I must start off by admitting that these comments are made on the wing, as it were. They are not based on a careful study of this pair of recordings. I do not own the CD, you see. I've only had it played at me by an acquaintance, once. (Ouch, once is enough!)
"Cox and Box" was Arthur Sullivan's first entry into the lucrative field of comic opera. He had been extremely well-schooled in formal music, first in England and later at what we might call the master class level in Germany. For a time he was under the spell of Mendelssohn, as is plain to hear in his score for "Iolanthe." But for "Cox and Box," Sullivan would probably have ended up as a sort of pre-Elgar Elgar.
Sullivan, unlike his future partner W. S. Gilbert, was a cheerful, sociable fellow. For a private party, he and his friend F. C. Burnand whipped up a short musical entertainment based on a then-popular farce by J. Maddison Morton called "Box and Cox." With Sullivan at the piano, with Burnand and two other friends playing the parts of a hatter who works by day, a printer who works by night and their conniving landlord, the piece was such a success that it was replayed at another private party.
Realizing that they were onto a good thing, Sullivan and Burnand expanded the piece, orchestrated it, hired a professional cast, including Sullivan's younger brother, Fred, put it on stage and then sat back to rake in a nice profit (not one penny of which was ever shared with poor Morton.) The team of Sullivan and Burnand tried again with "The Contrabandista" but found no success. Burnand, later Sir Francis, the editor of a comic newspaper, must have looked upon the money-spinning partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan with envy. Years later, he tried again with a revised version of "The Contrabandista" called "The Chieftain." It ran for 96 performances at the Savoy Theatre, a flop by Sullivan's standards.
This version of "Cox and Box" presents considerably more of Sullivan's music than the pathetically hacked up version presented on stage by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and recorded twice by them. Nevertheless, the big gambling duet is still omitted. Almost unbelievably, it seems that the conductor ran out of time at the recording session. Whatever gains might accrue from presenting more of Sullivan's score, they are more than negated by replacing the dialogue (mostly from Morton's "Box and Cox") with a lame narration, an infamous act of desecration.
Sullivan first joined with Gilbert in a work called "Thespis," now lost save for a single song and a chorus recycled in "The Pirates of Penzance." It received favorable reviews and enjoyed a respectable run by the standards of its time, but it had ignited no fires in either man. A few years later, Gilbert found himself in possession of a libretto for a short opera that had become redundant because the producer who had commissioned it had died. Richard D'Oyly Carte, the manager of a small, unfashionable theater, needed a short fore-piece because Victorian audiences thought "La Perichole" too short for a full evening's entertainment. Arthur Sullivan needed money to support his expensive tastes. It was a match made in musical heaven. A partnership was formed. "Trial by Jury" appeared on stage with Fred Sullivan as The Learned Judge and "Perichole" was lost in the glare.
So much for the history of the two shows, now for this performance. In the words of Mr. Kolenkhov in Kaufman and Hart's "You Can't Take it With You," confidentially, it stinks. The singers are well-schooled with clear diction and nicely focused voices. The baleful effect of English vocal training is not nearly so dire in them as it has been in earlier generations of British singers--possibly reflecting the excellent Welsh connection. Everything about these singers is good except what they do.
Reading contemporary English critics, one can find innumerable ways in which Gilbert and Sullivan make the current English chattering classes uncomfortable. They reflect the class-ridden past, but they are not properly and piously horrified by the sheer beastliness of it all. They are respectable. They are patriotic. The music does not strive to be hard-hitting anymore than it seeks to be "relevant." The humor is without the now-required scatology. The words actually mean something. They are even--oh horror!--clever. People over fifty like them.
Worst of all, the critcs reject the perfectly self-evident fact that Sullivan's models were Mendelssohn, Weber and, most of all, Donizetti, in favor of an endlessly futile search for his English music hall roots. Sullivan was a gentleman. If a critic had pointed out his musical hall roots to him, he would have smiled politely and promptly distanced himself from the madman. Gilbert would have knocked the bounder down and then hauled him into court with a suit for defamation.
In these performances, Sullivan's graceful, Italianate lines are hauled kicking and screaming into the nearest beer hall. Legato is tossed into the Thames with a lead weight at its feet. Vowels are forcibly wrenched out of shape to provide upper class twit accents. Everything is pointed up and exaggerated in true Laughing Sal fashion until the last vestige of wit and charm is smashed. As I said, this cast is talented and well-trained. Only such a cast could be so diabolically bleeding awful.