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"Love, The Housemaid, lights her kitchen fire"
The Sorcerer: Gilbert and Sullivan

by Alan D. Craxford

Introduction

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Sullivan (1)

WS Gilbert

W.S. Gilbert (2)

The names Gilbert and Sullivan evoke sentiments of a quintessentially Victorian England. Even if you do not know their work by name you will be familiar with the toe-tapping, whistle provoking musical entrances of the Lord High Executioner (“The Mikado”); the peers of the realm (“Iolanthe”) or the Tower Warders (“Yeomen of the Guard”). You will also know – although maybe not easily placed – such songs as “Take A Pair Of Sparkling Eyes” (“The Gondoliers”), “A Wand’ring Minstrel, I” (“The Mikado”) and “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One” (“Pirates Of Penzance”). The libretti and compositions have become woven into the fabric and historical memory of this country.

Depending on your definitions there are fourteen titles in the catalogue (including the now lost “Thespis”). The most popular of the ‘big five’ – and those now most frequently performed – are “The Mikado”, “HMS Pinafore”, “The Gondoliers”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “Iolanthe” .

“The Sorcerer” was the first full scale collaboration between William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan. It is not often performed these days and is quite short in comparison with later works. The story is quite light weight. The music is not particularly noteworthy. If you have only passing interest in these works, then this is one that you probably would not miss. However it is a fascinating piece from a lineage point of view and contains many signposts of what was to come. It is clearly a work that the enthusiast or serious collector will need to consider.

The plot

John Wellington Wells

John Wellington Wells (3)

The action takes place in and around the mansion of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre whose son, Alexis, has become engaged to Aline, the daughter of Lady Sangazure. It is also clear that Sir Marmaduke has aspirations towards Lady Sangazure. Meanwhile Constance, the daughter of Mrs Partlet – an assistant at the village church – holds unrequited love for Dr Daly the somewhat elderly bachelor vicar of the village.

Alexis is something of an idealist who believes that marriage should be for love and not for class or station. He has arranged for John Wellington Wells, the local Family Sorcerer, to prepare a love potion which will be given to all the villagers at the wedding feast. The effects will be to put the villagers to sleep and when they awake they will immediately fall in love with the first person of the opposite sex that they see. This Wells does, mixing the philtre in a large pot of tea.

After the potion has been administered, Alexis tries to persuade Aline to take a drink herself. She refuses saying that trust should be sufficient to keep them together. Alexis storms off in a temper. When the villagers awake, they do indeed fall in love … with the not-unexpected result … with the wrong people. As increasing mayhem ensues Aline drinks from the bottle and falls asleep.

Everyone gathers in the village square. Sir Marmaduke is paired with Mrs Partlet, Constance has fallen for a very elderly notary who has come to witness the wedding, Aline awakes and is immediately attracted to Dr Daly. Wells himself wanders into the midst of the chaos only to be propositioned by Lady Sangazure. After much heartache and argument, Wells tells the crowds that either Alexis or he must sacrifice himself to the Devil in order to break the spell. Aline pleads for Alexis’ life – the company agree that Wells must make the sacrifice, who then exits (stage left) to do so.

The spell is broken, everyone gets back to the one they were supposed to be with. Sir Marmaduke calls for another celebratory feast.

Gilbert and Sullivan history

George Grossmith

George Grossmith (4)

Gilbert and Sullivan were brought together by Richard D’Oyly Carte in 1875 in a collaboration that was to produce a short curtain-raiser for the Offenbach opera “La Perichole”. This was to become “Trial By Jury” which ran for over 200 performances over the next two years.

The outstanding and, to some, unexpected success of “Trial By Jury” led D’Oyly Carte to believe that there could be a renaissance of English Light Opera (a format at that time dominated by French composers) and that this could be driven by Gilbert (the librettist) and Sullivan (the composer). He founded an organisation “The Comedy Opera Company” to seek capital and backing. In November 1877 a new opera “The Sorcerer” opened at the Opera Comique Theatre off the Strand. Carte paid Gilbert and Sullivan an advance of two hundred guineas.

At the same time, Carte gave Gilbert a controlling hand in casting, costumes, decoration and staging. Gilbert himself was almost tyrannical in his direction of the performances of the operettas. This was particularly expressed in the choice of the lead comic baritone. Gilbert had seen a minor entertainer and court reporter (one George Grossmith) play in amateur productions. An audition was set up and he was engaged. It is reputed that Grossmith said to Gilbert: “I should have thought you required a fine man with a fine voice”, to which the reply came “That is exactly what we don’t want”. Grossmith proved an immediate success on the opening night. Since then the major roles were filled by actors who could sing rather than singers who could act.

The background

Gilbert always had a weakness for complicated twists in the plot (described as the “Topsy-turveydom” of later productions) and also for elixirs, philtres and magic lozenges. In “The Sorcerer” these are manifest in a quite simple and rudimentary way but were to come back to haunt Sullivan in preliminary drafts of later libretti.

As mentioned above, this operetta does not contain many songs that immediately catch the audience and then cling to the memory. The tunes and the rhythms are pleasant enough but are soon lost. There are however a number of landmark first appearances. This contains the first true “patter” song – an idea which was to be repeated with great effect in each subsequent composition. There are also a number of cast types which again reappear in different guises in later operas – the handsome tenor lead (Nanki-Poo, Ralph Rackstraw), the winsome young soprano, the larger (and probably ugly) contralto (Katisha), the comic baritone.

The songs and stage performances

The Sorcerer: an illustration from the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

"The Sorcerer" (the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive)

The Sorcerer: Carl Rosa Opera tour 2006 (part)

Carl Rosa Programme

There is a short quite jolly overture that leads into the opening chorus. There are a number of songs by the leading soloists as well as a varying combination of duets, trios and ensembles.

The only song of note is the patter song that introduces Mr Wells, the Sorcerer:
“My Name is John Wellington Wells, I’m A Dealer In Magic and Spells”

The words and music of this song can be found on the following Web Opera Page of the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
(Clicking on the midi file on that page should open your media player and start the melody. To return here close the media player and then press the [BACK] button of your browser)

Performances of the “The Sorcerer” opera started to tail off with the success and increasing popularity of the later offerings. Rarely staged in the 1930s, the sets were destroyed during World War II and were not replaced. There have been occasional professional stagings since the 1970s.

I have never seen “The Sorcerer” live. I did note advertisements for an amateur season a couple of years ago in York. The Carl Rosa Opera Company have however included it in the itinerary for their UK tour starting in the Autumn 2006.


Continued in column 2...

Other resources

'The Sorcerer' cover from the D'Oyly Carte CD collection

The CD

The Sorcerer was recorded for the Decca / London series at a time when it was not in the D’Oyly Carte Company’s repertoire. This was a specially staged studio recording made in 1966. Although recorded forty years ago, it comes from the hey-day of D’Oyly Carte as an institution. John Reed is the fifth in a line going directly back to George Grossmith of comic baritones. He has followed the tradition with the Company by playing all the leading comedian roles over three decades (1951 to 1979). His diction in even the fastest of the patter songs defied belief for its clarity. The other soloists are all competent in their roles. The orchestral sound is crisp, clear and bright.

This performance is coupled with a recording of “The Zoo”, a one-act operetta by Sullivan in partnership with librettist Bolton Rowe (the pen name of B.C. Stephenson). “Trial By Jury” had been a considerable success some months earlier and this one opened at the St. James's Theatre on June 5, 1875. After a brief run and an even briefer revival in 1879, the opera was not given again in Sullivan's lifetime. The manuscript was thought lost until found in a bank vault. This performance was recorded in 1978.

A Gilbert & Sullivan Libretto. 'The Sorcerer'

Libretto

THE SORCERER - Gilbert & Sullivan (1966)

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Conducted by Isidore Godfrey
Soloists: John Reed (John Wellington Wells); David Palmer (Alexis)
Donald Adams (Sir Marmaduke); Valerie Masterson (Aline)
Christine Palmer (Lady Sangazure); Ann Hood (Constance)

THE ZOO – Sullivan (1978)
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Conducted by Royston Nash

CD: LONDON 436807-2

The album is currently labelled ‘unavailable’ at the regular sites but this full series of Gilbert and Sullivan recordings is being remastered and reissued in April 2003. It is still available in limited quantities from the on-line store of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

LIBRETTO

“The Sorcerer”
International Music Publications Ltd (1993)

THE VIDEO

'The Sorcerer' from The BBC DVD collection

The BBC DVD

Clive Revill

Clive Revill (5)

George Walker directed a series of ten specially staged productions (originally for the BBC in 1982) which is offered both a single DVDs and as a boxed set from Amazon (America). They may still be available in VHS format in the UK. The series took guest stars (actors and comedians) and added a professional orchestra and chorus. The DVDs (released during 2002) are available only as Region 1 discs. As far as I am aware there is no other complete set of performances.

“The Sorcerer” is a very reasonable offering given my comments above and adheres to the libretto. The “special effects” are perhaps more reminiscent of “Dr Who” than “Star Wars”! Clive Revill (a New Zealand actor who has played many supporting roles in films such as “Modesty Blaise” and “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” and was also the voice of the Emperor in "Star Wars") is very good in the role of John Wellington Wells. Donald Adams repeats his role as Sir Marmaduke.

Each act of the opera is introduced by Douglas Fairbanks Junior. The DVD also has a storyboard essay on “the Life and Times of Gilbert and Sullivan”. There is a brief (less than five minute featurette) on “The Making of The Sorcerer”.

“The Sorcerer” ACORN MEDIA DVD (2002) AMP 5394


G&S trivia spot

”J. W. Wells & Co. specialize in necromancy in all its branches. We've a choice assortment of wishing-caps, divining-rods, amulets, charms, and counter-charms. Also, we provide prophecies, blessings, and curses to London's most respected families.” This most amusing parody of a company website is at JW WELLS & CO, Family Sorcerers


Footnote

The first version of this article originally appeared on CIAO on March 27th 2003.


References

1. Sir Arthur Sullivan A Wikipedia article
2. W.S. Gilbert An article on Wikipedia
3. John Wellington Wells constructs his love philtre in a tea pot. BAILEY. L: "Gilbert & Sullivan and their world" Thames & Hudson Ltd (1973)
4. George Grossmith. The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
5. Clive Revill. Star Wars Insider


BACK TO "An Appreciation of Gilbert & Sullivan (in 14 parts)"


Page added - October 23rd 2005
Last updated - April 26th 2019



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