Thespis: An Assessment of a Forgotten G & S Work

17/08/2014

  Talk on Thespis: Anthony Baker & Tim Henty, G&S Festival, The Crown Hotel, Harrogate ,12.8.2014 (RJW)

 To a packed room, the producers of a Harrogate Savoynet production of the comic opera Thespis gave an introductory talk. They made an assessment of the surviving material, what might have happened to the lost material and how accurate any reconstruction is likely to be for a stage performance.

Gilbert and Sullivan prepared Thespis in a period of three weeks for a Boxing Day opening of this extravaganza in 1871. It achieved a respectable number of performances until March when most theatres were likely to change their programme. The critics were generous in their comment and noted that the entertainment was better than the burlesques that were widely played. Two sources of the libretto can be found. Gilbert printed an early version of it in his series of Plays (Chatto & Windus 1910) while a second earlier libretto is the Lord Chamberlain’s copy held at the British Library.

 Tracing Sullivan’s music is much more difficult as most is still lost. Discussion centred on about how much might have been recycled, but there no evidence of this, apart from ‘Climbing over Rocky Mountains’ which Sullivan freely admitted he used. Apart from this one of the songs, ‘Little Maid of Arcadee’ was published as a parlour ballad. Selwyn Tillett and Roderick Spencer in the 1960s had sifted through the libretti of the later operas to see if they could match lyric metre, an exercise that proved very difficult. They managed to use extant music from the lesser known operas to fit for their 20th century production. There have been more recent attempts like Montgomery in New York who wrote material in the style of Sullivan.

 In the new Baker/Henty production to be mounted at the Festival (previously staged at Normansfield, England) they have examined the background from a  fresh direction, realizing quite rightly that Victorian theatres regularly played pastiches of continental composers. Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) had come to London in a première English translation in 1865-6;  it played fairly frequently thereafter. It was popular music and it is possible that Sullivan introduced elements into his Thespis score. Musical director, Henty could see that the lyrics to the Act I chorus may well have been a double chorus where the finale of The Pirates of Penzance, ‘Here’s a first rate opportunity’ and Orpheus’s ‘We go, we go’ can be run together.

 No doubt decades will pass before any lost material is rediscovered, but as this has happened in other areas it is always possible.

Raymond J Walker

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