Thursday, August 20, 2009

Old, Bad Gilbert and Sullivan Is New and Good Again?

I've said in the past on this blog that, much as I love Gilbert and Sullivan, I usually can't bring myself to go to see their works performed any more. Part of this is just something that can't be helped by anyone who puts on a G&S operetta: there aren't that many of these works, and by design (Gilbert's design) the characters have no depth, so there really is very little you can do to make them fresh. If you know the music and lyrics and script, almost nothing a G&S production does can surprise you. But most productions try to solve this problem with gimmicks, rewritten lyrics and dialogue, non-singers in singing roles. None of this gives the plot or characters any more depth than they had before, and they make the production harder to sit through.

So maybe it's just my reaction against modern G&S performance, or just pure nostalgia, but I find that I'm more favorably disposed to the old G&S performance tradition -- that of the D'Oyly Carte company, which held the copyright on G&S in England until 1961 and was notorious for trying to do productions that aped the originals in sets, design, and stage business. (Lots of unwritten bits of business became absolute D'Oyly Carte requirements that no performer would change, including some bits that were introduced after Gilbert's death, like the Mikado laughing and screaming in the middle of his song. What was important to the D'Oyly Carte wasn't Gilbert's intentions, it was "tradition," no matter how those traditions got started.) But when I found two online excerpts from the 1966 D'Oyly Carte film of The Mikado, I watched them and thought: this isn't perfect, but I'd be happy to see The Mikado done this way today.

This film is just a regular performance done in front of a movie camera (and without an audience). And I might just order a copy. No, the performance isn't very lively, probably because of the absence of the audience and the apparent decision to use pre-recorded tracks. And the flaws of "tradition" are very clear in the delivery of the dialogue: that stylized, slowly-delivered parody of a type of acting that no longer was in favor by that time. (In Gilbert's time, of course, most plays were like that, and he probably did order his actors to to play the dialogue this way: emphatic, melodramatic, not obviously aware of the absurdity of the words they're saying.) But still, the stylized Victorian-melodrama delivery works better, and is certainly more appropriate to the material, than attempts to pep it up and make the actors obviously, consciously, play the dialogue for laughs. And while the D'Oyly Carte wasn't known for high musical standards, they did have some people with legitimate operatic voices that could do at least partial justice to Sullivan's music.

So click here to see Yum-Yum's song ("The sun whose rays are all ablaze") sung by Valerie Masterson, one of the D'Oyly Carte's best signings in the '60s.

The old-fashioned approach works best in the song, because there's no attempt to camp it up or make it "lively": it's a moment that depends entirely on the song and the performer. A lot of G&S productions seem to forget that. It doesn't work so great in the dialogue, but it's no worse than today's usual methods.

(The song itself is one of the most famous examples of the weirdness of the relationship between Sullivan's music and Gilbert's lyrics. The lyric, which Gilbert wrote first, is a hymn to conceit and vanity, a song about someone who sees all of nature as just barely matching up to her wonderfulness. Sullivan set it with a gorgeous, passionate melody. The music and lyrics are working at cross-purposes, yet they somehow seem to go together just right.)

And here's D'Oyly Carte's comic lead at the time (the guy who played the parts that George Grossmith originated), John Reed, singing the "Tit-Willow" song. Not of the highest standard either in singing or conducting (by the D'Oyly Carte's reliable but unexciting veteran conductor, Isidore Godfrey), but it trusts the material much more than a modern production would, and that now seems kind of charming. And even the work of Gilbert, the angriest Victorian of them all, needs to be played some charm.


Victor said...

Shamefully I've never seen or heard any complete Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and am only familiar with the first song you linked from the movie Brick. But I have to say, I don't think it's a bad way to get introduced to it.

Unknown said...

Judging the depth of Gilbert's characters by the limitations of the D'Oyly Carte Company is hardly a fair evaluation of their worth, any more than judging Shakespeare by the quality of provincial British productions of his plays in the early 20th century, which were more sung than spoken.

Watch scenes from The Hot Mikado on YouTube to see what a clever director and actors can do with Gilbert's words and Sullivan's glorious music.

And, yes, Gilbert could create complex characters, e.g., Jack Point from The Yeomen of the Guard.

Christine said...

If you want to gain an appreciation for G&S, you must see the film "Topsy-Turvy" -- great performances, gorgeous music, sets, costumes, etc.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Joe: I never actually saw a D'Oyly Carte performance live, so if anything I'm judging it by the limitations of the many non-D'Oyly productions I've seen over the years. But really I'm judging it by my reading of his work, and while it may be too limited a reading, I definitely think that Gilbert's characters are deliberately lacking in depth, since they're puppets of stupid arbitrary rules that Gilbert is making fun of.

I also don't think Point, as written, has a lot of depth; he's a very typical figure from Gilbert's poems and plays, the character who is treated brutally by everybody simply because he's not "the hero" (and who is himself not at all admirable). Gilbert realized he'd miscalculated and that audiences really felt for Point; that's why he changed Elsie's last lines -- in the original production, she made fun of his plight in the final reprise of "I Have a Song To Sing, O." But every character in Yeomen is quite horrible in his or her own way; it may actually be Gilbert's most bitter piece ever.

Christine: I liked "Topsy-Turvy" but I thought Mike Leigh's portrayal of the characters was too, well, one-dimensional, particularly Gilbert, who is more or less portrayed throughout as a stodgy repressed Victorian. Gilbert was one of the angriest, bitterest and most innovative writer-directors of his era, and you'd never really get that from the way he's portrayed in the movie, which sidesteps (and isn't even really aware of) the question of why his work is so dark (The Mikado is really dark and death-obsessed comedy, after all).

Michael Rea said...

Back in the 70's, my introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan was through a series that ran on the CBC. It was hosted by Wayne And Shuster and featured the D'Oyly Carte performing the main songs from each operetta. Between songs Wayne and Shuster would fill us in on the action and give us background on each Operetta performed. Does anyone know if this show still exsists? As far as I know its the only record of D'Oyly Carte performaces for mostof the G&S canon.

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Tony Parkes said...

Michael Rea: You're in luck. The series you remember, called "Gilbert and Sullivan for All", has been reissued on DVD. The films have deteriorated somewhat, but it's wonderful to have a visual record of these songs being done by people who lived the shows from the inside. (Strictly speaking, the project wasn't D'Oyly Carte endorsed; it was led by Donald Adams and Thomas Round, arguably the greatest G&S bass and tenor of the mid-20th century. Round supplies the narration on the DVDs.)

You can read more about the video series here:

And you can buy the DVDs here:

The first link is to the G&S Discography, a fantastic website that describes almost every audio and video G&S recording ever made. The second link is to the International G&S Festival, which runs for three weeks every summer in Buxton, England (click the "Shop" link on their home page).

Incidentally, the best (IMHO) videos of the complete G&S operas are the ones the Festival sells of their professional group, the "G&S Opera Company", and the prize-winning amateur productions that appear in Buxton. They're formatted the night of the performance for quick sale, which may explain why the chapters don't take you to the beginning of a song or scene; but otherwise the quality is quite good. They'll convince almost anyone that G&S is worth performing and watching.