13 Jul 2020

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

A soundbite summary of Carlo Pepoli’s libretti of Bellini’s 1835 melodramatic historical romance, I puritani, perhaps? No. The starting point of Arthur Sullivan’s 1892 romantic comedy-cum-historical drama, Haddon Hall, a CD of which I was delighted to receive from conductor John Andrews at the start of lockdown: if I couldn’t enjoy country house opera festivals this summer, then some stately home opera would be a welcome replacement.

“Ye stately homes of England,
So simple yet so grand;
Long may ye stand and flourish,
Types of our English land.”

So sing the Chorus, from behind closed curtains, at the start of Haddon Hall. Some musical partnerships seem as inextricably bound together in English culture as fish and chips, and strawberries and cream: Flanders and Swann, Britten and Pears, Rodgers and Hammerstein … how about a Gilbert-lite Sullivan, then?

Disagreements between the two halves of the successful librettist-composer union around the time of The Gondoliers (1889); Sullivan’s desire to ditch the tested-and-tried and to compose an English ‘grand opera’; D’Oyly Carte’s financial problems at the newly opened Royal English Opera House: much contrived to throw Sullivan’s new ventures off-kilter. But, the composer’s desire for a lavish domestic life and D’Oyly Carte’s determination to revive a thriving business led the two men back to light opera and the Savoy Theatre. A new collaborator was required, however. Enter one Sydney Grundy, a successful playwright willing to turn his hand to serving Sullivan’s requirements.

Grundy’s Haddon Hall libretto was based upon the real-life elopement of Dorothy Vernon, daughter of the Royalist Sir George, with the son of the Protestant Earl of Rutland, in the 1560s. Grundy shifted the action forward 100 years, to take advantage of the religious conflicts of the Civil War period, which intensify the familial loyalties and tensions. So, Dorothy rejects the hand of her cousin, Rupert the Roundhead (her father hopes the marriage will deflect the legal claim Rupert has made upon Haddon Hall) in favour of Sir John Manners; she elopes, is pursued, returns, and - thanks to the restitution of Charles II to the English throne - is accepted with her new husband into the family fold.

It hardly sounds drama enough to sustain a two-hour opera; and, though the libretto is divided into three parts according to the theatrical laws of exposition, conflict and resolution (Act I ‘The Lovers’, Act II ‘The Elopement’, Act III ‘The Return’), many deemed - following the premiere of Haddon Hall on 24th September 1892 - that, indeed, it was not. The characters are flat, often inconsistent, and caricatures abound. The Daily Telegraph critic observed on 26th September 1892: ‘The great weakness of the libretto is ... the dramatic insignificance of the main characters who do nothing to make us care for them.’ The Musical News condemned Grundy for having ‘gone out of his way to violate the canons of good taste, by the introduction of needless extraneous characters’. And, the reviewer in Notes dismissed the historical displacement, judging it made ‘for the sake of satirising, not the Puritans themselves, but certain modern Sectaries who have no real relationship with the Puritans, [it] is a double error of judgement’.

Not all were so negative, though: Haddon Hall did have a run of 200 performances, not far off the totals achieved by Ruddigore andPrincess Ida. And, many reviews were complimentary, Notes favourably comparing the post-elopement aria, ‘Queen of the Garden’, and duet, ‘Bride of my youth, Wife of my age’, to Gounod’s duet for Baucis and Philémon! George Bernard Shaw relished the opportunity to take some snide swipes at Gilbert, attributing (in his column, Music in London, 28th September 1892) the opera’s success to ‘the critical insight of Mr Grundy’. And, despite his innate prejudices, Shaw was on a convincing footing in judging that Haddon Hall confirmed that in Sullivan’s handling of ‘the sort of descriptive ballad which touches on the dramatic his gift is as genuine as that of Schubert or Loewe’. Haddon Hall, Shaw observed, contained ‘episode after episode’ of such ballads, ‘tenderly handled down to the minutest detail of their skilful and finished workmanship’.

HH in Graphic.jpgHaddon Hall, Illustration for The Graphic, 1st October 1892 (engraving), English School (19th century), Illustrated Papers Collection/ Bridgeman Images.

This recording suggests that Shaw wasn’t wrong: despite the weak dramatic development and the lack of any real conflict, the ‘ballads’ of Haddon Hall make a loud appeal. Taken out of the theatre, the opera makes a persuasive case for Sullivan’s music. Characters that are ill-defined dramatically often have a strong musical identity and set-piece ensembles may not move the action forward but can form lively vocal ‘tableaux’.

As Dorothy’s companion Dorcas, Angela Simkin gets things brightly underway, interrupting the BBC Singers’ hearty rendition of the pastoral ensemble (‘Today it is festival time’) which anticipates Dorothy’s arrival at Haddon Hall at the start of the opera, with the wry tale of the dormouse and the snail (‘’Twas a dear little dormouse’) - a figurative account of Dorothy’s distaste for the metaphorically describes the young woman’s reluctance to marry her father’s choice, the baying, bragging Rupert. Sarah Tynan is a self-assured, vibrant Dorothy: if the feisty lass’s smile gleams as appealingly as Tynan’s soprano in Dorothy’s Act 1 aria, ‘Red of the rosebud’, then no wonder Manners is smitten. Andrews urges the BBC Concert Orchestra onwards, the colours swelling and blooming, to convey Dorothy’s passion-driven decision to defy her father. The idiom may be familiar, but it’s no less satisfying.

It’s not just the solo songs that beguile, Sullivan enlivens the duets and ensembles too. The fraught trio ‘Nay, father dear’, in which she forcefully rejects her father’s wishes, is followed by a lovely duet for Dorothy and the sympathetic Lady Vernon, ‘Mother, dearest mother’, in which Fiona Kimm’s mezzo-soprano is a comforting, richly layered complement to Tynan’s youthful woe. The arrival of her beloved, however, is probably of greater consolation to the love-struck Dorothy, and Ed Lyon is an ardent John Manners, his tenor strong, true and lithe - as befits any knight-in-shining-armour worthy of that name. (Sullivan made some revisions to Haddon Hall, some of which reduced Manners’ role; this recording sequences both versions.) Andrews keeps the pulsing strings hushed in ‘The Earth is Fair’, allowing the woodwind countermelodies and the cellos’ surges to make their mark. In this aria, as throughout the opening Act, which essentially serves to introduce the cast of characters, the tempo flows convincingly, just as the various numbers segue seamlessly.

Sullivan, naturally, doesn’t eschew musical caricature and Grundy provides him with some ‘classic types’. Before he is disillusioned by the news of his daughter’s elopement, Sir George sings a paean to England and its glorious past, ‘In days of yore’, and bass-baritone Henry Waddington conjures up a terrific image of deluded pomposity - his rolled ‘r’s ring truly with self-righteousness! - complemented by nationalistic choral interjections and ironic staccato accompaniment complete with sly flute commentaries and droll mini-crescendos. The varied forces and details are brilliantly assembled by Andrews.

Even more absurd is the arrival of Oswald (tenor Adrian Thompson), Manners’ servant disguised as a travelling salesman and fulfilling a mission to deliver his master’s letter to Dorothy. A blare from the brass whips up the excited Haddon folk (‘Ribbons to sell’) and Thompson slickly runs through the sales patter (‘Come simples and gentles’). Even Dulcamara didn’t get this sort of welcome, the villagers joining in with some vivacious, though anachronistic, bursts of foreign ‘anthems’ to accompany Oswald’s catalogue of continental goodies for sale. The bridegroom-to-be makes his appearance at the end of Act 1, accompanied by an unlikely troupe of Puritan buddies - Sing-Song Simeon, Nicodemus Knock-Knee, Barnabas Bellows-to-Mend and Kill-joy Candlemas - though the somewhat formulaic ‘I’ve heard it said’ suggests that Rupert is not so beguiled by the religious cause as he might be. The villagers are not impressed, and in ‘When I was but a little lad’ baritone Ben McAteer captures Rupert’s over-earnest self-absorption as he tries to win them over. All are ‘outshone’ in the ludicrous stakes by McCrankie, Rupert’s fanatical Puritan Scot who hails from ‘the Island of Rum’. ‘My name is McCrankie’ spouts baritone Donald Maxwell with dour stringency at the start of Act 2, to the drone of the ‘pipes’ and the hint of a highland reel.

Illustrated news HH.jpg Haddon Hall, Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 1st October 1892, ‘The Flight of Dorothy Vernon’ (engraving), English School (19th Century), Illustrated Papers Collection/Bridgeman Images.

Sullivan’s fluency with pastoral idioms is frequently in evidence, not least the Act 1 madrigal for chorus and soloists, ‘When the budding bloom of May’, which Andrews once again keeps swinging buoyantly along as if fuelled by the villagers’ joyful confidence: ‘All creation seems to say,/ “Earth was made for man’s delight!”’ But, there are some surprises too, not least the long finale to Act 2 which begins midway through the elopement, with Dorcas and Oswald lamenting that “The west wind howls”, and closes with the hoodwinked parents’ discovery of their errant daughter’s disobedience. The formal and harmonic structures are complex and there’s a strange juxtaposition of fast-moving development and the stasis with which it concludes. As Sir George urges the pursuers “To horse - to horse!”, the Chorus reassure Lady Vernon that the mis-doers will indeed “blunder” and that nothing with change: “Time, the Avenger,/ Time, the Controller,/ Time, that unravels the tangle of life,/ Guard thee from danger,/ Prove thy consoler,/ And make thee again happy mother and wife!” The BBC Singers (chorus master, Matthew Morley) bloom from unison beginnings to a wonderfully rich canvas of vocal harmony.

Of course, time will not stand still, but the villagers are not entirely wrong. Eight years passes - one wonders how that would be conveyed in the theatre - and Act 3 finds the Vernons being kicked out of Haddon Hall by the hypocritical Rupert. Sullivan’s invention keeps spinning in this final Act, with a lovely aria for Kimm as Lady Vernon bids farewell to her friends, ‘Queen of the Garden’, and a still better duet for the evictees, ‘Bride of my youth’, in which Kimm and Waddington put past conflicts behind them and look forward optimistically to peace and companionship in their dotage. In the end, it’s the restoration of the monarchy that re-establishes familial harmony, leads the villagers to rebel against the Puritan restrictions which makes their lives so dull, prompts the return of Dorothy and John, and brings about the reinstatement of Sir George as Lord of Haddon Hall. “To thine own heart be true!” cry all at the close. It’s stirring stuff!

It was the convention to begin an evening at the Savoy Theatre with a ‘curtain raiser’, and Christopher O’Brien’s scholarly edition of two such ‘lever de rideau’, Captain Billy and Mr Jericho ( Musica Britannica Volume 99, Stainer & Bell, 2015) has furnished Andrews, his singers and musicians with some choice examples of the genre with which to complement Haddon Hall.

The two short works share a librettist, Harry Greenbank. Captain Billy, composed by François Cellier, D’Oyly Carte’s Musical Director from 1879 to 1913, was a curtain raiser toThe Nautch Girl (a comic opera composed by Edward Solomon) on 23rd September 1891, and relates the tale of the eponymous former pirate’s return to his family after ten years at sea, plying his disreputable ‘trade’. There’s a terrific quartet for Captain Billy’s ‘widow’ (Fiona Kimm), her daughter Polly (Eleanor Denis) with whom their lodger Christopher Jolly (Ed Lyon) is smitten, and the landlord of The Blue Dragon Samuel Chunk (Henry Waddington), which culminates in a graceful, foot-tapping hornpipe led by a vibrant trumpet. The voices blend thrillingly, but are interrupted by the arrival of Ben McAteer’s Captain Billy who despite celebrating his arrival with a smug swagger (‘A pirate bold am I’), is disconcerted to learn from Chunk that the nephew whom he disinherited 20 years earlier - abandoning him in the desert with clothes labelled ‘Christopher Jolly’ - is at that very moment examining the parish registers to uncover the mystery of his birth.

The similarly tuneful Mr Jericho was composed by Cellier’s assistant at the Savoy and the Royal English Opera House, Ernest Ford, who had studied with Sullivan at the Royal Academy of Music, and with Lalo in Paris. The premiere on 18th March 1893 raised the curtain for Haddon Hall, with a tale of the bankrupt aristocrat, Michael de Vere, and his omnibus-driver son, Horace, both resident in Kensal Green, and the fulfilment of Horace’s romantic dreams through the manoeuvrings of one Mr Jericho (celebrated manufacturer of Jericho’s Jams). As the eponymous businessman, McAteer’s gleeful glorification of his company’s celebrated condiments is exuberantly colourful, while Eleanor Denis’s poised Winifred (daughter of Lady Bushey) and Lyon’s good-natured Horace share a sweet serenade of mutual admiration, supported by warm strings and touching oboe, as their hearts go “pit-a-pat”. Imitation Sullivan these two curtain-raisers might be, but they are certainly not second-rate substitutes.

Sitting comfortably at home, listening to a recording of Sullivan’s Haddon Hall, one does not lament the absence of Gilbertian irony such as one might do in the opera house. If Haddon Hall is static, dramatically and symbolically so - freezing historic English grandeur in operatic aspic perhaps - it is not, thanks to Sullivan’s score, lacking in sensitivity or interest.

Grundy’s libretto makes clear that “the clock of time has been put forward a century, and other liberties have been taken with history”, and this ‘out of time’ quality was noted by the Sunday Times reviewer, on 25 th September 1892: ‘An English story with a fine healthy English tone, set to music essentially English in idea, form, and character, Haddon Hall … is one of those happy combinations of national qualities that can never appeal in vain to popular audiences. It breathes at every point the true racial spirit.’ In similar vein, the Musical News praised Sullivan’s ‘skilful assumption … of the artforms so greatly perfected by our composers of former days’, for we see in ‘English music of the best kind certain qualities analogous to the best traits of our national character - simple earnestness, straightforward naturalness, and prompt, but unexaggerated expression’.

Such sentiments are either twee, embarrassing, or to be condemned today, depending on one’s personal view. But, I can’t help feeling that a certain ‘timelessness’ - as well as a little triviality and frivolousness - is not unwelcome in times when all seems beset by bewildering change and upheaval.

Claire Seymour

Sir Arthur Sullivan: Haddon Hall (1892)

John Manners - Ed Lyon (tenor), Sir George Vernon - Henry Waddington (bass-baritone), Oswald - Adrian Thompson (tenor), Rupert Vernon - Ben McAteer (baritone), McCrankie - Donald Maxwell (baritone), Dorothy Vernon - Sarah Tynan (soprano), Lady Vernon - Fiona Kimm (mezzo-soprano) Dorcas - Angela Simkin (mezzo-soprano), BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews (conductor), BBC Singers (concert master, Matthew Morley)

Ernest Ford - Mr Jericho (1893)

Michael de Vere - Henry Waddington, Horace Alexander de Vere - Ed Lyon, Mr Jericho - Ben McAteer, Lady Bushey - Fiona Kimm, Winifred - Eleanor Dennis (soprano), BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews (conductor)

Francois Cellier - Captain Billy (1891)

Captain Billy - Ben McAteer, Christopher Jolly - Ed Lyon, Samuel Chunk - Henry Waddington, Widow Jackson - Fiona Kimm, Polly - Eleanor Dennis, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews (conductor)