Alfred Cellier: Dorothy (1886). Majella Cullagh (Dorothy Bantam), Lucy Vallis (Lydia Hawthorne), Stephanie Maitland (Phyllis Tuppitt), Matt Mears (Geoffrey Wilder), John Ieuan Jones (Harry Sherwood), Edward Robinson (Sir John Bantam), Patrick Relph (John Tuppitt), Michael Vincent Jones (Lurcher), Sebastian Maclaine (Tom Strutt), Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra, c. Richard Bonynge.
Naxos 8.660447 [70:52]
While Madrid was enjoying the triumph of Chueca’s and Valverde’s La Gran Vía, London had a musical theatre sensation of its own – a native work that challenged in durability the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Dorothy became easily London’s longest-running nineteenth-century musical theatre work, lasting almost three years and 931 performances.
Its creators, librettist B. C. Stephenson (surname misspelled in the Naxos booklet) and composer Alfred Cellier, were not only collaborators but – unlike Gilbert and Sullivan – social friends too. Where Gilbert and Sullivan would scarcely cross the Thames together, Stephenson and Cellier actually sailed to Australia with each other. Yet this first recording of Dorothy confirms that the spark created by the conflicting temperaments of Gilbert and Sullivan was far from matched by the amiability of Stephenson and Cellier. Stephenson had already collaborated with Sullivan on The Zoo in 1875 but had little of Gilbert’s wit, while Cellier – as shown in the recent recording of The Mountebanks, written with Gilbert – was a workaday composer compared with the inspired Sullivan.
Dorothy‘s history is interesting. Cellier had collaborated with the prolific H. B. Farnie on Nell Gwynne, produced at Manchester’s Prince’s Theatre in 1876. Librettist and composer were dissatisfied with the result and agreed to take back their contributions. Farnie reworked his book with Robert Planquette, while Cellier plundered his score for Dorothy. Apart from a change of key, Wilder’s ballad ‘With such a dainty dame’ in Dorothy is musically unchanged from a soprano solo in Nell Gwynne.
Dorothy’s production was announced for London in 1884 but failed to materialise. Considering that Iolanthe was then current, it’s intriguing to hear verbal and musical echoes of that Gilbert and Sullivan work in Dorothy (tracks 4 and 6). By the time impresario George Edwardes decided to take a chance on Dorothy in 1886, Cellier was in Australia for a conducting engagement he hoped would provide respite from the tuberculosis that was increasingly consuming him. Dorothy was not only accepted for performance, but rehearsed, produced, revised, published and re-cast with its composer on the other side of the world.
The most significant post-première alteration – two to three weeks afterwards – was the addition of a number for handsome leading baritone C. Hayden Coffin. This was forged from an 1879 Cellier song ‘Old Dreams’ with words by novelist Sarah Doudney. (Visiting Viennese dance composer Eduard Strauss incidentally used it in 1885 in his Greeting Waltz on English Airs.) With new words by Stephenson, it became Dorothy‘s ‘Queen of my heart’ – the most popular baritone number of nineteenth-century British musical theatre.
Dorothy is an unashamed adaptation of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, its improbabilities reaching their height in the appearance of the local hunt in the middle of the night to provide a colourful ending to Act 2. As Raymond Walker’s booklet note tells us, critics greeted the music as pretty, graceful and charming. That it most certainly is in such numbers as the soprano’s ‘Be wise in time, O Phyllis mine’ and the waltz-quartet ‘You swear to be good and true’. Both are quoted in the Overture – another number added some time after the première and commendably tracked down for this recording.
Naxos offer no dialogue, but a libretto with dialogue is on line. The recording uses what is described as a “performing edition by Richard Bonynge”. Besides minor changes to the words, this means countless cuts from a couple of bars upwards. Considering Bonynge’s reputation as ballet conductor, it’s perhaps disappointing that these particularly affect the ballet music. Under renowned Viennese ballet-mistress Katti Lanner, dance was an important part of the original show – something Gilbert and Sullivan eschewed after their early Thespis. Bonynge’s cuts include the whole of the Act 2 Country Dance, with what is wrongly listed as such (track 16) being just the Act 2 Introduction. These cuts are the more disappointing when what remains shows Cellier’s graceful melodic gift and his considerable skill as orchestrator. An Act 3 chorus is also missing.
Bonynge’s snips may remove potential longueurs, but more forceful pacing might also have helped. As for the singing, it’s all perfectly adequate, with Bonynge’s current go-to soprano Majella Cullagh leading a team of otherwise young graduates of the Royal Northern College of Music. Among them I particularly noted mezzo-soprano Stephanie Maitland in her delightful Act 3 solo ‘The time has come’. Yet the singing generally lacks theatrical characterisation. The bailiff Lurcher, for instance, needs a genuine comedian rather than a college-trained tenor.
If the recording might thus have been better, it remains immensely valuable for letting us finally hear this delightful score. We owe great gratitude to Raymond Walker of Victorian Opera Northwest for giving it to us at all – and at Naxos’s bargain price too. With the recent release of The Mountebanks, it has been a remarkable few months for a composer previously completely in the shade of his good friend and associate Arthur Sullivan.
© Andrew Lamb and zarzuela.net, 2019