Why Gilbert & Sullivan is not such fun any moremain
From our pal Tim Page, in Belgrade:
A dear friend was bemoaning the fact that he’d likely never see a professionally staged performance of “The Mikado” again. Satire is terribly out of favor just now — to the point where I wonder whether younger generations will read Petronius, Swift, Fielding, Dawn Powell, Waugh and Pynchon — but I think there is another reason why the Gilbert and Sullivan canon is rarely presented today
Compare the earliest recordings of the Savoyard operas with the later ones, which continued up until at least the 1990s. Speaking generally, the later recordings are more musically assured, have better sound, and explore the more serious aspects of the works with deeper intensity.
What they lack is madness. It is as though somebody had remade Marx Brothers or Three Stooges films with leading contemporary actors replacing the originals. I’ve come to a point where I want to hear no other version of “The Gondoliers” (to name the fastest, fizziest Gilbert and Sullivan opera) than the 1927 recording, with Henry Lytton, Leo Sheffield, George Baker, Bertha Lewis and Winifred Lawson falling all over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, sharing and behaving by the rules of the same loopy planet. Several of these artists worked with Gilbert (who died in 1911) and a few went back all the way to Sullivan (1900).
I feel the same way about the best of the Carlo Sabajno and Lorenzo Molajoli conducted recordings of late 19th century and early 20th century Italian operas. Knowing the world that Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni inhabited and sometimes working with their singers gave these performances a startling authority: it sometimes feels as though the characters *themselves* are singing, rather than hired sopranos, tenors and basses. This music, however, has become a part of the standard classical repertory in a way that perhaps nothing written in English but “Messiah” has, and we have grown accustomed to many different approaches and casts of international superstars.
Gilbert and Sullivan, however, belong to the British Empire, which had many attributes and terrible faults. The operas are the representation of an inspired, provincial and eccentric island (I say this with deep affection) that was then running much of the world. They belong to a a certain time and place, which is no terrible thing in itself, but it is damned hard to recreate now. You might as well try to book Harpo at Lincoln Center.