The Emerald Isle


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by Clifton Coles

Costume design for Bunn disguised as an Old Man
Bunn as Old Man
The Emerald Isle (1901) was the last score undertaken by Sir Arthur Sullivan, who died before completing it. It was begun after the success of The Rose of Persia (1899) and on the promise of a libretto of that opera's caliber, which had stimulated Sullivan as few had in a decade. Producer Richard D'Oyly Carte contracted Edward German to complete the score after Sullivan's death. German was well-known for his orchestral music, incidental music scores, ballads, and a few short operettas. His talents had been publicly acknowledged by Sullivan before the elder composer's death.

Sullivan completed only the first two numbers in full score. Many of the rest he had sketched out. The untouched numbers are mostly solo material -- which he would have relied on the soloists to learn and execute quickly -- and the finale to act two -- which would have been a reprise, also easy to learn quickly.

It would be nice to say that Sullivan's last work was, if not the culmination of a 30 year career in music, at least another jewel in what was already a rather stunning operatic crown. There are moments of musical inspiration, but in general the opera is tailor-made for Sullivan's talents, which remained for the most part unchallenged.

Not that the score is devoid of some musical gems from Sullivan's pen. David Eden praises the "Da Luan, da mort" chorus and the solo and chorus that close the first act as reminiscent of "the dreamy melancholy of the Celtic feeling, profoundly felt, but remote and steeped in the past." One might add to these the trio "On the heights of Glauntaun." Eden also praises the act one finale ("Come away, sighs the fairy voice") as "quite simply the most beautiful tune of his [Sullivan's] career; it is as lovely as the Londonderry Air itself."

The opening chorus offers neat juxtaposition of voices and dancing, and Sullivan's last double chorus appears later in the act (no. 12). There is also a "Rataplan" number to remind listeners of Cox and Box , the composer's first stage work. One of this author's favorite songs in the entire Sullivan canon is "Oh, have you met a man in debt" from act two, especially as sung so energetically by Alan Borthwick on Prince Consort's 1982 recording. But, in general Sullivan's contribution to the score is reminiscent rather than fresh. Though he may have captured a "Celtic feeling" once or twice, Sullivan (and Hood) seem content to provide plenty of jigs that are only stereotypically expressive of Ireland. "Sing a rhyme of Once upon a time" in act two must rank at the bottom of Sullivan's accomplishments, and one can only hope that if he had lived he would have improved it.

Basil Hood was never able to produce a libretto as consistent as The Rose of Persia, though he continued to attempt to do so after The Emerald Isle. Hood's fondness for felicitous word-play is in full evidence in this opera, though it can become somewhat trying in some places. Also in evidence is Hood's liking for allowing his actors latitude to ad lib, as in the scene in act one involving the hypnotized soldier and the act two scene between the Sergeant and the Countess.

Hood's story is tailor-made for the talents of the Savoy's turn-of-the-century team (soprano Isabel Jay, contralto Rosina Brandram, tenor Robert Evett, baritone Henry Lytton, comic Walter Passmore), each of whom is provided with challenging material either as actor or as singer. The conclusion, however, is weak, long in coming, and without the sparkle present even in a work like Ruddigore, whose logical and somewhat legalistic conclusion it resembles. The Emerald Isle holds the Savoy record for the most amount of dialogue between its penultimate number and the finale, dragging in as it does a long scene between the Sergeant and the Countess which includes a recitation in the Sergeant's thick Devonshire accent. The humor of such a scene must have been obvious in performance.

The person who comes out best is Edward German, and The Emerald Isle marked him as a composer with a great future in comic opera. He didn't forget the traditions of the Savoy, and in some cases his music is purely imitative. The patter song "Imitation" resembles in meter King Gama's song in Princess Ida. Hood would repeat the meter as well as the general idea in his "Imagination" song in Merrie England, and German would respond with a similar patter tune.

The contralto solo also resembles the dozen or so ballads set by Sullivan for Rosina Brandram. German broke no new ground here, and wouldn't do so in Merrie England or A Princess of Kensington -- though the expansive aria in the former is one of the best of the type.

There are distinct stylistic differences between the two men, however. German frequently changed time signature during a movement (more prevalent in Merrie England) while Sullivan preferred to stay with the same meter. German was also seldom content to allow material to repeat without some vocal or orchestral variation (for example "'Twas in Hyde Park beside the Row") and in general his vocal lines are more challenging. Most of these characteristics attain full flower in later works, but their beginnings are apparent here.

"Good-bye my native town," for example, is a song written as Sullivan never would, as is "I love you, I love you, what joy can compare" which follows immediately afterwards and "Listen! Hearken my lover!" earlier in the act. The soprano solo "Oh setting sun" is a precursor of stunning arias in Merrie England and Tom Jones .

The Emerald Isle was produced after the death of Richard D'Oyly Carte, the moving force behind the Gilbert and Sullivan series and the owner and manager of the Savoy Theatre. The opera was produced by his wife Helen, and the management of the company was taken over by William Greet before the end of its 205-performance run. Greet also produced Hood and German's Merrie England (1902) and A Princess of Kensington (1903) and it seemed as if the promise of Gilbert and Sullivan had at last led to a successful comic opera team. But German wearied of Hood and turned to a new librettist and a new theatre for his next opera Tom Jones (1907). German's operatic stage career was cut short by the disastrous experience of Fallen Fairies (1909), the final libretto of W.S. (now Sir William) Gilbert. Thereafter, he devoted himself to orchestral music and conducting.

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