About this Recording
8.223460 - SULLIVAN: Ile Enchantee (L') / Thespis

Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900)
Ile Enchantee (L’) • Thespis


Arthur Sullivan returned to England from his studies at the Leipzig Conservatoire in 1861. His diploma work—a set of incidental music to Shakespeare’s Tempest—was performed the following year and won immediate recognition for the nineteen-year-old composer. His success was something of an embarrassment to the musical establishment—how should they capitalise on such success? He soon established a reputation for ballads and art songs and he took the post as organist of a fashionable West End church. He was known to be working on a symphony and there were rumours of a grand opera. Despite this his only regular musical employment was as an organist and general music factotum behind the scenes at Covent Garden.

In the late 19th century it was Covent Garden’s policy to insert a ballet in any opera that did not possess one, and either used an existing work or commissioned a new one. This led to Sullivan’s second work, a ballet score entitled L’lle Enchantée, and it made its debut on Monday May 16th, 1864 as the divertissement at the end of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. It attracted much favourable comment and Sullivan decided to shorten its thirteen sections, changed the order, and managed to have it included in concert programmes at Crystal Palace. However within three years, Covent Garden, Crystal Palace and the composer had between them totally lost the autograph score. Fortunately a set of orchestral parts existed, and these have now been edited by Roderick Spencer and Selwyn Tillett, and they have restored the passages cut by Sullivan for concert performances in order to recreate the original ballet score. In June 1990 the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society Festival staged the first performance since 1867, and this is the world première recording.

The story of the ballet is a slight one. A shipwrecked mariner is washed up on the shore of an enchanted island peopled only by gnomes and fairies. The fairy queen is so taken with him that she transports him to her magic bower, where most of the other fairies also fall in love with him. Despite temptations by one more persistent than the rest, he has eyes for no-one but the queen, and eventually makes her mortal by a kiss.

It is in thirteen sections and must certainly have formed quite a large part of the evening’s performance. Sullivan left a delightful description of the way such music had to be tailored to fit the movement of scenery at Covent Garden, and he even responded to a request to include a few bars to depict the beautiful scenery.

Sullivan began his famous collaboration with W. S. Gilbert at the Gaiety Theatre in the 1860’s. The Gaiety subsisted on a mixture of extravaganza and burlesque, the theatre’s staging and spectacle being particularly lavish at Christmas when a new operatic novelty was produced—effectively a superior pantomime. On Boxing Day 1871 Gilbert and Sullivan produced Thespis or The Gods Grown Old, an “opera” which dealt flamboyantly with a troupe of strolling players required to assume the duties of the gods of Mount Olympus for a year. The famous comedian-singer, J.L. Toole, starred as Thespis, the leader of the troupe, with a railway song that was an enormous success. Nelly Farren, another popular member of the Gaiety Theatre, was the chirpy Mercury, while Sullivan’s brother Fred was the ageing Apollo. In common with all mock opera-bouffes, an interpolated ballet allowed the theatre’s professional dancers to show off their legs.

The speed with which the work had to be produced—Gilbert indicated that writing, rehearsal and production took no longer than five weeks—demanded that Sullivan should plunder his previous compositions to find sufficient music for the evening. How much was original we will never know.

Despite playing longer than most of that year’s London pantomimes, Thespis was not a lasting success. Charitable critics complained that Gilbert’s text was too erudite for a Gaiety audience, while the costumes were “more than usually indecent”. In the following heyday of their ultra-respectable Savoy Theatre, both Gilbert and Sullivan conveniently forgot their earlier days in burlesque. One song from Thespis did find its way into print and a chorus was transplanted into The Pirates of Penzance. Otherwise even in Sullivan’s lifetime the music was known to have “disappeared”. He is believed to have claimed that the best part of it had been used up in other works. Consequently many attempted reconstructions have simply re-set Gilbert’s original words to Sullivan’s melodies from later operas, but true fragments of the original score have been sought in vain.

It was while assembling the papers referring to his second ballet Victoria and Merrie England that his secretary Wilfred Bendall included a manuscript whose heading read “Act 2. Ballet No. 1”. In the L’lle Enchantee collection he also included—in the hand of the same copyist as the part included in Victoria two pieces describing themselves as “Act 2. Ballet No. 3” and “Galop”. Of these only the “Galop” was known to belong to L’lle, but here it appears in a truncated score for a small pit orchestra rather than in the version for large forces used at Covent Garden. These three pieces, though they were now separated, were clearly identified by their page numbers as being Nos. 1, 3 and 5 of a ballet, but from the page numbers the length of Nos. 2 and 4 could be calculated.

The designation “Act 2” shows this ballet belonged to some kind of opera, for Sullivan divided his early ballets into “scenes”, while his incidental music for plays is well documented. Indeed the only opera—if we can call it that—to which this could belong is Thespis. Final confirmation of this piece of detective work comes in the only undoubted part of Thespis—the opening of the chorus “Climbing over rocky mountains” which forms part of the autograph score of The Pirates of Penzance, and that is in the hand of the same copyist. Examining drawings of the Thespis rehearsals revealed the presence of a harp, most unusual in an orchestra at the Gaiety, and also of a comic dragon scene. There is another dragon scene in Victoria which used the music from scene 4 of L’lle, while the use of harp and the length of the piece would fit perfectly with part of the second section of L’lle. The lost ballet from Thespis could at last be reconstructed, and now it receives its first recording.

Selwyn Tilett

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