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From the 1970s, Paul Seeley has held such responsibilities as repetiteur, accompanist, and management assistant at the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and is immersed in his subject. Richard D’Oyly Carte, who died in 1901, is mainly remembered as an impresario who enlivened Britain’s comic opera tradition while building theatres and hotels. Yet he had other goals in mind, too: namely to introduce a tradition of British grand opera on his native shores.

Like a Victorian hero in the Thomas Carlyle tradition of individual greatness, D’Oyly Carte began in 1870 by mishandling a concert tour of the ultra-famous tenor Mario, by then a weary sexagenarian. Unable to present the star soprano Adelina Patti, D’Oyly Carte settled for working with her sister Carlotta, a limping coloratura with a freakish vocal range. D’Oyly Carte was determined to offer the English public high-toned operatic entertainment, more dignified than racy Gallic treats by Offenbach and the like, which disappointed audiences if, as the Pall Mall Gazette noted in February 1875, they offered ‘neither nudity nor the can-can’.

D’Oyly Carte proceeded with an eye on the main chance and what one colleague termed a ‘Napoleonic estimate of individuals’. Even during the heyday of his Savoy Theatre, where audiences avidly consumed Gilbert and Sullivan, his doors were open to student productions from the Royal College of Music of such works as Luigi Cherubini’s Les deux journées, a serious opera which provided inspiration to Beethoven when he was composing Fidelio. As Savoyards know, even as Gilbert and Sullivan were producing such spectacular hits as The Mikado, they felt an incentive toward more sobriety. The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) is evaluated plausibly by Seeley as being by ‘a mature master using motifs and orchestral devices as skilfully as any of his contemporary opera composers.’

D’Oyly Carte’s ambitions for serious opera coincided with those of Sullivan, who was urged on by Queen Victoria, no less, to produce more substantial and austere fare. One result was Sullivan’s Romantic opera Ivanhoe. It was performed at D’Oyly Carte’s Royal English Opera House for a run of 161 performances, until potential ticket buyers were exhausted.

Eager for further new operas to present after Ivanhoe, he underestimated the amount of time needed to write them. Seeley alludes to an ‘unrealistic understanding of what a mammoth task it could be to compose a large serious operatic work.’ Disappointed with the deliberate progress of such now-forgotten efforts as Frederic Hymen Cowen’s Signa (1893) and Herman Bemberg’s Elaine (1892), D’Oyly Carte’s persistent faith in the value of bringing forth such operas was unaltered. He likely realised that, then as now, few new operas prove durable in the repertory. A final new work by Sullivan (without Gilbert), The Rose of Persia (1899), was staged at the Savoy Theatre. Exotica along the lines of Delibes’ Lakmé, it even offered a stratospheric coloratura display aria, ‘Neath My Lattice’. An apparently invented D’Oyly family motto in French read: ‘Hope for improvement strengthens me’. For D’Oyly Carte as an impresario, improvement inevitably meant grand opera, not just the light comic fare that made him immortal.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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