Sunday 2 September 2018

Sleeping Beauty awakes with a lively afternoon of Victorian & Edwardian light music

Gilbert & Sullivan: Trial by Jury - Keel Watson - BBC Proms at Alexandra Palace (2018) (Photo BBC Proms)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Trial by Jury - Keel Watson - BBC Proms at Alexandra Palace
(Photo BBC Proms)
Gilbert & Sullivan Trial By Jury, Sullivan, Cellier, Smyth, Stanford, Parry; Neal Davies, Mary Bevan, Sam Furness, Ross Ramgobin, Keel Watson, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Jane Glover; BBC Proms at the Alexandra Palace Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A lively staging of Gilbert & Sullivan's first big success, as part of a programme of music dating from the period of the historic theatre's heyday

Alexandra Palace Theatre (Photo BBC)
Alexandra Palace Theatre (Photo BBC)
The BBC Proms celebrated the on-going restoration of the Alexandra Palace Theatre with a concert from Jane Glover and the BBC Concert Orchestra, leader Nathaniel Anderson-Frank, devoted to music of the period of the theatre. The centrepiece of the programme was Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury (premiered in 1875, the year the Alexandra Palace Theatre opened and presented there originally in 1876) with Mary Bevan, Sam Furness, Neal Davies, Ross Ramgobin, Keel Watson and the BBC Singers (in a concert staging by Jack Furness), along with Arthur Sullivan's Overture to Act 4 from his incidental music to The Tempest, three movements from Hubert Parry's incidental music to The Birds, Ethel Smyth's Overture to The Boatswains Mate, 'Onaway! Awake, beloved' from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, 'All alone in my eerie' from Alfred Cellier's The Mountebanks, 'When I went to the bar' from Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe and 'So it's kisses you're craving' from Charles Villers Stanford's Shamus O'Brien.

The theatre at Alexandra Palace has not been used as such for around 80 years, its last incarnation was as a props store for the BBC. A trust is now restoring the theatre, and it will re-open fully later this year still in an attractively distressed state. It is an attractive rectangular room decorated with the remains of elaborate plasterwork. The acoustic is sympathetic and lively (the orchestra was largely not on the stage but on a platform in front of it), but on this showing not entirely responsive to words, perhaps because of the lack of curtains and soft furnishing. The theatre is linked to the rest of the building via the spectacular glass-roofed East Court, which forms a grand foyer and will ultimately link it to the new Broadcasting museum planned for the former BBC quarters.

The concert opened with Sir Arthur Sullivan's overture from Act Four of his incidental music to The Tempest, an early work (1861-2) which garnered Sullivan some early acclaim. Jane Glover drew some impulsive drama and light Mendelssohnian wit from the orchestra, underpinned by crisp rhythms and fluid passagework.

Next came a piece which used to be a fixture in English concert life, Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, part of a trilogy of cantatas written by Coleridge-Taylor between 1896 and 1900. Coleridge-Taylor studied under Charles Villers-Stanford at the Royal College of Music and is notable for being one of the first British BAME classical composers to have major success. 'Onaway! Awake, beloved', Hiawatha's solo, used to be part of every tenor's repertoire, it is an attractive piece, full of clean long-limbed phrases, and Sam Furness sang it with firm tones, a nice sense of line and good attention to the words. It was a performance which was fully engaged and engaging, yet afterwards, I did slightly wonder what all the fuss had been about.

Alfred Cellier's The Mountebanks has had something of a revival with a new recording of the complete operetta [see my review]. The piece was written in 1892, setting a libretto by W.S. Gilbert which Arthur Sullivan would not set (it revisited the premise of their earlier collaboration The Sorcerer). The Mountebanks had some considerable success, but Cellier could not build on it because he died before the premiere. Mary Bevan sang Teresa's solo 'Whispering breeze'. A lovely lyrical recitative led to a fine cor anglais solo which complemented Bevan's beautifully phrased account of the rather touching song with a lovely tune, though catching the words was a problem.

The overture to Ethel Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate moved us forward to 1913/14. The piece was Smyth's fourth opera and her first to be premiered in the UK. Despite its name, it is a comedy which has a serious purpose, examining the role of women and whether the leading character, Mrs Waters, is better off a widow or married. This mildly feminist theme is highlighted by the way Smyth brings her March of the Women into the overture, which is a classic medley of tunes. In fact, the march first appears in suave mode before becoming stronger, and the whole was as lively confection.

Neal Davies sang the Lord Chancellor's song 'When I went to the bar' from Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe. This highlighted a problem with the acoustic, the difficulty of conveying the words, Davies' lively patter seemed to simply evaporate, though the fact that he was using music perhaps did not help, and this rather weakened the performance. What is a patter song without words? Perhaps a slower tempo might have helped.

The duet 'So it's kisses you're craving' from Charles Villers Stanford's Shamus O'Brien was a real rarity. It perhaps comes as a surprise that Stanford wrote 10 operas, Shamus O'Brien was his sixth dating from 1895 (premiered in 1896). In 1952, RVW (himself a pupil of Stanford) commented ruefully that the Royal Opera House was celebrating Stanford's centenary by performing Bellini's Norma when it should have given Shamus O'Brien. The duet, sung by Mary Bevan and Sam Furness, was a delightful piece, a reluctant girl wooed by an ardent suitor, with a nicely pointed wit in the words (by George H. Jessop after the poem by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu).

The first half concluded with three movements from Parry's suite, The Birds which was written in 1883 for the Cambridge Greek Play which was Aristophanes' The Birds. We started with an 'Introduction' which was very English yet complex in texture and without the sort of swagger we often associate with Parry. This was followed by a lyrical 'Intermezzo' and finally a 'Bridal March' which combined the perky and the nobilmente in a manner which seemed to pre-figure Elgar.

After the interval, we had Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury in a concert staging directed by Jack Furness. Jack Furness made imaginative use of the relatively limited stage space, and the courtroom was evoked with period chairs and a huge desk for the judge, with the cast in period costumes. But this was not an entirely period staging, in that Jack Furness and the cast brought in some sly modernisms such as Sam Furness, the Defendant, gyrating suggestively during his solo 'Oh, gentlemen, listen, I pray', Mary Bevan's decidedly calculating manner as the Plaintiff, allowing the mask of charm to slip occasionally, and the Usher (Keep Watson) singing with a striking Carribean twang to his accent.

The result was great fun, and Jane Glover ensured that it sped along with great dramatic fluidity. Sam Furness made a Defendant of sly, sexy charm whilst Mary Bevan created a Plaintiff full of calculated delight, Neal Davies made a characterful Judge, with Ross Ramgobin as a rather understated Counsel for the Plaintiff and Keel Watson almost dominated proceedings as the Usher unable to keep order, with his wonderfully stentorian 'Silence in Court!', whilst one of the BBC Singers, Edward Price, was the Foreman of the Jury.

And yet, Trial by Jury is very much about the combination of words and music, with Gilbert's sly digs at the legal profession (he practised, briefly, as a barrister) essential to the piece. Here, the words tended to come and go. The lower voices were more successful, but as soon as the music reached anything like patter, the words evaporated. The unfinished nature of the auditorium and its relative unfamiliarity must be partly responsible, yet you can't help wishing that a few slower speeds had been taken (even though these might be strictly not correct), and I suspect that the performance captured by the microphones was rather more word based than the one we hear. You can listen again on BBC iPlayer.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Lyrical & striking: Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion (★★★★) - CD review
  • A return to the Wonderful Town from Rattle's opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra (★★★★) - CD review
  • Sheer delight: Vivaldi's Concerti da Camera  (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo (★★★★) - opera review
  • Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - feature article
  • A different side to Julian Anderson revealed in this disc of choral music from Gonville & Caius (★★★★) - CD review
  •  In Sorrow's Footsteps: The Marian Consort in Gabriel Jackson, James MacMillan, Palestrina & Allegri (★★★★) - CD review
  • Grand rarity: Halevy's La reine de Chypre revealed by Palazzeto Bru Zane (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Grand Manner - Aprile Millo's London debut recital at the Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Songs of Farewell - BBC Singers and Sakari Oramo at the Proms (★★★★★)  - concert review 
  • Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis (★★★★)  - Opera review
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