SULLIVAN: The Rose of Persia

After the DíOyly Carte productions made Sullivanís name synonymous with Gilbertís, and in turn with English musical comedies, even Sullivan felt the need to break away on his own, and following some difficult times with Gilbert, the two went their separate ways. Not that the ìGilbert & Sullivanî collaborative works were unpopular, or unsuccessful, but Sullivan sensing the need to expand his horizons had grown skeptical of Gilbertís biting, and at times ridiculing, satire. Gilbert, too, was unhappy with his collaborator as their personal interaction, characterized by criticism, envy, and distrust was never the match to their professional relationship. The break came in 1889 as a result of a dispute over finances. After a brief separation, they reunited for two more works, but they both knew their time had passed. Their last collaboration, The Grand Duke, was in 1896.
The libretto for The Rose of Persia by Basil Hood, is sharp, witty, and with prose that fits Sullivanís style, and musical comedy. The writing and the humor are easily understood, and often with a sequence of short words which can be rapidly sung, making for great comedic effect. The individual situations are simple, though when put together, the plot is not. Combining episodes from Tales of the Arabian Nights, Hoodís libretto is rich in contrast with protagonists who are: wealthy or poor, greedy or generous, honest or dishonest, powerful or powerless, simple or wise, free or enslaved. There is a bit of harmless satire and criticism in the libretto related to the fin de siËcle society, and Victorian consumerism; the Sultanís ìLet the satirist enumerate a catalogue of crimes;î ìOur shallow modern times….;î and Yussufís ìI care not if the cup I hold.î Hood also jabs Victorian Englandís double standards; (Hassan) ìWhen my father sent me to Ispahan,î and (Sultan) ìYouíll understand that now and then, eccentric and peculiar men, though undetected by their wives, have led respected double lives.î There is also subtle criticism of political issues, at the time, between England and some of her ìcolonies.î All in all, however, Hoodís poking fun at society is tame in comparison to Gilbertís treatment of similar situations.
The score for The Rose of Persia is more in keeping with Sullivanís musical language and more effective than Ivanhoe (1890). Where the latter is more complex, monotonous and somewhat somber, the former is upbeat, melodic, and colored with shades of local atmosphere, which Sullivan picked up in Egypt in 1882. The Rose of Persia overflows with arias, ensembles, brilliant chorus numbers, easily remembered tunes, and sophisticated musical comedy. At times the music harks back to the ìGilbert & Sullivanî sound of previous years, The Mikado in particular, but dare one say, this one is better. In Rose of Persia Sullivan wrote some of his best music for soprano and contralto.
The 1890s had brought Sullivan a number of setbacks, and much was riding on the production of this opera. Sullivan conducted the premiere; afterwards he confided to his diary that everything about the evening was as usual, except that the opera was a success, which in itself, was unusual. Rose of Persia was an instant success. Playing well over two hundred performances, it became the most profitable production of the decade for producer Richard DíOyly Carte.
The short overture has a march-like opening and quickly turns to the more sentimental musical themes in the opera, which in turn, lead directly to the opening chorus of Hassanís ìfive and twentyî wives. The women bemoan the neighbors calling him ìMad Hassan,î to which the wise and wealthy philanthropist replies, ì…I am neither sick nor sad: a most contented man, though foolish persons think me mad!î Hassan also demonstrates his wisdom by explaining why he only has twenty-five wives. Richard Stuart has a pleasant, lighter baritone voice which combines all the elements essential to make the character come alive. Stuart can be gentle, sensitive, and humorous in the higher end of his range, or stern when he sings in the lower range. Stuart also shines in, ìWhen my father sent me to Ispahan,î and ìThere was once a small street Arab.î
All of the characters have an opportunity to reveal their true intentions and personalities: Jonathan Veira as Abdallah, the Priest, solemnly sings of the gates of ìRight and Wrongî with sentiment in his beautifully expressive baritone voice. Hassanís greedy first wife, Dancing Sunbeam, who schemes with Abdallah, sings of her longing for the treasures she is forbidden to have, ìO golden key…could I make use of thee…how changed my life and song.î Marcia Bellamy, as Dancing Sunbeam, has a flexible mezzo-soprano voice which she uses very well to convey the range of emotions. In ìO golden key…î she sings with convincing pathos, and one would believe her deprived, though knowing she is, simply a social climber.
There follows a short, but very amusing trio, ìIf a sudden stroke of fate your Hassan eliminate,î between Abdallah, Sunbean and Blush (another wife) in which the characters, not too subtly, express their ability and willingness to let ìtime [and Hassanís money] soften every blow.î Sullivan uses a simple, yet effective musical structure in this passage to emphasize the same intention of the characters: Abdallah, Sunbeam and Blush independently sing their different emotions to the same music, and following every third line, they sing in unison, ìTime will soften every blowñthat is a cheerful thing to know!î Sullivan repeats this musical structure several times in the opera, with equal success.
Three alleged slaves from the Sultanís palace (Rose in Bloom, Scent of Lilies and Heartís Desire), delight at, and ponder on the dangers of being caught outside the palace walls in the trio ìIf you ask me to advise you.î Rose in Bloom, who in reality is the Sultana, next, compares her life of boredom and luxury within the palace walls, to that of a bird in a gilded cage, ìShall the cage-bird leave her prison, golden though her prison bars?î The coloratura passage in this aria is difficult, and though a bit sharp in the last notes, soprano Sally Harrison has ample opportunity to show off her golden toned instrument and flawless stacatto.
Yussuf, the story teller, is sung by tenor Ivan Sharpe whose lyric voice beautifully blends a hint of wickedness to his youthful sound. He is particularly effective in the spirited satire, ìI care not if the cup I hold,î and in the poignant, ìOur tale is told.î
Word by word the Sultanís ìLet a satirist enumerate a catalogue of crimesî could easily apply to our times, as well as to Sullivanís era, and before. Richard Morrison, as the Sultan, is an appealing baritone, injecting humor into his voice without betraying his station.
The Vizier, Executioner, Sultanís Physician, the wives and slaves are all well interpreted by the individual singers, and Sullivan gives them the music with which to shine.
Throughout the opera, Sullivan uses the chorus, well, to introduce a character, transition the action, or to hold the action on their own. ìTramps and scampsî is sung by a group of thieves disguised as beggars who try to scam Hassan, while the wives, singing to the same musical line as the thieves, express their concern over what the neighbors will say. ìMusical maidens are weî with its fairy like opening serves as a prelude to Honeyís dance sequence; ìWith martial gaitî is a regal march for the Sultanís guards, who tell of their not so regal endeavors, and ìFrom Morning Prayer the Sultan of Persia comes!î is the classic Sullivan tune which stays in oneís head long after the sound has faded.
There are some delightful duets, trios, octets, and lively ensembles as well, ìIím the Sultanís vigilant Visier,î ìAttended by these Palace Warders,î the closing of Act I ìO luckless hour,î and ìIn the heart of my hearts Iíve always known.î There is an amusing scene and duet, ìPeace be upon this house,î between Abdallah, who has come to Hassanís house to make some arrests, and Hassan who cleverly replies, to the same music, in contradiction to what the Priest is singing. Yussuf and Heartís Desire sing a heartfelt duet, ìOh, what is love,î and their subsequent quartet with Scent of Lilies and Honey of Life, ìIf you or I should tell the truth.î ìSupposeñI say supposeî a duet between Rose in Bloom and the Sultan is a gem to be savored. Underneath its seemingly simply music is the clever marriage of librettist and composer. Sullivanís music softly holds the lighter words without interference; Hoodís clever use of the language taking precedence. Likewise, when the mood changes, the sublime music soars and becomes one with the words.
Sullivanís Persian overtones are original, appropriately injected and easily transitioned to the more conventional music. ìI am the Sultanís vigilant Vizierî ìTramps and scamps,î and Honey-of-Lifeís dance and are but three of the many examples.
It is difficult to separate the words from the music. Sullivan, with thorough understanding of the subtleties in Hoodís lyrics, has wedded his music so effectively to the words that it is difficult to pick any one particular moment in the opera as better than another. Each moment is closely followed by another wonderful moment, be it an aria, duet or chorus. This in turn is followed by another number which is just as engaging, charming, sentimental, or riotously hilarious. There are marches, fairy tale music, pompously amusing impersonations, love themes, and overall an endless well of music that grasps the listener and wonít let go. Rose of Persia is a must for any Sullivan admirer, and to those who never took the time, or who find him less than a serious composer, go out, get this opera, and enjoy the discovery.
This cpo recording is a reissue of the original released in 1999, in the May issue of BBC Music Magazine. In addition to the complete opera, the set includes the overtures to Pinafore, Pirates, Iolanthe, Mikado, Yeomen, Di Ballo and Macbeth.
Tom Higgins conducts The Hannover Band with vigor, humor and knowledge of the score. The Southwark Voices lends good company to the rest of the cast.
This is an all around excellent recording. All the singers are well suited for their roles in the best musical comedy tradition; the voices blend well in the ensembles, the chorus and above all, Sullivanís music is at its best. The one element which has kept Gilbert & Sullivanís works in the background for many years, mainly Gilbertís deeply esoteric ridicule of Victorian Society in England, in the 1890s, does not limit Hoodís libretto. Hopefully this will allow Rose of Persia to gain the popularity it deserves.
ì. . . I am terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music will be put on records forever.î This often mentioned quote of Sullivanís certainly does not apply to Rose of Persia.
Daniel Pardo 2005
Liner Notes: The Rose of Persia
Meinhard Saremba
© 2005 cpo
Down under in the 19th Century
Arthur Sullivan

image_description=Sir Arthur Sullivan: The Rose of Persia
product_title=Sir Arthur Sullivan: The Rose of Persia
product_by=Richard Morrison, Richard Stuart, Ivan Sharpe, Ian Caddy, Sally Harrison, Alison Roddy, Marilyn Hill Smith, Marcia Bellamy, Claire Pendleton, Southwark Voices, The Hanover Band, Tom Higgins (cond.).
product_id=cpo 777 074-2 [2CDs]