TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 23 July 2010
First of all, there is a lot to be grateful for; all the major works (with the exception of "Utopia Limited" and "The Grand Duke"), the stagings are, for the most part at any rate, traditional, production values are generally high and the casts contain some of the leading British opera singers of recent times. There is no comparable series of recordings and most others are records of specific productions, in the main captured "live." At under £4 per DVD, this represents a tremendous bargain. So why do I regard the series with a sense of regret? Well, the sound quality is not of the finest and one or two "fluffs" suggest haste in recording. My major grievances, however, concern the regrettable omission of some musical items and some "stunt" casting. The films were made, it appears, primarily for American television and all have been "trimmed" to fit an allotted time-span. This entails the excision of certain numbers, which not only robs the viewer of expected musical delights, but also has a detrimental effect on continuity. (Not all of the operas suffer in this regard, but the cuts to "Yeomen" are particularly grievous). It is even more galling that time is wasted on each disc by unbelievably cheesy introductions by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; their omission would have at least allowed the reinstatement of a couple of numbers. What is more, I suspect that these had actually been recorded and as evidence I would offer the casting of appropriately voiced singers in parts that are here bereft of their music. The "stunt" casting is, presumably, for the (American) TV market. The fact that some of these performers are themselves American does not in itself offend, it is simply that, with a couple of honourable exceptions, they are at best ill-suited and at worst embarrassing; the parts could have been cast to better advantage with "straight" singers who act and sing so delightfully elsewhere in the series. What a pity, as this collection could have been well nigh definitive. As it is, it is very much a missed opportunity, enjoyable as many of the films are.
I will review the operas individually in the order they were first performed.
COX AND BOX (*****)
This is wholly delightful. All three performers sing and act especially well and Thomas Lawlor in particular is very funny as Bouncer.
TRIAL BY JURY (****)
Ironically, this is actually padded out by the inclusion of the Di Ballo overture. Kate Flowers and (especially) Ryland Davies (luxury casting!) sing well as the Plaintiff and the Defendant, Roger Bryson is a sonorous Usher and Brian Donlan makes much of little as the Foreman of the Jury. On the debit side, however, Tom McDonnell is an over-emphatic Counsel and although Frankie Howerd does, of course, have his moments as the Judge, including a choice intervention in "A nice dilemma," he is not up to the part vocally, even though he actually sings more of the notes than he does in "HMS Pinafore." A "proper" singer would have been better; as it is, it becomes the Frankie Howerd Show and spoils what could have been a perfect production.
THE SORCERER (****)
This is pretty good as well. There are no grievous cuts and for once the non-operatic performers, Clive Revill and David Kernan can be counted as an almost total success, the former in particular giving a marvellous portrayal of the title role. The rest of the cast sing and act well and it is especially welcome to encounter the great Savoyard Donald Adams, this time as Sir Marmaduke.
HMS PINAFORE (**)
The wonderful Della Jones as Little Buttercup notwithstanding, this is just about capsized by the participation of the two "guest stars." Frankie Howerd is, well, Frankie Howerd and as such is always entertaining, but he stumbles through Sir Joseph's words and music, while the antics of Peter Marshall, an American game-show host apparently, are simply embarrassing, much as he seems to enjoy himself. The romantic leads are dull, but Alan Watt is an appropriately villainous Deadeye and Gordon Sandison makes a great deal of the Bosun; a pity that he had not been cast as the Captain!
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (***)
Another one almost spoilt, I'm afraid, by "celeb" casting. Keith Michell is fine as the Major General, but Peter Allen (one of Liza Minnelli's ex-husbands) offers a Pirate King from a wholly different, inappropriate tradition, camp and excessively "Broadway" in approach. This is a pity, as the romantic leads sing well and we have the redoubtable Gillian Knight as Ruth. Paul Hudson is a lacklustre Sergeant of Police.
This is very good and all the better for being based on a real production (Sadlers Wells/ENO) which I saw when I was at school and which featured many of the performers here. Derek Hammond-Stroud and the late, great Anne Collins make a wonderful double act as Bunthorne and Lady Jane, while Sandra Dugdale is a delectable (and very funny) Patience. John Fryatt is, perhaps, a little long in the tooth to play Grosvenor, but he too is very funny and sings well, while the military men are in the capable hands of the incomparable Donald Adams, Roderick Kennedy and Terry Jenkins, an hilarious Duke. A joy from beginning to end.
Another film which benefits from being cast entirely with opera singers. Derek Hammond-Stroud is an exemplary Lord Chancellor, well supported by David Hillman and Thomas Helmsley, even though the latter at this stage of his career no longer commanded the required resonance for "When Britain really ruled the waves." Kate Flowers is a charming Phyllis and Alexander Oliver an amusing (tenor) Strephon. Richard Van Allan is luxury casting as Private Willis and Anne Collins, as ever, makes her mark as the Fairy Queen. Most enjoyable.
PRINCESS IDA (***)
The film takes the form of a performance of the opera in the grounds of a country house, but is otherwise pretty traditional and quite effective. The casting of the American actor and impressionist Frank Gorshin as King Gama does not detract too much from the pleasure, even if he offers no special insights. Nan Christie sings well in the title role and the other female singers do well, as do Lawrence Dale, Bernard Dickerson and Richard Jackson as Hilarion, Cyril and Florian. That fine singer Neil Howlett is a resonant King Hildebrand, but the role of Arac is seriously undercast.
THE MIKADO (****)
This is an enjoyably traditional production with attractive, well-sung romantic leads and a marvellous comic performance by Clive Revill as Ko Ko, a role he had recorded with distinction for Sadlers Wells some years previously. He is abetted by the splendid Anne Collins as Katisha. The other "non-singer," William Conrad as the Mikado, is nothing special, but does no real harm, while Gordon Sandison is very funny as Pish Tush and Stafford Dean's is the best sung of all Pooh Bahs.
This is great and only some dodgy back projection and a couple of cuts prevent this from being a 5-star production. For once, the "celeb" casting pays off. Keith Michell revels in both incarnations of Robin Oakapple/Sir Ruthven and sings all the notes. Vincent Price is inspired casting as Sir Despard; he isn't much of a singer, of course (although he does make an effort), but it would be hard to imagine the part better played and with such élan. The other parts are splendidly cast too; Sandra Dugdale sings and acts wonderfully as Rose Maybud, as do Ann Howard and Johanna Peters as Mad Margaret and Dame Hannah, while it is good to encounter the young John Treleavan (now an eminent Wagnerian) as Dick Dauntless. If this were not enough, we have the added bonus of Donald Adams in one of his best roles, offering us a marvellous "When the night wind howls." A treat.
THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD (**)
This is all but ruined by the omission (see above) of several crucial musical items. David Hillman's fine Colonel Fairfax suffers particularly in this regard. The "straight" singers all give exemplary performances; this is indeed casting from strength. Elizabeth Gale is a lovely Elsie, Claire Powell a spirited Phoebe and Elizabeth Bainbridge and Geoffrey Chard are perfect as Dame Carruthers and Sergeant Meryll. Of the "non-singers, " Joel Gray may not be to everyone's taste, but he is nevertheless a moving Jack Point, while it seems churlish to describe Alfred Marks as a "non-singer," as he fields a voice of operatic quality and acts magnificently as Shadbolt; he is the best exponent of the part on any of the recorded media. If this film exists in a complete form, it would be well worth searching out.
THE GONDOLIERS (***)
There's nothing seriously wrong with this, but somehow it never seems to catch fire. Keith Michell is miscast as Don Alhambra, but otherwise it is cast from strength, right down to the very smallest parts. Francis Egerton and Tom McDonnell are not my ideal pairing as the two gondoliers, but I have fond memories of John Brecknock and Thomas Allen on a BBC production in the 70s, which I would love to see issued on DVD....