gilbert's words give satiric point to Sullivan's melodies, which otherwise might degenerate into the merely pretty. Nevertheless, the Glyndebourne's diction surpasses most large choruses, and their spirit and choral tone carry the day.

The Victorians tended to view Gilbert in the tradition of nonsense -- "topsy-turvydom" as the Mike Leigh movie has it. However, Gilbert didn't turn things upside-down as much as he magnified social virtues to an unworkable point. George Bernard Shaw praised Gilbert as a penetrating social critic; only Ibsen, in his opinion, went deeper. Most of the G&S operettas show the influence of Victorian attitudes at their extremes. Usually, the main character -- the character who sets the action in motion -- is an idiot who becomes fanatically devoted to some ideal. In Pirates, Frederic embraces Duty above all. He begins as an "apprentice" pirate released from his article of indentures. One wonders how much actual piracy the pirates have done. Orphans themselves, they release those who tell them that they are orphans, and the word has gotten around. Frederic remarks that one would think the entire British Navy was manned only by orphans. Frederic has hated the pirate life but stuck to it because he must do his duty according to contracted agreement. Once the indentures no longer have force, he leaves the crew to seek his way in the world. He comes across the daughters of Major-General Stanley and falls in love with one of them, Mabel. The pirates capture the party, but the Major-General pleads (falsely) that he is an orphan, and the pirates withdraw.

The Pirate King and Ruth (the woman who originally indentured Frederic -- don't ask) get Frederic alone to tell him that he's still part of their band. His articles specify his release on his 21st birthday, not his 21st year. Since Frederic was born in a leap year on February 29th, he belongs to the pirates until 1940. As a pirate, he must now confess that the Major-General lied about his orphanhood and lead the pirate's terrible retribution against the Stanleys. It all works out, of course, through Gilbert's keen sense of social and dramatic absurdity.

The soloists stand out. In addition to possessing idiosyncratic and beautiful voices, every one of them can act while they sing. Neither Gilbert nor Sullivan (at most, rarely) plumb psychological depths. The G&S operettas resemble marionette theater. The characters are all types, of course, but types particular to Gilbert -- types as old as Plautus (the brainless, impetuous hero; the brainless but beautiful ingénue; the foolish old man; the ugly and sexually predatory spinster) -- each adapted not only to contemporary attitudes but to Gilbert's take on the power of cultural norms. Each of the chief actors are (you should pardon the expression) pitch perfect. Elsie Morison tosses off Il Trovatore runs in "Poor wand'ring one" as if no big deal and actually manages genuine sadness in the duet "Ah, leave me not to pine." Richard Lewis has the voice of a trumpet, but he matches Morison tender phrase for tender phrase in the aforementioned duet. George Baker as Major-General Stanley delivers his words not merely with crisp precision but with the hint of entitlement that tempted the M-G to lie in the first place. My favorite, however, is bass Owen Brannigan, whose voice has a mirthful bubble in it. Not everything he sings is funny, but he always seems to promise that good things will come to you if you wait just a little longer. It's like keeping your eye on a great clown (Jim Carrey, for example). Somewhere, sometime, somehow he will convulse you. His defeat of the pirates I rank as the comic gem of the album.

The only thing the EMI production lacks is Gilbert's spoken dialogue. For that, you can try Godfrey's recording. On the other hand, it's not hard to find the libretto on Google. I actually own both, but I find myself listening to Sargent more. The music moves with more élan, and the voices and vocal acting leaves the Savoyards in the dust.

Pristine gives us bonuses of early cylinder recordings of Sullivan -- mostly from the G&S operettas, but also from The Rose of Persia as well as a setting of Shakespeare's "Willow Song." Pristine's technical magic results in a clarity that gobsmacked me. However, you can't escape the realization that performance standards have skyrocketed since the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth. The instrumentals lurch and stutter. I've heard high-school bands play better. The singers sing stiffly, with accents somewhere around educated, upper-class Irish. Most of them belong to the "Edison Light Opera Company," so I have no idea whether they are British or American.

Producer Andrew Rose has also applied his rejuvenating techniques to the EMI recording. I admit I don't have golden ears. I found only a slight gain in clarity, but a major gain in ambience. The recorded space seems fuller. In all, a marvelous re-release of a classic recording.

S.G.S. (June 2014)