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Teamwork

Photo by Keith Saunders
YOU WILL FIND MORE USEFUL TRUTHS about music in the dozen or so comic operas of the Sirs W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan than in all 20 volumes of Grove's Dictionary. The irresistible beauty of their tunes and counterpoints compound the miracle; their deadly accuracy in holding up for ridicule the absurdities that underlie some of music's most sacred principles serves the art as stern and unforgiving conscience. Their wisdom is both utilitarian and eternal.

What, then, accounts for the current scarce representation of these cherishable artworks in our landscape? Fear of being confronted too overtly with evidence of our own foibles? A growing disregard for the wondrous power of language, brought on by excessive reliance on computers with built-in grammar-correcting programs? The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, immutable guardians of the Savoyard flame in the creators' own time and for decades thereafter, recedes into memory. We suffer from Gilbert-and-Sullivan deprivation on live stages; most surviving companies play for cutes rather than content. Fortunately, some solace resides in the treasures still at hand on disc, and a few bright patches on the video shelves as well -- including a 1939 movie The Mikado with Kenny Baker (onetime tenor on the Jack Benny radio show) as Nanki-Poo but also with the D'Oyly Carte standard-bearers Martyn Green and Sydney Granville in other top roles.

The latest arrival is from Telarc: five of the operas conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, with the splendid chorus and orchestra of the Welsh National Opera and a mostly superb cast, recorded between 1992 and '95, formerly available separately and now gathered in a five-disc midprice box. The discs will not tempt ardent Savoyards to discard their older recordings of these works, but they are worthy, fine-sounding companions. The early electrical recordings by the D'Oyly Cartes, first issued on RCA Victor 78s, later reprocessed on Arabesque CDs, preserved a few vintage voices from Sullivan's own ensemble -- among them, Sir Henry Lytton's memorable rasp, beyond question the single most hilarious sound ever recorded. The London LP series from the 1950s offered a later D'Oyly Carte company with voices younger but with the company's earmark style -- its impeccable clarity of diction and elegance of ensemble -- already in decline. (Some sets also included the spoken dialogue, delivered in a lifted-pinky style that distracted rather than enhanced.) Only one or two performances from Sir Malcolm Sargent's series on Angel-EMI, with wonderful singers including Richard Lewis and Geraint Evans -- recorded with Glyndebourne Opera personnel after the D'Oyly Carte franchise had expired -- are currently available, if I can believe the latest Schwann. Any society that denies itself the lyric splendor of Lewis' "Is Life a Boon?" endangers its right to be considered civilized.

The Telarc series boasts a few known singers. The veteran Donald Adams is a properly bellowing Mikado and Pirate King; Thomas Allen is the Pinafore's captain, and also takes on one of Lytton's great roles, Dick Deadeye in H.M.S. Pinafore. Alwyn Mellor is an endearing Elsie in The Yeomen of the Guard; Richard Suart, her Jack Point, doesn't quite erase memories of Geraint Evans in that role, but nobody could. There are cuts, mostly unimportant; the overtures to The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are only someone else's cobbled-together pastiches, and omitting them gets the works onto single discs. Less admirable: One verse of Ko-Ko's "little list" is missing, presumably to solve Gilbert's "nigger serenader" problem by tossing out both baby and bath water.

The major advantage in these new recordings is Mackerras, who supplies the ensemble sense that ennobles his Mozart, and the remarkable feeling for orchestral balance that makes his Janácek so vivid. His strong organizing force obviously underlines a high regard for these splendiferous works -- as wise, probing comic creations, as documents of a bygone way of life worth remembering, and, above all, as superlative creations by an awesomely talented words-and-music team that succeeded, as only one other comparable pairing ever has, in bringing out each other's high genius. I can only hope that the remaining works in the G&S canon -- above all, The Gondoliers, Iolanthe and Patience -- are on the Mackerras agenda.

WE ARE BETTER SUPPLIED WITH THE artifacts from the genius of that other words-and-music team, but discoveries still await. Così Fan Tutte was the last of Mozart's miraculous collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte. Its dubious moral tone, even though reportedly based on an actual incident, bothered audiences for decades; its cynical views toward womanly virtue raise hackles even now. Its first Metropolitan Opera performance wasn't until 1952, 162 years late.

That performance was recorded and has just been reissued on a two-disc Sony set. Fritz Stiedry conducts, stiff and prissy, deleting about 40 minutes of music. Against Eleanor Steber's knowing and intense Fiordiligi there is Blanche Thebom's pale Dorabella and Roberta Peters' chirpy Despina. Worst of all, there is Richard Tucker's Ferrando, an absurd attempt to throttle down his full-blown Italianisms to Mozartian proportions. The singing is in English, or tries to be; Ruth and Thomas Martin's cutesy text is a clear holdover from the way people used to regard Mozart.

Measure that dim effort against the latest recorded Così, a hot-blooded performance led by René Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi -- uncut and in the proper Italian, I needn't add -- which amounts to a whole new rethinking of this one-of-a-kind, subtle score. On first hearing I found it startling, the slashing accents, the passions brought to the surface in Jacobs' flexible tempos, the service of the small orchestra -- Concerto Köln -- as a fluent, deeply engaged commentator on the action. Surely these are the passions both Mozart and da Ponte imagined in the work, and when Véronique Gens, the Fiordiligi, and Werner Güra, the Ferrando, start their amazing Act 2 duet ("Fra gli amplessi") at arm's length and gradually, desperately fall in love, only the hardest of heart could fail to succumb along with them.

The three-disc set also comes with an extra CD-ROM that enables you (on Mac or PC) to plunge into the score and the lives of its creators, examine the opera historically, analytically and anecdotally, and get some of Jacobs' own answers to his distinctive approach to Mozart. In a truly enlightened society, every recording above the "Bach for Babies" level would come with this kind of documentation, to the world's incomparable betterment.