Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

SULLIVAN: Princess Ida

spacer Ashworth, Frazier, Schroeder, Rosko, Vann, Desnoyers, Uzelac, Williams, Neely, Martin; Lamplighters Music Theatre, 
with chorus and orchestra, Peeples. 
Lamplighters Music Theatre (2)

PrincessIdaCD

Lamplighters Music Theatre has remained a popular staple on the San Francisco Gilbert & Sullivan scene since 1952, and on the world stage in more recent years. This private-label Princess Ida CD set is the first in what is anticipated to be an annual series. It was recorded before a live audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, during their February 2013 performance run in the Bay Area.

Princess Ida, which opened in 1884, is an anomaly in at least two respects: it is the only three-act opera in the G&S canon and the only one written in blank verse. Its story of the ultra-feminist Ida — founder of her own women's college, where students are taught to renounce all contact with "the tyrant known as man" — derives from the 1847 Tennyson poem The Princess, as well as Gilbert's own 1870 musical farce of the same name. The opera's libretto reuses chunks of dialogue from his earlier work. Ida's original run at London's Savoy Theatre was not considered a success. Ida closed after 246 performances — its immediate predecessor in the Savoy canon, Iolanthe, had lasted almost 400 — and was not revived in London until 1919. 

Professional recordings of Princess Ida do not abound; D'Oyly Carte has released four over the years, in 1924, 1932, 1955 and 1965, none of which is without its detractors. Bad voices, maddeningly slow tempos, inferior sound quality — all are fair game for critics. This Lamplighters offering, in addition to the inclusion of approximately 98 percent of the dialogue, features uniformly praiseworthy singing and brisk conducting from music director Baker Peeples. The sound levels do vary, especially in music-to-dialogue transitions, and there is audible (sometimes inexplicable) stage business: such are the drawbacks of live recording.

Curiously, Lady Blanche's Act II aria "Come, mighty Must" is omitted (too bad; Cary Ann Rosko would do it justice), but the rarely performed second verse of the Act III chorus "This is our duty plain" is reinstated, while the "ordeal by battle" rages in the foreground, all but drowning out the music.

Peeples guides the excellent orchestra and chorus with a sure hand, and his augmentations to the overture presage an intelligent performance. Harmonic balance? Check. Pitch and diction, from both principals and ensemble? Check. Perfect English accents all around? Che…ers for trying! 

Jennifer Ashcroft, in the title role, has a confident soprano that really soars in the Act III aria "I built upon a rock." All of the principals acquit themselves appropriately and well. Rick Williams delivers a self-centered and demanding King Gama, and, as King Hildebrand, William Neely shows off a commanding, mellow baritone. Robert Vann's Hilarion has an impassioned, callow edge, in contrast with the sweeter tenor of Michael Desnoyers's Cyril and the rougher texture of Chris Uzelac's Florian. In Rose Frazier's hands, Lady Psyche is knowing and teasing, as opposed to the lyric, more naïve sound of Michele Schroeder, as Melissa.

This recording deserves wider attention than it will probably receive, and not just from the Gilbert & Sullivan "Inner Brotherhood," who routinely count the Princess Ida score among their favorites. With the exception of the in-and-out sound, and the occasionally jarring stage business, in the words of King Gama, "I've nothing whatever to grumble at." spacer

CAROL DAVIS

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6