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Professor Taylor, who teaches the philosophy and history of music at the University of Edinburgh, notes: ‘Arthur Sullivan’s operas based on W S Gilbert’s librettos occupy a strange and to some extent bewildering place in 19th-century music.’ Indeed, despite semi-successful exports of Pirates of Penzance to Germany, where a public voracious for opera will accept most things, G & S have largely baffled Italian audiences after initial 19th-century tours of The Mikado, while France, despite the composer Henry Barraud’s efforts to have Mikado broadcast on national radio en traduction française in the 1960s, remains far from Savoyards. Gilbert’s devilishly untranslatable wit aside, is Sullivan’s music of a quality to please operaphiles worldwide?

The author offers some plausible arguments that Sullivan’s music, including the G&S canon, is rather more varied than is generally thought. Undoubtedly reactionary – Sullivan opined in 1885 that German music after Schumann and Italian opera after Donizetti held no interest – the Savoy Operas reflect diverse origins. In Pirates of Penzance alone, Taylor traces influences from and allusions to waltz-songs by Meyerbeer and Gounod, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore, and Verdi’s Il trovatore. From early on, the partnership with Gilbert meant the creation of a ‘superior type of operatic burlesque, achieved by parodying not only the plots of earlier operas but in further offering original musical parodies at a level often equal to that of the opera parodied’.

Arguments are offered for re-evaluating even Sullivan’s grand operas, including Ivanhoe (1891), set to a libretto by Julian Sturgis after Walter Scott. Less persuasive is the rationalisation that listeners should accept Ivanhoe despite the fact that it has ‘its fair share of longueurs (which opera doesn’t?).’ Professor Taylor needs no reminding that anyone’s list of longueur-less operas might include Fidelio, Magic Flute and La bohème, among others.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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