Sunday, July 17, 2011

G&S Favorites

Happened upon a recent posting through my law school classmate Claude Scales' wonderful Self-Absorbed Boomer blog that posited Three Little Maids From School as the writer's favorite Gilbert & Sullican song, or at least his favorite from The Mikado. If ever there was a subject that oozes the old warning de gustibus non est disputandum (there can be no reasoned argument over taste), it's probably G&S preferences.

I'm sure there are some who would opt for Here's a Howdy-do or even the whole first act intro of the Lord High Executioner, much less the title character's My Object All Sublime, but to me, it's no contest. There's beauty in the bellow of the blast opens what must clearly be the essence of G&S, most notably when it moves to the chorus:

If that is so,
Sing derry down derry
It's evident, very,
Our tastes are one
Away we'll go
And happily marry
Nor tardily tarry
Till day is done!

To me, hearing that fetching tune immures me in the absolute core of G&S and a smile comes upon my face whenever--especially in the overture to The Mikado--the orchestra bursts into the irresistible bars. Not that my joy has anything much to do with the ridiculous plot that finally finds the former Lord High Executioner pleading for the hand of the Gorgon-ous daughte-in-law-elect, a role that usually is the fate of G&S contraltos. It must be the lightness of the moment and the total improbability of the match that summoned up Sullivan's catchiest music.

It ranks as singing in the shower music with the whole run of the Fourth Act of Rigoletto, starting out with La donna e mobile and progressing through the quartet Bella figlia del amore. If you really feel a need to lighten your day, try singing all four parts--tenor, soprano, baritone, and alto--had Verdi not banished Sparfucile the assassin (self-described and so listed in the dramatis personae) from the stage moments before, we would have had a bass on hand for a quintet.

Yet my favorite moment from that opera is the closing cabaletta of the Third Act (both these acts move up to Two and Three, respectively, when most companies now combine the brief first act with the second in performance) when the soprano and then the title-role baritone are reflecting Verdi's fondest pairing--daughter and father--contrasting love and vengeance as they sequentially end the singing and the act with high notes. In my recording Sutherland and Milnes are glorious as they hold the notes for just the right length (unlike Pavarotti's delightful but over-the-top endless final note in La donna), a task made easier by their location in the studio and not the opera house, where often as the curtain comes down during those last high notes, unrestrained audiences obscure the final sound with premature applause.

It's fun to recall my absolutely idiosyncratic choices for sheer musical delight: Wagner of course presents problems because he repeats some of the incredibly fantastic moments for what might to some seem like light years. But if I had to pick something, it would be Wotan's Farewell and Fire Music from the final act of Die Walkure. Sometimes I wish these all could be repeated in encore style much as is the tradition with Never Mind the Why and Wherefor from H.M.S. Pinafore. Now that was a show I first saw when quite young and untutored at summer camp, with my first girlfriend no less singing the role of the Boatswain--it probably explains my fondness still for altos, if not He Is An Englishman.

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