In 1892 Sullivan was at the apex of his career. The Gondoliers had been a great success at the Savoy, and his grand opera Ivanhoe had been very well received at the Royal English Opera House. But its success was to be comparatively short-lived, and certainly it had not benefited him financially. He needed a new source of income, yet had fallen out with Gilbert. So he decided to collaborate with a different librettist, Sydney Grundy, with a considerable reputation in the field of light opera.
The result was Haddon Hall , based on a true story about the elopement of Lady Dorothy Vernon with her Royalist lover, John Manners, from her ancestral home. But Grundy resourcefully predated the action so that he could use period costumes, and bring in a chorus of Puritans who in the last act, in true topsy-turvy fashion renounce “being thoroughly miserable” and instead plan to “merry-make the livelong day”.
At the beginning of Act II Grundy also introduces an unforgettable Scottish character, the McCrankie, from the Isle of Rum, and he appears to an extraordinarily convincing orchestral evocation of bagpipes. My name is McCrankie is followed by his duet with Rupert, There’s no-one by , a wittily dour exposition of their Puritan creed (“We’d supervise the plants and flowers, prescribe them early-closing hours”). Then follows Hoity-Toity , a delightful trio with Dorcas, the heroine’s maid (who sings most engagingly in her own solos) to make three of the most delightful numbers in the whole opera.
Sir John Manners’ servant, Oswald (the excellent Alan Borthwick), arrives disguised as a traveling salesman and introduces himself with the engagingly lively Come simples and gentles , full of musical quotations, and this leads to a heavenly duet with Dorcas, The sun’s in the Sky . But it is Rupert, the heroine’s Roundhead cousin, splendidly sung by Ian Lawson, who is the key humorous figure. He only wants Lady Dorothy’s hand as it comes with the Haddon Hall estates, and his very winning I’ve heard it said is an inimitable patter style we all recognize; he also has a fine number with chorus, When I was but a little lad .
Sydney Grundy tried to avoid the Gilbertian style, but fortunately for the most part he fails to do so; his libretto is certainly more fey than a Gilbertian scenario. But the lyrics are often charming, and there is plenty of felicitous rhyming, to bring one catchy number after another, to which Sullivan provides some of his most delightful music. The lyrical solos and ensembles for the principal characters are often fully operatic and the chorus is richly served. Sullivan also scored more imaginatively than usual, as in the shrieking clarinets in the central Storm sequence.
The performance by the semi-professional Prince Consort, from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but using a professional orchestra, may have its rough patches, but it is very well cast, with Mary Timmons a pleasing heroine, who blends appealingly with Steven Griffin as her lover, John Manners. He sings very strongly, especially when he dominates the opera’s spectacular finale, when everything is happily resolved.
David Lyle’s conducting is full of life and the many ensembles come off splendidly, notably the enchanting Now step lightly, hold me tightly in Act II as the lovers elope. Indeed the opera comes vividly to life in this excellent recording, well balanced and with a fine, full theatrical ambience. The recording was financially sponsored, not just by the Sullivan Society, but also by individuals, Mike Leigh of Topsy-Turvy fame among them. It deserves support and I return will give much pleasure, for so much of its music brings fascinating reminders of other G&S operas from the Savoy canon. It certainly deserves professionally restaging, perhaps in London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, which has recently done so well for HMS Pinafore.