Haddon Hall is one of the least known of Sullivan’s Savoy operas –for, although it was first given in 1892, eight years before his death, it was the first of his works written for that theatre of which the libretto was not by Gilbert. Following a break in the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan in 1890 (which was repaired after a while),Sullivan and D’Oyly-Carte looked elsewhere for a literary partner. Carte chose Sydney Grundy, who wrote the text of Haddon Hall. Not only did Grundy bring a fresh approach to the genre, the story was unique in Sullivan’s operettas in that it was based upon real events (although brought forward about 100 years to 1648).
If the approach was new, Sullivan’s art was still in full flow. Hearing this very good, new complete recording (without spoken dialogue), we can understand Bernard Shaw’s contention that Haddon Hall was the finest of the Savoy operas, though this verdict may have been provoked in part by Shaw’s resentment at Gilbert’s astonishing financial success. (The break of 1890 led to an unsavoury court case, in which the vast sums earned by Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte during the past ten years or so became public knowledge). Irrespective of this, Shaw had a point: in purely dramatic terms, Haddon Hall covers a wider range than any previous G&S offerings, while the music is in no way inferior to Sullivan’s earlier work. His subtlety is everywhere apparent – for example, in Oswald’s song “Ribbons to sell” in Act I, where the Marseilleise and Yankee Doodle are woven into the fabric, alongside other allusions, and in the enchanting succeeding trio, “Oh, tell me, what is a Maid to say?”. Indeed, the whole score is so masterly as to cause one to puzzle over its relative neglect. Whatever the reason, Sullivan collectors are now compensated by this new set from Divine Art.
This may not be the finest performance of Haddon Hall imaginable, but it is pretty good. David Lyle conducts with an infectious sense of involvement, and the 15 soloists and the chorus re-recreate the authentic period style with notable élan. The orchestra is not really in the same class as the singers, although it is not called upon to do very much, other than accompany. If there are one or two passages where better orchestral takes could have been used (for example, the opening to No. 10 “My Mistress Comes”, and the beginning of the extended Act I finale, there is nothing seriously awry here.
The libretto is printed in full, including the spoken text, and the booklet notes are excellent. As a bonus, two numbers are included which Sullivan later excised from Act I. This enjoyable and well-recorded set is most recommendable.
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