Iolanthe (Complete Recoding of the Score)

D'Oyly Carte Opera Company

Iolanthe (Complete Recoding of the Score), D'Oyly Carte Opera Company
CD1: 57'50''
CD2: 41'50''

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Libretto W.S. GILBERT

Musical text based on

The D’Oyly Carte Performing Edition

prepared from the composer’s autograph by Gerald Hendrie


of the

Conducted by


Iolanthe was the first true Savoy opera. The generic title by which all the operettas of Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) and William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911) have become known was derived from the theatre built on the Embankment by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte to house the works of his successful collaborators. For the opening of the Savoy Theatre in October 1881, the production of Patience was transferred from the Opera Comique, but it was the partners’ next work, Iolanthe which was the first to receive its premiere in the beautifully appointed new building. 

In May 1882, Sullivan’s mother died and for some time he could work only spasmodically at the music for the new operetta. His efforts became more earnest, however, in late summer when he visited Pencarrow, the Cornish house of his friend Lady Molesworth. Progress was interrupted by a visit to the Continent for health reasons, but the return to London in September brought a frenzy of creative activity, the composer often writing into the small hours only to rise for a day of rehearsals at the Savoy. 

As usual, the music was completed with hardly any time to spare before the first performance. Composition of the overture - which, on this occasion was not delegated to an assistant - occupied him for less than a couple of days and was finished at 7am only two days before the premiere. In that short time and under such pressure, Sullivan produced one of his finest orchestral works - a gem of the light music repertoire. 

Adding to the demands made upon the harassed cast, Gilbert announced a change of name for the opera and the principal character just before the final rehearsal. The name with which the cast had become familiar was ‘Perola’ but this was to be replaced by ‘Iolanthe’. It seems likely that Gilbert and Sullivan had intended to use the latter from the outset but had kept the name a secret: difficulties may have been feared with Henry Irving, whose own play Iolanthe, had been staged in 1880, or perhaps the last-minute change was intended to confound unauthorized rival productions in the United States. Whatever the motive, the alteration caused consternation within the Company. Sullivan, it is reputed, defused the situation by telling the cast to use whichever name first came to mind, observing that no-one except Gilbert would notice, and he would not be there. Nor was he. As usual on a first night, the author anxiously paced the streets until the time came for his curtain call. 

Sullivan, on the other hand, preferred to be at the theatre to conduct the first performances. On the night of 25th November, 1882, however, he must have felt less than his usual enthusiasm when he left his home to direct the music for the premiere of Iolanthe. Just before starting out he had learned of the loss of a considerable proportion of his invested capital. The tremendous reception afforded the new piece must, however, have provided some compensation. The Gilbert and Sullivan partnership had triumphed once more, and not only in London: in New York’s Standard Theatre, only five hours after the Savoy premiere, the American production was enthusiastically received under the baton of Alfred Cellier. 

Sullivan’s own reaction to the first performance is recorded in his diary. Some compression, he felt, would benefit the second act. Gilbert must have agreed for two deletions were made: a lyric for Lord Mountararat ‘De Belville was Regarded as the Crichton of his Age’ - recited rather than sung at the British premiere, although a musical setting was heard in New York - and a recitative and ballad ‘Fold your Flapping Wings’ for Strephon. No music for the former seems to survive but Strephon’s solo appeared in the American edition of the vocal score and the orchestration is preserved in the autograph full score. Its inclusion in the present recording is of special interest. The music is distinctive (the opening three-bar phrases of the ballad, with the melodies’ emphasis falling through an augmented second, has a curiously Russian flavour, as for that matter, does the opening of ‘Of All the Young Ladies I know’) and the verses are unusual for the sharpness of their barbed social commentary. Whatever the merits of the number per se the lyric’s almost aggressive stance does perhaps upset the subtle balance of gentle satire and whimsical fantasy which characterise this most remarkable operetta. 

In a number of his plays and writings, Gilbert combines a fairy element with satirical comment on more earthly matters. His plays The Happy Land and The Wicked World both involve fairies and mortals (the latter was reworked as an operetta Fallen Fairies, with music by Edward German), and in the Bab Ballad ‘The Fairy Curate’ a clergyman has, like Strephon, a fairy mother. Iolanthe, however, can be fairly regarded as Gilbert’s happiest creation in this vein. The extraordinary unity of purpose shared by author and composer in this work, as well as its emotional range, make it, for many, their finest. 

Sullivan’s entrancing score is rich in contrast, with delicate Mendelssohnian fairy music set against the grandiloquent ‘March of the Peers’ (made even more impressive in the original production by the addition of a military band on stage) and the effervescent gaiety of ‘If You Go In’ (so often encored) with the pathos of the scene in which Iolanthe reveals her identity to the Lord Chancellor. In the hauntingly beautiful ‘He Loves!’ it is the musical setting that lifts the lyric beyond sentimentality; indeed, the scene as a whole touches an emotional depth beyond the customary scope of the Savoy operettas. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the immense sadness Sullivan felt at the death of his mother fed his inspiration in this music. 

Stylistic burlesque of grand opera and other ‘serious’ musical forms, so prominent a feature of Sullivan’s earlier operettas, is hardly in evidence in Iolanthe. The Queen of the Fairies was dressed by Gilbert in a costume clearly meant to evoke Wagner’s Brünnhilda, and the Fairies’ cries of ‘Aiaiah, willaloo’ recall the Rhinemaidens. Iolanthe’s invocation, with its expressive oboe solo, carries similar Wagnerian associations. In both these musical instances, however, the musico-dramatic impact transcends mere pastiche. Sullivan had matured as an operetta composer and we must look elsewhere for a humour which had become more subtle - to the ‘Nightmare Song’ for example. In his earlier patter songs, he had been content to provide a musical momentum for the verbal gymnastics: to use Mountararat’s words, he did ‘nothing in particular, but did it well’. The ingenious orchestral commentary which colours the Lord Chancellor’s nocturnal fantasies, however, set the song on a musical plane above others in the same genre. 

The Victorian political and legal background against which the work is set may no longer be entirely familiar, but much - including the musings of Private Willis in the opening of Act II - remains apposite; the occasional topical references such as the Queen of the Fairies’ apostrophe to Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, Chief of the London Fire Brigade, present no barriers to enjoyment. The essence of Iolanthe remains timeless. For all its familiarity, however, the libretto’s originality within the context of nineteenth century theatrical writing should not be overlooked. Its qualities inspired Sullivan to compose one of his most consistently imaginative scores and create, with Gilbert, a work of exceptional artistic unity. For many a connoisseur Iolanthe is the quintessential Savoy opera, the very finest of all.

  1. Overture
  2. Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither
  3. Iolanthe! From Thy Dark Exile
  4. Good Morrow, Good Mother
  5. Fare Thee Well, Attractive Stranger
  6. Good Morrow, Good Lover
  7. None Shall Part Us From Each Other
  8. Loudly Let The Trumpet Bray
  9. The Law Is The True Embodiment
  10. My Well Loved Lord and Guardian Dear
  11. Nay, Tempt Me Not
  12. Spurn Not The Nobly Born
  13. My Lords It May Not Be
  14. When I Went To The Bar / Finale Act One
  15. When Darkly Looms The Day
  16. This Gentleman Is Seen
  17. For Riches and Rank I Do Not Long
  18. The Lady Of My Love Has Caught Me
  19. Go Away Madam
  20. Oh! Chancellor Unwary
  21. Henceforth, Strephon, Cast Away
  22. With Strephon For Your Foe
  1. When All Night Long
  2. Strephon's A Member of Parliament!
  3. When Britain Really Rul'd The Waves
  4. In Vain To Us You Plead
  5. Oh, Foolish Fay
  6. Tho'p'raps I May Incur Your Blame
  7. Love, Unrequited, Robs Me Of My Rest
  8. If You Go In
  9. Fold Your Flapping Wings
  10. If We're Weak Enough To Tarry
  11. My Lord, A Suppliant At Your Feet I Kneel
  12. It May Not Be So For The Fates Decide!
  13. Finale Act Two: Soon As We May
  14. Introduction (Allegro Moderato)
  15. Pas De Chales (Adante Espressivo)
  16. Valse (Tempo di Valse)
  17. St George and The Dragon (Allegretto)
  18. Galop (Presto Vavace)