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The Beauty Stone
R. Evans, Shaw, Thomas, Wyn-Rogers; Spence, Gadd, Opie, Stout; BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, Macdonald. Texts. Chandos CHAN 10794 (2)
Lovers of the music of Arthur Sullivan, rejoice! Until now, there has been only one recording of his post-Gilbert opera The Beauty Stone, an amateur release on Pearl that did the work no favors. This recording puts the gorgeous score front and center with superb performances. It also includes several songs that were cut after opening night, which Sullivan, with felicitous foresight, preserved as appendices in the back of his autograph manuscript. Set in the fifteenth century in the Flemish town of Mirlemont, The Beauty Stone is essentially a comedic spin on the Faust legend. The titular trinket is bestowed on the crippled, misshapen Laine by the Devil in disguise, in answer to her prayer to die if she cannot be made beautiful ("Love sorts but with the fair, and naught am I!"). Of course, such a bargain can only bring trouble, and although Laine's newfound beauty wins the admiration of Philip, Lord of Mirlemont, she rejects the stone when she realizes that her new form has alienated her from her better self. Others pick up the stone in turn, and each succumbs to a fate consistent with his or her inner virtue.
The music is buoyant and joyous, with a surfeit of the characteristic soaring phrases that grace the Act I finales and many a trio in the Gilbert & Sullivan canon. The choral passages share their complexity with The Grand Duke, the last G&S collaboration, in which Sullivan finally refused to subjugate his music to Gilbert's words and indulged his full contrapuntal inventiveness. Here, he takes that liberty even further, and even if the words aren't always intelligible, the full choral moments provide a genuine musical thrill, as does the splendid Act II quintet "Haste thee, haste thee." Sullivan's predilection for hymn tunes surfaces in the reverence of Laine's transformation music, capturing an otherworldly wonder that telegraphs the happy ending.
Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas sings with winsome simplicity and purity as Laine, illuminating the character's inner beauty with an almost saintly goodness. Warm and earthy, mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers and baritone Stephen Gadd are sympathetic as Laine's downtrodden parents, and their Act II trio with Laine (one of the restored opening-night casualties) is a fine family moment. As Philip, Lord of Mirlemont, Toby Spence offers a shiny tenor that alternates between brightly heroic and meltingly lovely, though Rebecca Evans sounds a bit worn and mature as his jealous paramour, the sultry Saida. Baritone Alan Opie projects seductive authority as the Devil, and mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw is properly mischievous as Jacqueline, promoted from town pickpocket to his henchwoman. Baritone David Stout makes a strong impression in Guntran's aria accusing Philip of cowardice and materialism. In the small role of Barbe, Llio Evans may take the runner-up prize in Lord Philip's beauty contest, but her tingly, coppery soprano is the most singularly attractive female voice on offer here. Still, the biggest joy comes from the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Rory Macdonald, which render Sullivan's effervescent melodies with sheer, smile-inducing perfection.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER
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