World-Premiere Recording, under Richard Bonynge, of Alfred Cellier’s Once-Beloved 1886 Operetta Dorothy

Alfred Cellier is a largely forgotten figure today, but his Dorothy (1886), a “pastoral comedy opera in three acts,” ran for 931 performances, thanks in part to an excellent cast. For comparison: Gilbert and Sullivan’s quite successful The Mikado fell short of this at 672 performances, and their Ruddigore racked up a mere 288.

What all the cheering was about it amply clear from this spirited and accomplished recording made by mostly youngish performers, many of them current undergraduates or recent alumni of the Royal Northern College of Music (Manchester, England). The plot is a delightful tangle of mistaken identities across social class, as was typical of many comic operas during the nineteenth century. Think, for example, of Albert Lortzing’s widely performed Zar und Zimmermann, in which the future Russian tsar disguises himself as a common laborer in a Dutch shipyard.

The tunes are all very well shaped and even sometimes memorable. There is much contrast of mood and pace from one number to the next or even within a single number. The words are generally well set, a remarkable fact considering that much of the score was originally composed ten years earlier to an entirely different libretto, Nell Gwynne. The overture and dance numbers are charming, occasionally recalling light-opera styles of decades earlier. For example, the “Dance of the Peasants” in Act 3 recalls, perhaps inadvertently, a dance of Native American maidens that I still remember vividly from a performance of Adolphe Adam’s 1837 ballet Les Mohicans, decades ago, at the Butler University Romantic Festival. (To purchase, or to hear the beginning of each track, go to The recording is also available on major streaming sites.)

The singers have steady voices, some hefty, others thin. Most project the sung words well and bring a welcome spoken flair to this or that phrase (while still singing, not half-speaking). A few show promise for bigger and more prominent roles. I would look forward to hearing rich yet firm-toned mezzo Stephanie Maitland again. Tenor Michael Vincent Jones, one of the lighter-toned singers, does a delightful job as the sheriff’s officer who ends up getting himself into a pickle more than once.

The only big name in the cast is that of Majella Cullagh. Cullagh’s voice is familiar from various recordings of works by, for example, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Mendelssohn on such labels as Opera Rara, Chandos and Naxos. It has sometimes been criticized as shrill (e.g., by Vivian Liff, re: Rossini’s Bianca e Falliero, in the January/February 2002 issue of American Record Guide). I find the slight edge welcome here, as it enables the voice to project and helps the character of Dorothy to register as significant. More troubling is a somewhat wide (but fortunately not slow) vibrato. Of course, many mid-career singers (e.g., Anna Netrebko) develop a wide vibrato with the passing years. Still, Cullagh brings classiness and professionalism to this production, and makes Dorothy seem well worth being fought over by two men as the work progresses.

Throughout, Richard Bonynge, in his 80s, conducts with the lift and grace that have marked so many of his recordings. (See my rave review of his recent recording of Edward J. Loder’s fine 1850s opera Raymond and Agnes , based freely on Matthew Lewis’s famous Gothic novel The Monk.) Nothing in the work seems beyond the abilities of the young orchestra put at his disposal. This is without doubt one of the more successful recordings of an operetta that I have ever heard, a remarkable fact considering that the crucial connecting dialogue has been omitted in order to fit the work onto a single CD.

In the track list, the mentions of cast members who sing in a given track are quite incomplete (two trios list a single singer!). The chorus is recorded at a distance, so its words can be hard to fathom. All of this makes it essential that the listener absorb the detailed synopsis (which is helpfully provided with track numbers) or download the complete libretto from the Naxos website. The curious can purchase a richly illustrated 40-page booklet, complete with more extensive essays, from, for a mere £2.

(The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with that magazine’s kind permission.)

Ralph P. Locke

Alfred Cellier (1844–1891): Dorothy

A pastoral comedy opera in three acts (1886)
Libretto: Benjamin C. Stevenson (1839–1906)
Performing edition: Richard Bonynge

Dorothy Bantam, Sir John Bantam’s daughter …………………. Majella Cullagh, Soprano
Lydia Hawthorne, Dorothy’s cousin…………………………….. Lucy Vallis, Mezzo–soprano
Phyllis Tuppitt, innkeeper’s daughter ……………… Stephanie Maitland, Mezzo–soprano
Geoffrey Wilder, Sir John’s nephew and heir ……………………………… Matt Mears, Tenor
Harry Sherwood, Wilder’s friend …………………………………. John Ieuan Jones, Baritone
Sir John Bantam, Squire, Chanticleer Hall ………………….. Edward Robinson, Baritone
John Tuppitt, innkeeper of the Hop-Pole Inn ………………………. Patrick Relph, Baritone
Lurcher, the Sheriff’s officer …………………………………….. Michael Vincent Jones, Tenor
Tom Strutt, a young farmer in love with Phyllis………………. Sebastian Maclaine, Tenor

Victorian Opera Chorus (Chorus Master: Kevin Thraves)
Chorus undergraduates of the Royal Northern College of Music

Victorian Opera Orchestra

Richard Bonynge AC, CBE, Musical Director

Naxos 8.660447 [CD]