Alfred Cellier: The Mountebanks; Suite Symphonique

Soraya Mafi, Thomas Elwin, James Cleverton, Sharon Carty, John-Colyn Gyeantey, Catherine Carby, John Savournin, Geoffrey Dolton;
 BBC Singers; BBC Concert Orchestra/John Andrews (Dutton)

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CD_7349_Gilbert_cmyk

Alfred Cellier The Mountebanks; Suite Symphonique
Soraya Mafi, Thomas Elwin, James Cleverton, Sharon Carty, John-Colyn Gyeantey, Catherine Carby, John Savournin, Geoffrey Dolton; BBC Singers; BBC Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
Dutton 2CDLX 7349 (hybrid CD/SACD) 138:07 mins (2 discs)

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Gilbert and… Cellier? But The Mountebanks is as much a Savoy operetta as any of Sullivan’s. Alfred Cellier (1844-91), English-born but half-French, was D’Oyly Carte’s music director, so it’s no surprise that he maintains the same general style. Nevertheless he has his own distinctive voice, flowingly melodic, orchestral writing more elegant and modern-sounding, looking forward to Edwardian operetta. What he rather lacks is Sullivan’s comic quirkiness; when two characters turn into clockwork figurines, Cellier raises a smile – no more.

Gilbert’s libretto is partly to blame. Aficionados will recognise his infamous ‘lozenge’ plot – here an alchemist’s potion, transforming people into what they’re pretending to be, even monks and figurines. It’s a pleasantly Gilbertian romp through second-rate Italian opera conventions – secret societies, peasant lovers, banditti and so on – with some typically ‘innocent’ innuendos, as when one clockwork character’s caught oiling the other. Its actual plot development, though, is perfunctory, without strong anchoring characters like Ko-Ko or the Grand Inquisitor.

Rounded off by Ivan Caryll after Cellier’s death, Mountebanks was only a modest success in Britain, less so in America, soon relegated to amateur productions and gradually forgotten. Two incomplete semi- amateur recordings have long vanished. This one, painstakingly edited from surviving parts, does the work more than justice, with John Andrews’s sprightly conducting and SACD sound; the young but well-seasoned cast is so uniformly excellent it’s almost invidious to single out Soraya Mafi’s Teresa and Thomas Elwin’s Alfredo. Annoyingly, it doesn’t include the synopsis, though, making the online libretto absolutely essential.

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Mike Scott Rohan