Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe is among the most prominent works on the list of operas that almost everyone has heard of, but that almost no one has heard. Historically, Ivanhoe has almost universally been regarded as a failure, proof that Sullivan's gift was limited to the brilliant, but "light" music he wrote for the operettas he created with W.S. Gilbert. In fact, it received a phenomenal 155 performances in its initial production in London in 1891, but it has received a mere handful of performances since. The initiative to record it for Chandos came from Richard Hickox, who died before it could be begun, and this recording is dedicated to his memory. David Lloyd-Jones leads a large cast of soloists, the Adrian Partington Singers, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a first-rate performance that makes a strong case for opera. While Ivanhoe is certainly not going to find a place in, or even at the fringes of the standard repertoire, this recording should go a way toward putting to rest the platitude that England was an arid operatic wasteland between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes.
Sullivan was determined to write a nationalist opera independent of French, German, or Italian trends, and he succeeds to a surprising degree, because Ivanhoe doesn't quite sound like anything else. There are relatively few arias or set pieces, and the opera is carried largely by lyrical arioso, which works well because Sullivan was a master of setting the English language. He was also a sure dramatic composer. If he had been able to sustain the level of melodic inspiration, only sporadically evident here, that he conjured for The Mikado, Ivanhoe might have been a contender. There are numerous memorable musical moments nonetheless. The chorus "Plantagenesta!" has such melodic elegance and punch that it might have been written by Bizet. Various arias, including "The wind blows cold across the moor," "Her southern splendor, like the Syrian Moon," "Whet the keen axes," and "Lord of our chosen race," are terrifically engaging.
Lloyd-Jones leads the opera with loving attention to detail and to its dramatic arc, drawing committed performances from the orchestra and chorus. All of the soloists are very fine and several are exceptional. Soprano Geraldine McGreevy sings with purity and thrillingly soars over the orchestra. Baritone Neal Davies is darkly eloquent as the villain. In the title role, tenor Toby Spence doesn't quite have the instrument or consistency to be in their league, but almost, and when he stays around his warmly lyrical middle register, he sounds fabulous. Chandos' sound is clean and present, but the stereo separation is sometimes awkward and unconvincing. Ivanhoe should be of strong interest to fans of late Romantic opera.