It seems quite natural that Arthur Sullivan, the most popular composer of his day, should
choose the best-selling novel, Ivanhoe, as the subject for his first full-scale
opera. Tired of writing what he considered to be inconsequential works with his famous
partner W. S. Gilbert, and with a manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, ready and willing to build
a Royal English Opera House specifically for him, Sullivan revelled in his task and the
new opera opened to popular enthusiasm on 31st January 1891. W. S. Gilbert refused
Sullivan's offer of two stalls tickets for the first night
(he wasn't offered a box - these were reserved for Sullivan's more affluent friends).
The opera ran for 155 performances and when D'Oyly Carte had no new English opera ready
he merely produced a French one - and ran Sullivan's work in tandem! However, although
the opera was a success, the Opera House itself was a failure and in January 1892,
one year after the Ivanhoe premier, it closed. It now houses
Since its original run, and a clutch of early revivals
(most significantly one conducted by Beecham at Covent Garden in his 1910 season
- on the same bill as Richard Strauss' Elektra),
the opera has fallen out of favour, as have all the 'serious' English operas written
around the same time. Styles and tastes change rapidly and the public simply lost
interest in ballad operas or in a romantic, episodic work such as Ivanhoe.
With the centenary of Sullivan's death nearly upon us (he died in November 1900),
and a major revival of interest in his non-Gilbert works as demonstrated by new CDs of
his orchestral and stage music, the time is surely ripe for revivals of one of his most
Producing this piece for modern audiences is a major challenge.
First of all, the opera runs to nearly four hours and it is necessary to drastically
reduce its length. Also, it is a historical fact that in 1891 the audience attending
the premier all knew Scott's novel intimately. Sullivan and Sturgis relied on this
fact and as a result the opera consists of a series of disconnected scenes from the book.
If you don't know what happens between the Lists at Ashby and the Passageway at
Torquilstone, then the opera will not enlighten you. These problems can be overcome,
but require considerable work.