Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



PAUL McSHANE: It is interesting to compare Ruddigore with The Sorcerer. Both operas are set in an English country village in the nineteenth century. Their characters are generally ordinary people with whom a Savoy audience could identify. In each case, the principals are fairly evenly divided between nobility (Pointdexters, Sangazure and Murgatroyds) and common villagers. The choruses (excluding ghosts, of course) are villagers or city people - again, ordinary people such as you might have found in the audiences of the day. The niceties of manners and class distinctions permeate both operas. These similarities set them apart from the other operas.

When we took our survey a few months ago, 34 people preferred Ruddigore to Sorcerer, versus only 7 who liked Sorcerer better. In the rankings of "best" opera, 7 thought Ruddigore was better, with 3 dissenters. I should point out, however, that the Sorcerer camps included some of our more learned Savoynetters.

So, what has Ruddigore got that Sorcerer lacks? For a start, there are better and more developed characters (contrast Rose with Aline, Despard with Dr. Daly, Richard with Alexis, Mad Margaret with Constance, and you will see what I mean). Ruddigore is longer, but not too long, so there is more of it to enjoy. The dialogue is much better and more quote-worthy. Although I am not a musician's bootlace (just ask Bruce Miller!), I believe that the Ruddigore music is much better than that of Sorcerer. Where in Sorcerer will you find arias to equal those of Mad Margaret and of Sir Roderic? And it is interesting to note Sullivan's progression from Sorcerer's Act I courtly minuet and Act II quintette to the majestic madrigal in Ruddigore.

On the other side of the coin, Sorcerer has J. W. Wells (with perhaps the best patter-song in the canon), and I believe that, from a dramatic standpoint, Ruddigore suffers through the tradition of the typical Savoy comedian playing Robin.

BRUCE I. MILLER: OK, you hooked me on the musical comparison, Paul.

Ruddigore was composed by Sullivan ten years after Sorcerer, and in the intervening years his artistic growth was significant. Indeed, it can be strongly argued that Sullivan was in his peak creative years between about 1883 and 1890 (Ruddigore was written in 1887). Ruddigore, examined solely on a musical basis, is one of Sullivan's finest efforts - although the opera suffers from conceptual disagreements between Gilbert and Sullivan, who never fully reconciled their differences in this particular work.

Their fundamental disagreement over the treatment of the ghost scene is well known, and both lost the battle to an extent. Sullivan's musical treatment survived, much against Gilbert's wishes, but it was pared back considerably by the time it got to opening night. The concluding chorus, "He yields!" - which was, in fact, a late revision - shows probably the kind of treatment Gilbert would have preferred for the entire scene.

Less well known, but also significant, is their disagreement over the concluding patter song for Grossmith in this scene. The first one was "For thirty-five years I've been sober and wary", which Sullivan wrote for Grossmith to further Robin's timid character. It didn't work very well, and Gilbert wanted to replace it with something which would allow Robin to leave the stage in a fit of desperation. This was "Henceforth all the crimes that I find in the Times", but the musical setting for this, which also retained the identical introductory recitative "Away remorse", stayed stubbornly laid back - Sullivan could not or would not take Gilbert's unmistakable dramatic cue. It is this type of fundamental artistic dysfunction which mars Ruddigore and prevents it from being in the top rank of their output, however attractive individual elements are.

Sorcerer, on the other hand, sees them thinking much more alike. It is from Sullivan's earlier period - less profound, perhaps, but with youthful freshness and inspiration. The problem with Sorcerer's score is that he was writing in so sophisticated a style, and the musical parodies were so learned and subtle, that it went over the heads of much of their intended audience. The problem is compounded today because very few of us are familiar with the ballad opera style, which this piece parodies. Sullivan also used Sorcerer as a recitative tour de force - half seriously and half in jest. Again, this is the kind of humour which would tickle his musical friends but would be lost on the general public - then as well as now. Gilbert also aimed too high, and he admitted it - "not enough story" as he put it. I'm not certain I would agree that he didn't devote enough of the play to develop the characters; Sorcerer's dramatic problems, such as they are, are in other areas.

Page created 4 October 1997