on 6 November 2013
It is amazing how often over the centuries press and public alike have just got it so very wrong. One has only to think of the fiasco of the first production of Bizet's CARMEN. With THE BEAUTY STONE, the public and press of 1898 can, perhaps, be forgiven, although having said that, had they had the foresight to look beneath the surface, maybe they would have seen the beauty that was hidden beneath. Alas, it has taken 115 years for this remarkable piece to be brought back to life, but we are the winners and can only regret the neglect that has deprived many generations of the opportunity to hear this remarkable piece.
If fault must be apportioned, then firstly and foremost it should go to Arthur Wing Pinero (author of THE MAGISTRATE, TRELAWNEY OF THE WELLS etc.) for, although he provides an incredibly strong storyline, his interminable dialogue, written in a mock-medieval dialect, basically killed the piece stone dead. Despite pleas from Sullivan to cut and tighten, Pinero would not listen resulting in a first night performance lasting for well over 4 hours (given that this recording of the complete, uncut score lasts for just over 2 hours, that indicates enough spoken dialogue for another full-length play). Pinero then realised his mistake, but by the time he had produced a revised libretto the damage was done and it was too late. THE BEAUTY STONE closed after just 50 performances.
Richard D'Oyly Carte, too, must shoulder some of the blame for his complete miscalculations regarding the cost of the production. His need to import expensive opera singers for the roles of Philip and Saida and an increased chorus. But also his miscalculation about the type of piece that would appeal to a Savoy audience. THE BEAUTY STONE is quite unlike any other piece to play at the Savoy. Had the Royal English Opera House project succeeded, THE BEAUTY STONE would conceivably have followed in the line of IVANHOE, and probably much more successfully than the former work.
In the event, following that original production, the opera sank almost without trace. There were rumours of a production by a London-based amateur company early in the 20th century (Barclay's Bank Operatic Society but I have been unable to trace any record of their past productions), but other than that it was not until an amateur recording on the Pearl label (Prince Consort) and a stage revival at Retford (UK) in 1996 (with a revised libretto) that the public in general had any chance to judge for themselves the merits, or otherwise, of this work.
At last, thanks to the efforts of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, and most particularly Robin Gordon-Powell (publisher of a new vocal score, full score and performance material sourced from Sullivan's autographed manuscript score) and of course the commitment of Chandos, we have a performance by which, at last, THE BEAUTY STONE can be fairly judged. The clarity of the recording is excellent, giving a chance at last to hear all the beauty of Sullivan's remarkable orchestrations (no wonder the Savoy orchestra players of the 1890's considered this to be the composers most accomplished score); the chorus is well placed, more forward than in IVANHOE and therefore achieving a better balance against the orchestra and principals. Rory Macdonald sets an absolutely cracking pace and this results in crowd scenes full of bustle and life, but also other scenes where tension becomes tangible - elements missing from the previous recording.
Atmosphere is created magically from the outset - the opening duet for Simon and Joan, "Click, clack" is redolent of the dingy, dimly lit, musty weaver's hovel. Laine's prayer "Dear Mary mother" is heartachingly beautiful and superbly sung Elin Manahan Thomas; Alan Opie is almost Svengali-like as the Devil, making "When it dwelt in that rock" almost mesmeric. Rebecca Evans has a number of superb passages as Saida, Philip's mistress; "Oh, turn thine eyes away" is particularly beautifully sung (those who think they recognise this melody will probably be familiar with John Lanchbery's TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER when he uses it for the pas de deux of Pigling Bland and the Black Pig). Saida's extended scene "Safe in her island home" is revealed as a remarkable piece of writing with it's oriental colourings, whilst the showpiece "What laggard steed" is performed with the urgency it needs - an urgency which, in other recordings in the past, has been lacking.
As with THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD (but much more so), THE BEAUTY STONE is a far more serious/romantic work and therefore the characters that provide some comic relief are exceptionally important. In this case the main burden of this responsibility falls to Madeleine Shaw in the character of Jacqueline, an unusual role as, although she starts out as a girl, under the influence of the Devil she spend most of the opera as a page boy - so in many ways this is a trouser role. Her duet with the Devil, "My name is Crazy Jacqueline", is absolutely wonderful and, despite the helter-skelter pace (which is just right), every word can be heard. One advantage of Mr Gordon-Powell's research is the restoration of a large amount of discarded material (ditched in an effort to shorten the original performance time), the advantage for us being the inclusion of the second duet for Jacqueline and the Devil "Up and down" in Act 2 Scene 3 - another delightful piece that certainly should never have been cut.
The other major restorations are the extended beauty competition scene in Act 1 Scene 2, and an important trio for Simon, Joan and Laine in Act 2 Scene 2, plus a great deal of incidental music; scene changes, melos, melodrame etc. The duet for Simon and Joan, "I would see a maid" is just another piece which should never have suffered the neglect imposed upon it over the years.
To conclude, we have here a piece of operatic/musical theatre which, through miscalculation and snobbery on the part of the musical establishment regarding the composer, has lain neglected for far too long and maybe the opera houses and companies of the world need to sit up and re-evaluate their opinions of the works of Sullivan, for here is an opera that would not disgrace the stages of any of the world's major opera houses or companies, and it is presented with a superb cast, chorus and orchestra under the direction of a highly accomplished conductor who has undoubtedly committed himself wholeheartedly to a piece, the merits of which he utterly believes in.
A prince has kissed a sleeping beauty and she has awoken!!