Dynamic Duo

I’ve never yet met an englishman who didn’t loathe Gilbert and Sullivan. Perhaps that explains why their classic Victorian operettas no longer thrive in the land of their birth, at least since the D’Oyly Carte company, the chief custodian of the canon, fell on evil days. Americans, on the other hand, continue to adore these tuneful satires, and the time has come once again to pay them homage. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players are currently in residence at Symphony Space through January, as they are annually, performing G&S with the undiminished enthusiasm and loving care that have characterized the group’s approach since it was founded in 1974. I caught the double bill of Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer, which has just ended its run before yielding the stage to the more familiar pleasures of The Mikado. The Trial production was something of a departure for nygasp, which generally takes a traditionalist approach and frowns on fanciful gimmicks. Here, however, Gilbert’s antic court of law was updated from 1875 to 1925, and the lively direction by Mary Lou Barber and Stephen Quint (who also played the Learned Judge, who settles a breach-of-promise suit by marrying the plaintiff himself) took full advantage of the time change. The jilted bride and her inane bridesmaids seemed just that much more hilarious when portrayed as brainless flappers, while the questionable ethics of everyone else onstage fit very naturally into the free-and-easy morality of the Roaring Twenties.

For The Sorcerer, the pair’s earliest surviving two-act work, nygasp sensibly stayed in period. It’s a shame we see the piece so infrequently, since Gilbert’s parody is so on target – a devastating look at small-town British prejudices and social snobbery. The “love-philtre” administered in spiked tea to the entire village by a friendly family sorcerer, John Wellington Wells, effectively turns the town topsy-turvy as everyone falls in love with the wrong person. The wide-eyed innocence of the lilting music makes the satirical barbs that much more pointed, while Sullivan’s sly send-ups of bel canto conventions and Victorian sentimentality were never more apt or wittily done.

Both operettas were impeccably cast and enchantingly sung. Now that most of New York’s small opera companies have folded, nygasp has its pick of the city’s best young vocal talent to mix and match with its seasoned veterans. Among the latter, Stephen O’Brien’s razor-sharp John Wellington Wells and Keith Jurosko’s exquisitely detailed Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre were performances to relish. Staged and conducted by the company’s indefatigable founder, Albert Bergeret, this stylish production sparkled from start to finish.

Surely the most grandly scaled yet curiously underreported celebration of last year’s Bach festivities was John Eliot Gardiner’s traversal of the composer’s surviving sacred cantatas – all 200 of them. Throughout 2000, Gardiner and his musical forces, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, visited different churches to perform the cantatas on the liturgical days for which they were composed, with the final concert having taken place in New York City on December 31 at St. Bartholomew’s. Even more ambitious than this huge undertaking was Deutsche Grammophon’s promise to record all the cantatas under Gardiner, an unheard of extravagance these days as the once proud major classical labels cut back, cancel contracts, trim budgets, and focus on lucrative crossover ventures.

But DG failed to keep its promise, and no one who follows the classical-record scene could have been surprised. Apparently the deep pockets of Alberto Vilar, whose generosity helped make the tour possible, have a bottom after all, and the project was scaled back to twelve CDs, a sampling of some 35 cantatas, on the company’s Archiv label.

It’s sad. A decade ago, Gardiner was just one of DG’s star conductors who could record about anything they pleased, but that era seems gone for good. With a few high-profile exceptions, important classical musicians who want to have their work recorded must now either make deals with smaller, less prestigious independent companies or find financing themselves. And that is precisely what Gardiner has done. His complete Bach “pilgrimage” has been privately recorded for future distribution to schools and other educational facilities, but there are no plans to make the discs available to the general public.

Of course, one could argue that the saturation point has been reached for Bach cantatas on disc, and further recordings are not desperately needed. Two complete period-instrument versions are already on hand – the pioneering Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Gustav Leonhardt edition on Teldec, and a set directed by Helmut Rilling on Hännsler Classic – and two more, led by Ton Koopman (Erato) and Masaaki Suzuki (BIS), are under way. Even so, the Gardiner performances on these twelve CDs put this wonderful music into such a fresh musical perspective that DG’s reluctance to record the entire series seems the more regrettable.

If I had to settle for just a single disc out of the dozen, it would probably be the one devoted to four Ascension Day cantatas, Nos. 11, 37, 43, and 128 (Archiv 463 583-2). The emotional range of this music is astonishing, reflecting the joyous post-Easter spirit, the mystical nature of the Resurrection, and Bach’s own personal sorrow at life’s transient nature – the composer lost five of his children during the ten-year span between cantatas No. 37 and No. 11, and the pain is audible. Gardiner projects all of this with stunning specificity, whether reveling in the dazzling choral and instrumental virtuosity of the opening chorus to No. 37 or elegantly shaping the sinuous lines of the more introspective arias. This is Bach performance on the highest level, and it’s a pity that the grim realities of today’s record industry prevent us from hearing more.

Trial by Jury
Directed by Mary Lou Barber and Stephen Quint.
The Sorcerer
Directed by Albert Bergeret.
The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players; conducted by Albert Bergeret.

Dynamic Duo