Archive for November, 2014

Review: The Pirates of Finance

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Note: This review was posted to Savoynet on July 16, 2013.

Last night was the premiere of The Pirates of Finance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The show was written by Hartford, Connecticut, resident Charles Veley, to a Sullivan score. The work has been under development for the past several years, with amateur performances at the G&S Festival in Gettysburg, and a reading by the Blue Hill Troupe in New York. This is its first professional production.

As the show begins, Frederick Freemarket (Preston Ellis) has just become CEO of the family investment company, which he inherited upon his uncle’s sudden demise. The company is worth twelve billion dollars, but its bank accounts are frozen due to over-leveraged investments in derivatives. Trying to help him out of this mess, are Clara Calculor, the CFO (Deborah Jean Templin); and Prudence Peergroup, the head of HR (Amber Nicole Guest).

Bill Brilliant (Jacob Thompson), the IT geek, thinks he can get the firm out of its predicament with his latest invention, the Cash Machine, a program trading system that looks like a NASA satellite. Except: he hasn’t quite got all the bugs out of it.

On Frederick’s first day as CEO, the lovely Elsie Gardener (Heather Lunstedt) shows up and asks for a job as the company nutritionist. (The script has more nutrition jokes than you ever thought possible.) Frederick falls instantly in love with her, and hires her on the spot, though we soon learn she’s hiding a dark secret. After Elsie spurns his advances, Frederick bans office romance across the company, to the frustration of Bill and Prudence, who are in a relationship, unbeknownst to their colleagues. Bill woos Prudence with hilarious Ralph Rackstrawish dialogue, as spoken by an IT nerd.

If those weren’t enough troubles, Frederick learns that he owns only half the company, and J. Geoffrey Behemoth (Christopher DeAngelis), a corporate raider, has bought the other half. He turns up with a chorus of comely analysts, sings the expected patter song, and reveals his evil plan to force Frederick out, take over the company, and put the Cash Machine to nefarious use.

The story ends with the usual Gilbertian twist — a few of them, actually — and by the finale, the whole company pair off, in Savoy fashion. The satire isn’t subtle, and with its reference to risky mortgage-backed securities, feels a bit dated already. But the production (in two acts, and a shade over two hours) sails along, thanks to Gary Slavin’s buoyant direction and witty choreography. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling, not even for a moment.

The music is drawn from the scores of eight G&S operas, especially Pirates and Iolanthe. The company posted brief excerpts on YouTube, which give a sense of the large concerted passages. After watching that clip, you’ll see links to a number of rehearsal videos, which feature actor interviews and other brief musical excerpts.

Just about all the material for the analysts is terrific, especially an “Andrews Sisters”-esque trio at the beginning of Act II, set to “We are dainty little fairies” from Iolanthe. Midway through Act II, a chorus of SEC regulators stopped the show. You read that right. The big ensembles are almost all successful, but the piece ends weakly, with an unimpressive Act II finale.

The capable orchestra consists of two keyboards, violin/viola, and percussion. A G&S fan shouldn’t have much trouble identifying the tunes (they’re listed in the program too), but they won’t all come to you immediately, as many of them are considerably transformed, and deployed in unexpected ways.

As a poet, author Charles Veley isn’t a Gilbert, but who is? Some of the lyrics are noticeably force-fit, perhaps as many as half. Even where that’s the case, the sparkling direction and energetic ensemble cast (mostly Equity) carry the day. I’m not going to critique performers individually, but the men’s diction was generally better than the women’s, and there is one performer that I’d replace entirely due to her diction. Fortunately, it was not on her to carry the show.

Costume Designers Anne Auberjonois and Amy Price dress the cast smartly in modern clothes. The unit set by David Goldstein consists mainly of a desk on wheels and movable partitions that the actors push around. Goldstein’s lighting missed its mark occasionally, but perhaps this will be corrected for later performances.

Overall, it is a great success for the company, and well worth seeing. Tickets are only $25, and there are three remaining performances: Thursday at 5pm and 9pm, Saturday at 9pm, in the Alice Griffin Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street near Tenth Avenue.

he Mountebanks: New Edition of the Full Score

Saturday, November 15th, 2014
The Mountebanks, Full Score
Robin Gordon-Powell and J. Donald Smith, eds.
London: The Amber Ring, 2013
Two Volumes, with an Introduction

Robin Gordon-Powell and J. Donald Smith have recently published a new edition of the full score of The Mountebanks under Gordon-Powell’s “Amber Ring” imprint, which has been responsible for numerous path-breaking Sullivan editions, including the scores of The ContrabandistaIvanhoeThe Beauty Stone, and numerous orchestral works. The latter two operatic editions formed the basis for recent professional recordings. Perhaps, one of these days soon, The Mountebanks will follow.

The edition became possible when Smith acquired Alfred Cellier’s manuscript score from the estate of the late Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, who, much like Fafner in Wagner’s Ring, chose during his lifetime to sit on his hoard without telling anyone or doing anything with it.

The manuscript alone would have been enough to form the basis of an edition, but Smith tracked down multiple sets of orchestral parts and pre-production libretti, all of which differ from each other and the manuscript, as do the two published vocal scores. Smith also tracked down the performance history of the opera beyond the original London run (on tour in Britain, in Australia, and in America), which is itself a fascinating story not fully documented before. Smith explains all of this in a detailed introduction, copiously footnoted.

Making sense of so many conflicting sources cannot have been an easy job. When Gordon-Powell agreed to the project, I suspect he little reckoned what he was in for. It was certainly not due to commercial demand, since there has not been a full production with orchestra since the 1960s, nor are any in the offing. But a full production is not possible without orchestra parts, and these haven’t been readily available since D’Oyly Carte withdrew the piece from the rental market decades ago. If there is to be a Mountebanks revival, this score makes it now possible.

(After I posted the above to Savoynet, Ian Bond posted one correction: “One very obvious error made by Marc in this is that there has been at least one full production of MOUNTEBANKS with full orchestral accompaniment since the 1960′s, that by Ramsgate Operatic (Kent UK) in 1982 for which musical director James Gillespie transcribed a set of band parts from an original set owned by a private individual in Australia. Mr Gillespie made the trip to Australia specifically to copy the parts. Sadly his dedication did not pay off in terms of performance as the production was at best mediocre and at worst utterly dire. There we two other productions that I have a note of, one by the Polytechnic Operatic Society of London in 1968 and the other by the University of London Opera Group in 1992 – the latter was with two pianos (which was also available on video) –I do not have information about the Polytechnic production so do not know if an orchestra was used.”)

Alfred Cellier, the composer of The Mountebanks, died before opening night, leaving the house musical director, Ivan Caryll to finish the score. Smith has demonstrated that practically all of the music was Cellier’s, although Caryll completed some of the orchestrations and made the usual alterations required in practically any stage work as it proceeds through the last rehearsals and faces the reactions of an audience.

The edition offers every note in any of the extant sources, including some alternate endings in Caryll’s hand and passages reconstructed from the parts that are lacking in the manuscript. Variants are explained in the introduction and in footnotes throughout the score. To the director seeking to revive the opera would fall the complex task of deciding which version to perform and to mark up old vocal scores, since the Amber Ring has not published a companion vocal score for this edition. For the most part, the edition is neutral about which version of The Mountebanks is best: it is up to each interpreter to decide.

There is one significant blunder. There are several alternative passages for Act I that are presented as appendices to the second volume, which contains Act II. I can scarcely imagine the logic for printing these passages, presumably to allow them to be performed, but putting them in a different volume than the rest of the material to which they are connected. For the conductor who wanted to use this material, swapping volumes for just a few pages of score would be extremely inconvenient. The edition is not consistent in this regard: an alternative ending to Act I, No. 6, in Ivan Caryll’s hand, is printed in the first volume, immediately after the ending Cellier wrote. All of the alternative passages should have been handled this way. At the very least, the Act I appendices should have been printed at the end of the first volume.

The editor of a scholarly edition of a comparatively obscure opera faces a dilemma: should he try to “make a case” for the work, or simply present the facts of its gestation and allow the reader to judge? In his introduction, Smith doesn’t quite make a full-throated defense of the opera, but he leans in that direction, and it doesn’t quite add up. He says that the sources “reveal a picture of a master playwright and lyricist at work to create a coherent entertainment,” while saying nothing about the libretto’s abundant examples of incoherence. Like most late Gilbert, this libretto sprawls and meanders, lacking the tight focus of Gilbert’s best work. This fact (I think few would dispute it) goes unacknowledged. Smith says that Sullivan rejected the libretto repeatedly for “alleged artificiality,” at least insinuating that Sullivan’s allegation might not be fair, but he doesn’t explore the point.

It is hardly surprising that the introduction describes the opera as “unjustly neglected” and “certainly…an equal to Sullivan’s operas with other librettists.” But Sullivan’s operas with other librettists are themselves anything but equal to one another, so I am not sure what to make of this.

If there’s a case to be made for The Mountebanks, it requires productions and recordings, preferably good ones, and this edition now makes them possible. Don Smith and Robin Gordon-Powell are to be commended for undertaking this Herculean effort, essentially on spec. Of the music itself I have little more to add, except that it is attractively typeset with Gordon-Powell’s usual typographic beauty and exemplary attention to detail.

Broude Brothers Pinafore Vocal Score Critical Edition Published

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

H.M.S. Pinafore
Critical Edition of the Vocal Score
Edited by Percy M. Young
Broude Brothers Limited: New York & Williamstown, 2012
xvii+300 pages

Broude Brothers has, at long last, published the companion vocal score to go with the critical edition of the full score that appeared in 2003. I’m a member of the editorial board of Broude project, and I also made a number of specific contributions to this volume. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to review it. I can, however, tell you what it is, and try to describe the audience to whom it would be useful.

Like the Oxford University Press Ruddigore (ed. David Russell Hulme), the Broude Pinafore relies on original sources and is skeptical about admitting 20th-century performance practice that is not attested in earlier documents. Obviously, the history of the two works couldn’t be more different. After an inauspicious first run, Ruddigore sat on the shelf for over thirty years before Rupert D’Oyly Carte brought it back to life. As the authors never touched the work again, it is comparatively easy to distinguish what Gilbert & Sullivan wrote, from what Harry Norris and Geoffrey Toye decided, decades later, that they ought to have written.

Pinafore, in contrast, was never out of the repertory. There were many changes over the years, but it is difficult to say when. And it is just as difficult to say which textual readings Gilbert & Sullivan actively preferred, those that might have entered the text on tour during their lifetimes without their participation, and those that changed after their deaths.

It is my personal view that much of the performance tradition was transmitted orally, and a traditional reading is not necessarily corrupt, just because it is not attested in any document that passed through the authors’ hands. Nevertheless, the Broude editors’ skepticism is entirely justified, and I think many scholars would take the same approach. When a tradition isn’t attested in documents, it becomes mere guesswork as to what Gilbert & Sullivan might have approved of.

What makes the Broude Pinafore and the Oxford Ruddigore similar, is that in both cases the editions contain many readings that will be unfamiliar to those who’ve come to rely on modern scores. So I wouldn’t recommend either edition to a performing group, unless you are prepared to mandate that everyone use that edition, or unless the musical director is willing to prepare and circulate errata lists.

The edition is also of interest to those curious about the textual history of the work, or who would like to know precisely what is or is not authentic in the standard scores. The vocal score contains considerably less background material than Broude’s companion full score (which currently sells for $300). Nevertheless, there are 40-odd pages of introduction and critical apparatus. In contrast, the Oxford Ruddigore vocal score has no introduction or apparatus at all.

The suppressed passages for Cousin Hebe and the original recitative preceding the Act II finale are offered as appendices, and there are three alternate endings (the original one, “Rule Britannia,” and the 20th-century ending). However, the volume does not include the same publisher’s edition of the suppressed ballad for Captain Corcoran, “Reflect, my child,” discovered and reconstructed by Bruce Miller and Helga Perry, which remains available separately.

Broude uses a very leisurely typographical style that is easy on the eyes, but requires a lot of page turns. Not counting prefatory material and appendices, there are 255 pages of score, including dialogue, as compared to the Dover score’s 212 pages (also with dialogue), the Schirmer score’s 167 pages (with dialogue), or the most recent Cramer score’s 150 pages (without dialogue).

The Broude Brothers vocal score costs $25.00 and is available from the publisher (broudebrothers at verizon.net or 800-525-8559).