18 Nov 2005

SULLIVAN: The Rose of Persia

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s legacy suffers from that common malaise that, once a good or bad reputation is made, it is very difficult to be remembered for anything else—be it better or worse.

After the D’Oyly Carte productions made Sullivan’s name synonymous with Gilbert’s, and in turn with English musical comedies, even Sullivan felt the need to break away on his own, and following some difficult times with Gilbert, the two went their separate ways. Not that the “Gilbert & Sullivan” collaborative works were unpopular, or unsuccessful, but Sullivan sensing the need to expand his horizons had grown skeptical of Gilbert’s biting, and at times ridiculing, satire. Gilbert, too, was unhappy with his collaborator as their personal interaction, characterized by criticism, envy, and distrust was never the match to their professional relationship. The break came in 1889 as a result of a dispute over finances. After a brief separation, they reunited for two more works, but they both knew their time had passed. Their last collaboration, The Grand Duke, was in 1896.

The libretto for The Rose of Persia by Basil Hood, is sharp, witty, and with prose that fits Sullivan’s style, and musical comedy. The writing and the humor are easily understood, and often with a sequence of short words which can be rapidly sung, making for great comedic effect. The individual situations are simple, though when put together, the plot is not. Combining episodes from Tales of the Arabian Nights, Hood’s libretto is rich in contrast with protagonists who are: wealthy or poor, greedy or generous, honest or dishonest, powerful or powerless, simple or wise, free or enslaved. There is a bit of harmless satire and criticism in the libretto related to the fin de siècle society, and Victorian consumerism; the Sultan’s “Let the satirist enumerate a catalogue of crimes;” “Our shallow modern times....;” and Yussuf’s “I care not if the cup I hold.” Hood also jabs Victorian England’s double standards; (Hassan) “When my father sent me to Ispahan,” and (Sultan) “You’ll understand that now and then, eccentric and peculiar men, though undetected by their wives, have led respected double lives.” There is also subtle criticism of political issues, at the time, between England and some of her “colonies.” All in all, however, Hood’s poking fun at society is tame in comparison to Gilbert’s treatment of similar situations.

The score for The Rose of Persia is more in keeping with Sullivan’s musical language and more effective than Ivanhoe (1890). Where the latter is more complex, monotonous and somewhat somber, the former is upbeat, melodic, and colored with shades of local atmosphere, which Sullivan picked up in Egypt in 1882. The Rose of Persia overflows with arias, ensembles, brilliant chorus numbers, easily remembered tunes, and sophisticated musical comedy. At times the music harks back to the “Gilbert & Sullivan” sound of previous years, The Mikado in particular, but dare one say, this one is better. In Rose of Persia Sullivan wrote some of his best music for soprano and contralto.

The 1890s had brought Sullivan a number of setbacks, and much was riding on the production of this opera. Sullivan conducted the premiere; afterwards he confided to his diary that everything about the evening was as usual, except that the opera was a success, which in itself, was unusual. Rose of Persia was an instant success. Playing well over two hundred performances, it became the most profitable production of the decade for producer Richard D’Oyly Carte.

The short overture has a march-like opening and quickly turns to the more sentimental musical themes in the opera, which in turn, lead directly to the opening chorus of Hassan’s “five and twenty” wives. The women bemoan the neighbors calling him “Mad Hassan,” to which the wise and wealthy philanthropist replies, “...I am neither sick nor sad: a most contented man, though foolish persons think me mad!” Hassan also demonstrates his wisdom by explaining why he only has twenty-five wives. Richard Stuart has a pleasant, lighter baritone voice which combines all the elements essential to make the character come alive. Stuart can be gentle, sensitive, and humorous in the higher end of his range, or stern when he sings in the lower range. Stuart also shines in, “When my father sent me to Ispahan,” and “There was once a small street Arab.”

All of the characters have an opportunity to reveal their true intentions and personalities: Jonathan Veira as Abdallah, the Priest, solemnly sings of the gates of “Right and Wrong” with sentiment in his beautifully expressive baritone voice. Hassan’s greedy first wife, Dancing Sunbeam, who schemes with Abdallah, sings of her longing for the treasures she is forbidden to have, “O golden key...could I make use of thee...how changed my life and song.” Marcia Bellamy, as Dancing Sunbeam, has a flexible mezzo-soprano voice which she uses very well to convey the range of emotions. In “O golden key...” she sings with convincing pathos, and one would believe her deprived, though knowing she is, simply a social climber.

There follows a short, but very amusing trio, “If a sudden stroke of fate your Hassan eliminate,” between Abdallah, Sunbean and Blush (another wife) in which the characters, not too subtly, express their ability and willingness to let “time [and Hassan’s money] soften every blow.” Sullivan uses a simple, yet effective musical structure in this passage to emphasize the same intention of the characters: Abdallah, Sunbeam and Blush independently sing their different emotions to the same music, and following every third line, they sing in unison, “Time will soften every blow–that is a cheerful thing to know!” Sullivan repeats this musical structure several times in the opera, with equal success.

Three alleged slaves from the Sultan’s palace (Rose in Bloom, Scent of Lilies and Heart’s Desire), delight at, and ponder on the dangers of being caught outside the palace walls in the trio “If you ask me to advise you.” Rose in Bloom, who in reality is the Sultana, next, compares her life of boredom and luxury within the palace walls, to that of a bird in a gilded cage, “Shall the cage-bird leave her prison, golden though her prison bars?” The coloratura passage in this aria is difficult, and though a bit sharp in the last notes, soprano Sally Harrison has ample opportunity to show off her golden toned instrument and flawless stacatto.

Yussuf, the story teller, is sung by tenor Ivan Sharpe whose lyric voice beautifully blends a hint of wickedness to his youthful sound. He is particularly effective in the spirited satire, “I care not if the cup I hold,” and in the poignant, “Our tale is told.”

Word by word the Sultan’s “Let a satirist enumerate a catalogue of crimes” could easily apply to our times, as well as to Sullivan’s era, and before. Richard Morrison, as the Sultan, is an appealing baritone, injecting humor into his voice without betraying his station.

The Vizier, Executioner, Sultan’s Physician, the wives and slaves are all well interpreted by the individual singers, and Sullivan gives them the music with which to shine.

Throughout the opera, Sullivan uses the chorus, well, to introduce a character, transition the action, or to hold the action on their own. “Tramps and scamps” is sung by a group of thieves disguised as beggars who try to scam Hassan, while the wives, singing to the same musical line as the thieves, express their concern over what the neighbors will say. “Musical maidens are we” with its fairy like opening serves as a prelude to Honey’s dance sequence; “With martial gait” is a regal march for the Sultan’s guards, who tell of their not so regal endeavors, and “From Morning Prayer the Sultan of Persia comes!” is the classic Sullivan tune which stays in one’s head long after the sound has faded.

There are some delightful duets, trios, octets, and lively ensembles as well, “I’m the Sultan’s vigilant Visier,” “Attended by these Palace Warders,” the closing of Act I “O luckless hour,” and “In the heart of my hearts I’ve always known.” There is an amusing scene and duet, “Peace be upon this house,” between Abdallah, who has come to Hassan’s house to make some arrests, and Hassan who cleverly replies, to the same music, in contradiction to what the Priest is singing. Yussuf and Heart’s Desire sing a heartfelt duet, “Oh, what is love,” and their subsequent quartet with Scent of Lilies and Honey of Life, “If you or I should tell the truth.” “Suppose–I say suppose” a duet between Rose in Bloom and the Sultan is a gem to be savored. Underneath its seemingly simply music is the clever marriage of librettist and composer. Sullivan’s music softly holds the lighter words without interference; Hood’s clever use of the language taking precedence. Likewise, when the mood changes, the sublime music soars and becomes one with the words.

Sullivan’s Persian overtones are original, appropriately injected and easily transitioned to the more conventional music. “I am the Sultan’s vigilant Vizier” “Tramps and scamps,” and Honey-of-Life’s dance and are but three of the many examples.

It is difficult to separate the words from the music. Sullivan, with thorough understanding of the subtleties in Hood’s lyrics, has wedded his music so effectively to the words that it is difficult to pick any one particular moment in the opera as better than another. Each moment is closely followed by another wonderful moment, be it an aria, duet or chorus. This in turn is followed by another number which is just as engaging, charming, sentimental, or riotously hilarious. There are marches, fairy tale music, pompously amusing impersonations, love themes, and overall an endless well of music that grasps the listener and won’t let go. Rose of Persia is a must for any Sullivan admirer, and to those who never took the time, or who find him less than a serious composer, go out, get this opera, and enjoy the discovery.

This cpo recording is a reissue of the original released in 1999, in the May issue of BBC Music Magazine. In addition to the complete opera, the set includes the overtures to Pinafore, Pirates, Iolanthe, Mikado, Yeomen, Di Ballo and Macbeth.

Tom Higgins conducts The Hannover Band with vigor, humor and knowledge of the score. The Southwark Voices lends good company to the rest of the cast.

This is an all around excellent recording. All the singers are well suited for their roles in the best musical comedy tradition; the voices blend well in the ensembles, the chorus and above all, Sullivan’s music is at its best. The one element which has kept Gilbert & Sullivan’s works in the background for many years, mainly Gilbert’s deeply esoteric ridicule of Victorian Society in England, in the 1890s, does not limit Hood’s libretto. Hopefully this will allow Rose of Persia to gain the popularity it deserves.

“. . . I am terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music will be put on records forever.” This often mentioned quote of Sullivan’s certainly does not apply to Rose of Persia.

Daniel Pardo 2005



Liner Notes: The Rose of Persia
Meinhard Saremba
© 2005 cpo

Down under in the 19th Century

Arthur Sullivan