This 1999 BBC Magazine recording of Arthur Sullivan's last completed opera was positively reviewed and has apparently done well enough in the marketplace to have been picked up for rerelease by Germany's CPO label. Perhaps there's some kind of strange fondness for marijuana in German opera circles -- the Neuköllner opera house in Berlin mounted a production of Saint-Saëns' The Yellow Princess in which the performers smoke joints on stage, and marijuana is also a central plot element in The Rose of Persia. The opera is, it's true, more listenable than the last two Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations, the forced Utopia Limited and the tired The Grand Duke. Librettist Basil Hood keeps things moving with a cockeyed plot, set in the Middle East and loosely drawn from the Arabian Nights, that involves a comic struggle over the inheritance of a prosperous polygamist, Hassan, who at one point awakens convinced the he is the Sultan. Sullivan's melodies are up to snuff, with winsome reveries for Hassan's harem of wives and some ambitious Queen of the Night-type music designed for the American soprano Ellen Beach Yaw, who introduced the character Rose-in-Bloom. The Rose of Persia was a hit when it first appeared in 1899, and it was even revived in 1935.
Yet nothing can disguise the fact that this is warmed-over Mikado, right down to the presence of three little maids -- and many passages are still cold. Sullivan's music drags, despite the nice, light touch of the period-instrument Hanover Band under the leadership of Tom Higgins. The most evident mark of the composer's waning satirical instinct is his superficial response to the opera's Middle Eastern setting. In place of the flawlessly modulated range of orientalisms in The Mikado, which range from delicious hints to flat-out hilarity at the expense of those who, to borrow a line from Patience, "long for all one sees that's Japanese," Sullivan makes do with some half-hearted pentatonicism and a few obvious effects. Hood was no Gilbert, as one realizes when hearing doggerel like "When the Royal Life-Long-Limiter/Has sharpened up his scimitar." But his text doesn't lack comic energy. It is the sureness of Sullivan's comic vocabulary and pacing that is missing.
CPO is to be derided for being penny-wise and pound-foolish; in order to hold down the cost of the product, they have eliminated the spoken dialogue between numbers in the opera. Surely, anyone interested in hearing a work as obscure as The Rose of Persia wouldn't mind spending a few extra dollars, pounds, or euros to get the whole thing. The singers are fine, and the half-dozen Sullivan overtures that round out disc two fare well in the hands of the Hanover Band. Gilbert and Sullivan devotees will welcome this disc, but the general listener who likes the big G&S hits and hopes for a real find will be disappointed.