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General Thoughts About the Opera
Bill McCann wrote: So what about The Sorcerer then ? Bruce Miller has already fired a shot across all our bows in the Pinafore discussion when he wrote during the HMS Pinafore discussions:-
"After the Trial By Jury furore, they aimed higher and Sorcerer was the result; but they had misjudged their public, and in particular it was Sullivan's error. His humor was so sophisticated that only the musical sophisticates could appreciate it, and he didn't make that mistake again. So Gilbert gave Pinafore more "story", and Sullivan wrote fewer oratorio/opera-like recitatives. But they still lacked the sure touch displayed in later operas." Marc Shepherd replied: Bruce, you're almost suggesting that Sorcerer was a relative failure. In fact, my impression is that it was judged a fine success in its time. True, it was eclipsed by Pinafore and the later operas, but in its own day, I think Sorcerer was considered a hit. The fact that they kept bringing it back (not once, but multiple times) suggests that they found nothing in it to be ashamed of, although the extensive 1884 revisions demonstrate that the original version had some weaknesses. However, I am not aware that Sullivan did anything to remove any of the musical sophistication; indeed, the 1884 revisions added sophistication.
Bruce Miller replied: I'm glad you modified the sentence with "almost." I was suggesting that Sorcerer, in its first run, enjoyed no more than a mild success; better than Thespis by twice as much, but in the long run it was not considered anything more than a "fine" success, which I will grant you. Grossmith and a few of the cast certainly scored, but the tunes of Sorcerer were not played on many barrel organs that I've heard about (perhaps a few were devoted to "My name is John Wellington Wells.") It was given respect by the critics, and it certainly didn't close immediately, but I wouldn't exactly call it a hit in 1877-88 the way Trial By Jury had been. Pinafore, on the other hand, developed into an authentic hit.
Don't get me wrong; I like Sorcerer a lot. But the only time it really could be called anything like a hit was in the 1884 revival, when G & S were at their peak of popularity (pace Princess Ida), there were established stars in the roles, and the public was better acquainted with their style. However, don't forget that in 1884 Sorcerer was paired with Trial By Jury, and that it didn't have an especially long run even then. As to the 1884 revisions, they were more sophisticated but they were also a lot of fun, appealing to the audience in a way the succession of recitatives never did. The next revival in London had to wait for Sorcerer's 21st anniversary, so the "multiple" revival suggestion is just barely under the wire before Sullivan's death. By that time it was so far in the past that when Sullivan conducted the first performance, he admitted he had forgotten how some of it went and had to follow the score carefully. So much for memorability. And you'll also recall that although they planned to revive it in New York when they came over for Pinafore and Pirates, they got cold feet and didn't. Surely they would have if they anticipated a hit.
Bruce Miller later added: My overall opinion of Sorcerer may not be clear, as the quotation from an earlier posting had to do with its popularity with the public in relation to Trial By Jury and Pinafore. On its own merits, it is delightful - not as inspired as the pieces which preceded and succeeded it, but it does have many virtues. It feels fresh, and has a vitality missing from the last two operas in the collaboration. Gilbert was admirably concise, and Sullivan was still youthful in his approach - and obviously was enjoying writing comic opera. Many of the individual musical numbers and dialogue sequences are right on the mark. But IMHO the individual parts are greater than the whole. The authors were still finding their way, and they hadn't become as proficient in their craft as they soon would be. And, as I mentioned earlier, much of the musical humour and wit in Sorcerer was on a level which eluded a good part of their audience (although for connoisseurs it's a different matter). Some of the miscalculations were remedied in the rewrite for the 1884 revival. It is worth noting that they did feel it necessary to do more rewriting, by far, for the first revival than for their later operas. In my own hierarchy, I definitely place it among the winners in the series, though near the bottom in order of preference. The proportion of successful to non-successful work in G & S is definitely weighted to the former, which one reason why we (I assume I'm speaking for must of us) love G & S - even the less successful operas have great moments. Sorcerer has many such moments.
To which Neil Ellenoff replied: What you write is I believe true. However, to me UL and GD are much more interesting. The satire is better, the plot in Utopia is better. I think the music is better. I do believe that a successful production of either one requires the scalpel and in the case of The Grand Duke perhaps a broadsword. However, I find either much more exciting and interesting.
Marc Shepherd wrote: I think The Sorcerer is underrated. Particularly from Wells's entrance through the end of the opera, it is full of top-drawer material, occasionally punctuated by set-pieces that we now view as old-fashioned. The greatest difficulty in production is the first half of the first act -- before Wells's entrance. Here, the comic opportunities are extremely subtle, and many an amateur production founders in these first few pages. It is vital that the opening chorus ("Ring forth, ye bells") make a strong impression, since the opera slows way down after that. My belief is that The Sorcerer was a success according to the standards of its time. It did not cause a sensation comparable to Pinafore, but to my knowledge, no opera ever had until that point. Tom Shepard replied: True, but it was worthy of a major revival with a major re-write (top of Act 2) by a more experienced G&S. Obviously THEY thought it was well worth the trouble, and so do I. I think that The Sorcerer is a wonderful piece.
Bill McCann wrote: Well, a flop then? After the concentrated "writing about what you know best" (Mills & Boon formula) of Trial we have the insipid banquet where TEA is served, well who wants to know? Tea out of one pot for an whole company for heaven's sake? And with the insufferable Alexis as Hero and the boring Dr Daly as anti-hero, both seeing the only interesting male character (Wells of course) into the flames with self-satisfied grins why bother with the thing at all? No refuge in the female parts either. All of them totally self-centred and quite unaware of the damage being wrought around them by THEIR self-centred pre-occupations. So, no one takes the music written for them seriously or anything approaching seriousness!... On the whole, lets excise it from the Canon and pretend it don't exist.
Paul McShane replied: On top of which, nobody can think of much to say about it. I guess the main thing Sorcerer has going for it is the best patter song in the canon. (Surprising that this hasn't been stated before.)
Then Andrew Crowther replied: Well, the tea's supposed to be the joke. Almost everything in Sorcerer is a parody of operatic conventions. Don't you find it even a bit funny to have a rollicking drinking-song about tea?
Alexis is supposed to be insufferable: Gilbert is playing with the usual "heroic" character. I've said this again and again, but Gilbert's plays are full of this kind of inversion and subversion of the stock theatrical roles. It is all absolutely deliberate. The "hero" Alexis is a fanatic and a prig; the "villain" Wells is a likeable, conscientious man whose only problem is being part of an impossible trade. The ending is deliberately unjust: the emphasis on "Or I or he must die" at the end brings this out very well. As for Dr Daly, it's a matter of personal preference whether you like him or not, but he must be one of the very few genuinely good characters in G&S.
And the self-centred nature of the female characters makes Sorcerer different from the other operas how?
Quite enough people do pretend that it doesn't exist already, I think.... All right, it isn't a top rank Savoy Opera. But it isn't half as bad as you (playing Devil's Advocate?) suggest. I suppose it really needs an audience which is familiar with the operatic conventions, as well as a company that understands how to put across the parody. G&S were still feeling their way towards a style. I think it's a bit too closely tied to the "Love in a Village" style of ballad-opera. This may sound paradoxical, but maybe it's a bit too "realistic" - it relies a lot on the realities of the class structure of the time, and doesn't quite succeed in creating its own self-contained world as the later operas do. But despite these reservations, there is much to enjoy in the opera. It's a bit "all-but", but done properly it's still very entertaining (IMO).
And Gerry Howe: Oh, I can't possibly agree with this. Alexis, I admit, can come across as somewhat priggish - though I'm sure that was what WSG intended. Dr Daly I find one of the most endearing characters in the whole canon. Learned, kindly, a little vague and - in the nicest possible way - a little susceptible to feminine charms. It is worth bearing in mind that, with the kind of audiences G & S were aiming to attract, any attempt to portray a clergyman as anything other than a sympathetic and virtuous character would have emptied the theatre. Did not RD'OC boast, "my theatre is largely patronized by the clergy"? (I cannot help contrasting this with the treatment the Anglican clergy get nowadays. It is possible to feel that progress in this regard in the last century has been in a backward direction.) The female parts self-centred? No more so, at any rate, than Josephine, Phyllis (especially Phyllis!), Yum-Yum...
And David Lyle: And what about those of us who think it's a super piece, warts and all? Thanks all the same, but I'll keep it in my canon!
And Neil Ellenoff: I'm not particularly fond of The Sorcerer. I think it is the least of G and S efforts. Nevertheless, I like many things in it. I think we are wrong when we try to rank the operas. Each has its own charm, strong and weak points. Since each opera is quite different in many ways I don't understand why we can't accept that and enjoy what we have. I am quite fond of The Grand Duke even though I would not be eager to see an uncut version. I have the feeling that a good play doctor could restore it to perfect health. I am glad we have all of them and really am at a loss that any Savoyard would be willing to excise any of them.
David Craven wrote: After attending my first production of the Sorcerer I was of the opinion that it was one of the most abysmal works that I had ever had the misfortune to see. I did not revisit The Sorcerer again until, and then only with much hesitation, the 1996 G&S festival version. I was pleasantly surprised and realized that it was better than I thought. Than I had the opportunity to be in the Hyde Park production of the work, and I saw what a really first rate directing job could do to the production. After this, I now have moved Sorcerer up quite a few ranks. That being said, I wonder whether those people that really dislike Sorcerer might feel this way because of the particular production which they might have seen. Iolanthe, Pirates, Pinafore and Mikado are much like boxed cake mixes. It is as difficult to present a really bad production as it is to present a really good production and most will fall in the pretty good range. Sorcerer, in contrast, is like Fugu. If properly prepared it can be a delicacy of the highest order, but even the smallest slip can make it deadly. Maybe, like the controls on the sale of Fugu in Japan, we should limit productions of Sorcerer to companies that have been approved as having the proper touch for Gilbert and Sullivan.
Marc Shepherd replied: I disagree that the difficulty of directing the work is the principal reason for its relative lack of popularity. As of the turn of the century, D'Oyly Carte regularly toured The Sorcerer. It only gradually went out of style, with the last performances for many a decade given in the mid-thirties. The scenery, unfortunately, was destroyed in the war, and D'OC did not revive it till 1971. I'm sure the lack of amateur performances was directly attributable to the opera being absent from the D'OC repertory.
And Andrew Crowther : What did you think was bad about the bad production and good about the good ones? I'm sure we'd all like to know - particularly since you say (and I agree) that it's a very easy opera to get wrong. I remember that when we were discussing Iolanthe, you said a black mark against it was the fact that it was "director-proof". Does this mean that The Sorcerer's Fugu-like quality is a point in its favour?
And Neil Ellenoff: Gilbert might have been enamored of the lozenge plot but to me its the sort of thing that gave dishwater a bad name. I also find the sudden ending almost an afterthought. This said, I do enjoy much of the music. However, as I previously said the Video bored me. I would love to be convinced and am looking forward to a first rate production that will do so.
Gwyn Aubrey wrote: Having just finished the run of Sorcerer (phew), I was struck again by it's fatal flaw-the wrong man wins in the end. Alexis Pointdextre is a derivative of Frederic's well-meaning goopness, but he has the added nastiness of Fairfax: he is right and only he is right, and everyone else would just be fine if they would only listen to him. Every night, during "Or He Or I Must Die", the cast, as one, would vote for the tenor to get it in the neck, and save John Wellington Wells (And not solely because it was Henry Odum). The chorus was finally asked to stop muttering "Kill Alexis" because the on-stage microphones were picking up the muttering.
Mary Finn wrote: One of the joys of playing Lady Sangazure is that, potentially, she can point at Alexis when everyone sings "Die Thou!" A few years ago at MIT, I (with directorial approval) did exactly that, and the Alexis in question told me it terrified him.
And Rica Mendes: I second that motion. Alexis deserves to die - after all, he is responsible for BRINGING Wells - Wells was only doing his job! Besides, Aline would be much better off without him. What a cad! Demanding that she drink the potion... grr...
Andrew Crowther replied: Following on from my rant about Villains, I'd like to say that I think Gilbert knew exactly what he was doing here. Yes, Alexis is the "wrong" man to win. He is thoroughly unpleasant, and of course Gilbert makes him so deliberately. Alexis is a parody of the bone-headed hero whose only thought is: "Everything I do is right". The main point of that final dilemma of who to kill points up the moral question of who is to blame for it all. In a comic opera, it is naturally impossible to kill the "hero", so the good-natured Wells cops it instead: but it must be clear to anyone who has been following the plot that this is utterly unjust by any sane rule. But yes, I see your point that this ending may be one reason why the opera is not more popular. Later, Gilbert made sure that the "right" people got their happy endings (Leaving Yeomen aside, of course). The Sorcerer's ending seems to look back to the brutal injustices which litter his Bab Ballads - funny in print, but maybe less acceptable in performance.
David Craven observed: I submit that the reason that Sorcerer is not more popular is that it is VERY susceptible to being spoiled by a bad director. Initially, the show turns on rather subtle points. Class distinctions, particularly in today's relatively classless society are hard to pull off. Few directors have the skill to pull this off. In contrast, Pirates, for example, is far more director proof, and a far less subtle approach can work. Secondly, the show has lots of traps to capture the unwary director.
Neil Ellenoff observed: I think another reason The Sorcerer isn't more popular is that it simply is not as good as the others. The plot goes on for a while and then we get a sudden ending. English villagers are charming on occasion but there is not much excitement to them. There seem to be more maudlin Victorian ballads than in the later works. It almost doesn't hold the stage anymore as the others do. Perhaps when and if I see the tape I will change my mind. I do like it but I would much rather play the CD than see it. I am perfectly willing to be convinced otherwise. There are obviously some wonderful things in it like JWW's song.
To which David Craven replied; That was my reaction for a long time, until I happened to be in a production that was well directed. Afterward, my reaction is that the show actually has superb timing and that the ending is far less abrupt than most. Unlike the other shows, the ending and its consequences appear to be set up through much of the show. The result is an ending which, on a different level, is as strong as the ending of Yeomen (in fact, if I were to rank endings on an abruptness factor, Sorcerer would be one of the least abrupt.). Again, however, if the director tries to play it as to much of a comedic or happy ending, it simply does not work. It is an ending which should leave the audience with mixed feelings.
Andrew Crowther wrote: Another reason why Sorcerer didn't have the international success of Pinafore occurs to me. Both have the same theme: toying round with the idea of "Love levels all ranks" - but Sorcerer depends much more on knowledge of the English class system, which even we modern Britons are beginning to lose when it comes to the finer ramifications. I won't suggest that American society really is completely egalitarian, but it certainly doesn't have the rather baroque caste system described in Sorcerer. Pinafore, however, discusses this matter of equality in terms of naval discipline, which is understandable in most countries. Sorcerer, in short, is much the more parochial piece - and the more tied to its own time.
Philip Sternenberg asked: Has anyone besides me noticed that, until a few lines of dialogue right before JWW enters, there isn't the slightest clue in the libretto as to why the opera has the title that it does? No other G&S opera except Thespis goes nearly as long. (I'm not counting Utopia Limited, where at least the Utopia part is clear enough early on.)
Andrew Crowther wrote: It suddenly struck me as an odd coincidence that the 1884 revival of Sorcerer - which gave us the Act 2 opening which we know today - should have come so close to the row between G & S over the Lozenge Plot. Checking my facts, I saw that the row took place in April/May 1884, and the revival opened on October 11 1884. Sullivan had objected to the proposed "Lozenge Plot" not only because it was "unreal and artificial", but also because "everyone will be struck by its similarity to The Sorcerer". Gilbert eventually backed down, and suggested the Japanese opera as an alternative - but I wonder if the revival of The Sorcerer so soon afterwards was just a coincidence? When Carte said a stopgap was needed to follow Ida, I wonder if it was Gilbert who suggested Sorcerer? (Checking Stedman's biography of Gilbert (p208), I see that it was.) He might have accepted this as a second-best, allowing him to deal with some of the things that were in his mind at the time. He may even have had a little private smile at Sullivan rewriting the Act 2 opening, so soon after saying he wanted nothing more to do with such "charm and clockwork". My original posting didn't provoke much (or any) response, but I thought there might be someone out there who'd like to know.
Tom Shepard wrote: I really love the Sorcerer (and I wonder why so many people spell it SorcerOr) from the opening snare drum of the overture---irrespective of who wrote it---through Aline's "The Fearful deed is done..." and the wonderful fife music for Dr. Daly-this is really a wonderful operetta, its only "flaw"s" being perhaps its heavy use of operatic-parody recitatives, and the absence of a governmental figure. By this I mean that the Savoy operas are full of Judges, Peers, Influential Fairies, Major Generals, Admirals, Captains, Mikados, Chancellors, Kings, Lieutenants, Gods,Queens, Duchesses, etc.-all of whom have some fairly weighty political connections. But governmental politics is conspicuously absent in The Sorcerer, and perhaps this makes it seem like a slighter work when compared to the political regimes that GIlbert employed to add heft to his plots. Now before the host of debaters comes on-line to refute me, let me hasten to add that there is no political bloc in Ruddigore either----I am not a perfect analyser. But I DO think that the Sorcerer is conspicuously unique in its lack of political satire.
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