HADDON HALL is easily the best of the Prince Consort recordings. All of the roles are at least acceptably cast, the orchestral playing is generally to a high standard, and the chorus shine. This is a set that will give pleasure for years to come. HADDON HALL has long been my favorite of the non-Gilbert operas. (Well, aside from COX AND BOX.) I followed this recording with a vocal score, and it gave me a new appreciation of the subtlety and complexity of this opera. Sullivan is just a year removed from IVANHOE, and a more advanced idiom is clearly evident in many of the movements. Yet, other numbers show the show the jaunty tunesmith of the Savoy still very much in his element.
This is the only Sullivan opera based on a known historical incident: the elopement of Dorothy Vernon and John Manners. The libretto moves the date forward a century, to the time of the English Civil War. As in THE BEAUTY STONE, Sullivan is perhaps unsure whether he is writing a comic opera or a chiefly romantic one. Here he is far more successful at treading a middle ground, although some of the material still doesn’t cohere. The piece drags whenever the Puritans come in. This is ironic, in that they’re the most inauthentic element in the plot; to bring them in, and then not get much out of them, must be counted a dramatic blunder on both Grundy and Sullivan’s part.
After opening night, Sullivan and Grundy replaced a solo/duet for Manners and Dorothy with a dramatic solo for Dorothy. The earlier Cheam recording rewrote the act slightly so that all of the material could be included in the dramatic sequence. The Consort recording includes the earlier working as an appendix to Act I. It is on the same CD as the rest of the act, so you can reprogram your CD player to get either version.
HADDON HALL portends some of the awful the rhythmic laziness of UTOPIA LIMITED, with far too many of the numbers in 6/8 and 3/4, but Sullivan takes more chances in HADDON HALL, and generally they work. There is much to discover in this score, and I heartily recommend it to those who have yet to discover Sullivan outside of the G&S canon.
An unfamiliar opera needs a great recording, and I think this is one. Particularly successful are Mary Timmons (Dorothy Vernon), Heather Boyd (Lady Vernon), Peter Thomson (Sir George Vernon), and Fiona Main (Dorcas). I never much cared for Alan Borthwick in the main tenor roles, but Oswald finds him in a comfortable tessitura that never goes above G, and he breezes through the role’s patter with palpable joy.
Steven Griffin sings a bit thinly in the upper register, but he is otherwise a capable John Manners. Ian Lawson sings Rupert Vernon as if it were a typical creaky patter baritone part. I would have preferred more of a “voice”. Maxwell Smart’s McCrankie will not be to all tastes, but he is stuck with some awfully inartful Scottish dialect to imitate. If these three performers are less successful, they do not seriously detract from the set’s many charms.
David Lyle coaxes a great sense of drama out of the Consort Orchestra. The strings get out of sync once or twice, but this is still the best orchestra Lyle has assembled for any of these recordings. The chorus sing beautifully, although there is a bit more reverberation than I would have liked.
The two-CD set comes with a generous booklet that includes the complete libretto — even the dialogue (although not performed on the CD). These days, that’s a luxury! Since the Consort has now recorded all of Sullivan’s non-Gilbert operas, aside from those D’Oyly Carte recorded, I would assume that this is their swan song. If so, they saved the best for last. Overall, it’s a most welcome addition to the Sullivan discography.