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 Contrabandista, Ivanhoe, The 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.