WORKS: The Complete D’Oyly Carte Gilbert & Sullivan
PERFORMER: D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, etc
CATALOGUE NO: 473 631-2 ADD Reissue (1959-78) (24 discs; also available separately as 2-disc sets Ð see text for selected catalogue numbers)
As the resurrected D’Oyly Carte company continues to sharpen up its act and, with a little help from Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, to win younger audiences, this seemed like a good time to go down memory lane for an objective reassessment of seminal G&S recordings. Decca’s nostalgic repackaging certainly appeals to me, though the old label reproduced on the CDs is anachronistic for the later issues and the documentation, as before, is minimal. Few listeners will want the whole lot, as there’s no consistency in the presentation; five of the operettas come with dialogue, seven without (including, presumably for reasons of LP length, The Mikado).
While the casts change with the passing years, the two linchpins come to seem less attractive now that we enjoy more subtle characterisations; John Reed, king of patter, is about Good Diction and little else, while Kenneth Sandford throws away some of the words and tends to flatness. If it’s possible to detect a trend, the first batch of recordings, from the late Fifties and early Sixties – with the exception of a spruce HMS Pinafore (473 638-2, complete) – features wretched bit-part players, fluttery leading ladies, gravelly baritones and a contralto who apes the matron (the then-youthful Gillian Knight), though Isidore Godfrey’s conducting is buoyant enough.
Then comes a golden age. Classiest of the dialogue-graced recordings is The Pirates of Penzance (473 650-2), with Donald Adams the Pirate King of laid-back good humour, an expressive tenor (Philip Potter) who comes close in quality to the HMV/Sargent series’s Richard Lewis and Alexander Young and, in Valerie Masterson, a prima donna Mabel fit to sing Gilda. Masterson also graces a likeable Sorcerer, the fresh-faced if sometimes gauche ingenue of the full-length Savoy operas (473 659-2), and takes a small role in the outstanding Princess Ida (473 653-2 – one of Sargent’s two deferrals to Decca; the sterling Yeomen of the Guard, 473 665-2, is the other). But Masterson’s Yum-Yum sings to a quite inadequate Nanki-Poo in the 1973 Mikado (473 644-2) as D’Oyly Carte decadence sets in. The falling-off is shared by the masters the company serves as we reach the end of the line with Utopia Limited (473 662-2) and The Grand Duke (473 635-2), though Sullivan’s genius occasionally illumines the latter with unusual orchestration and a few piquant harmonies. Modified rapture for the whole experience, then, but joy (almost) unalloyed for Pirates, Ida, Sorcerer and Yeomen.