In such an academically rich community as the Boston area, there has never been any shortage of Anglophiles, classical music lovers and theater goers who all adore Gilbert and Sullivan, both as appreciative audience members, enthusiastic amateurs as well as professional performers. The Spectrum Singers’ evening of plucky repertoire could not have been more cheerfully received as a reflection of everyone’s mood last Saturday evening on May 17th at the First Church Congregational on Garden Street during one of the most beautiful times of the year. After a lovely spring day, an amply sized audience was treated to a fully orchestrated, partially staged performance of excerpts from The Mikado, and Steven Ledbetter’s praiseworthy Critical Edition of the rarely performed one act operetta, Trial by Jury; which is historically notable for being Gilbert and Sullivan’s first popular success together, and responsible for ingratiating themselves among middle-class audiences, putting the duo on ‘the Victorian map,’ so to speak. It was originally written as filler to complement Offenbach’s La Perichole, but instead succeeded in stealing the show. This led to writing lengthier works which made Gilbert and Sullivan ubiquitous.
What a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan fans may be unaware of, however, is the painstaking musicological journey Boston’s own Ledbetter has led for decades to bring viable Critical Editions of their works to this side of the pond. The planning of this performance became an opportunity to honor those efforts. Music Director John Ehrlich describes his own experience exploring possible editions for his spring program and expresses his gratitude to Ledbetter in the following letter:
…When I first programmed Trial by Jury, [Ledbetter] urged me to look at his Critical Edition of the score. I was happy to do so, especially when I discovered all of the remarkably informed work he and his colleagues invested in this new set of a conductor’s score, instrumental parts, and the piano/vocal chorus score. Mr. Ledbetter’s editing corrected literally hundreds of errors and misprints that had crept into other earlier performing editions since the work’s premiere. The outcome of his many efforts has been handsomely printed by Broude Brothers of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and has been a joy for all of us to work with…
Ledbetter recently gave a fascinating, in depth interview with the staff of the Intelligencer, chronicling the editorial process and its many obstacles, which can be read here.
Ledbetter states in this interview that throughout his musicological career, he has most enjoyed editing music he could also enjoy performing and was thus rightfully welcomed to play an integral part in this concert, writing program notes, reading aloud Ehrlich’s narration connecting excerpts from The Mikado, personally introducing Trial by Jury to the audience in a lecture prior to the performance, and playing a feature baritone role as Counsel for the Plaintiff. Ehrlich states, “In short, Mr. Ledbetter truly has been the key facilitator for tonight’s concert. For that The Spectrum Singers and I offer him our deepest thanks.”
The orchestration was a delight, professionally executed by a chamber orchestra of 1st and 2nd violins, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, cornet, trombone and percussion. The production had a strong beginning with guest artist Lonnie Powell who sang superbly Nanki-Poo’s aria from The Mikado, “A Wand’ring Minstrel,” supported by a vigorous male Chorus of Nobles. His tenor register was both sweet and powerful, and he clearly had a feel for the style. But the acoustics of the church were not kind to this production, which was better suited to a venue similar to the Savoy Theater. In a perfect world, their concert hall would have had an orchestra pit and a less cavernous reverberation, but still have been intimate enough for the performers to be heard without a microphone. John Ehrlich is methodically very skilled at achieving crisp diction from his choir, but even at their most vigorous, there were moments, particularly at the beginning, when the orchestra overpowered the singers. The balance improved, however, over the course of the production, and this did not take away from the fun everyone had.
Powell was a tough act for The Spectrum Singers volunteers to follow, but although John Bradshaw as the Lord High Executioner didn’t sing with the same power, he sang well with character and attitude, which was effectively entertaining. Until this point, there had only been the sound of men’s voices vigorously (and bureaucratically) marching along. It all abruptly changed with “Comes a Train of Little Ladies” when the musical style transformed into springtime sunshine and bustling glee. One of the unexpected highlights was a charming interpretation of “Three Little Maids,” sung by Tricia Kennedy (soprano), Jennifer Angel (alto), and Kathi Tighe (soprano). Their giddiness was contagious and their blend lovely. Tighe in particular had beautiful diction and delivery, as well as dead-on intonation, while all of them looked like they were having the times of their life.
As the music calmed into more graceful tempos, the orchestra stretched balletic, twittering like a concert of birds and forest friends through shimmering women’s chorus. Hannah Ford, who did a lovely job of singing “Braid the Raven Hair,” had a long introduction, which she made languorous use of, entering stage right with all the self-importance of a world-renown Diva. This was followed by a delicate interpretation by Tricia Kennedy of the exquisite, “The Sun Whose Rays are All Ablaze.” Another high point was “Brightly Dawns our Wedding Day,” sung in the style of a madrigal quartet by Maki Koto Carman, Karen Coffman, Lonnie Powell and Douglas Latham. They had a fine blend, and although this number may be standard fare to a ‘G&S fanatic,’ to the less initiated, it was like being very pleasantly treated to an unseasonably new and beautiful Christmas carol.
Ian Fox’s “Tit Willow” was a little hesitant in places, but soulfully sung, which led into the finale of “With Joyous Shout and Ringing Cheer”. It was at this point that the audience finally got to hear the entire choir of men and women sing together, and they certainly made a glorious din.
The second half opened with a short introductory lecture by Ledbetter, who came out fully costumed in 19th-century courtroom attire, wig and all; helping the audience to imagine that when Trial by Jury was first performed, the set would have been a perfect reproduction of a proper courtroom, in which everything and everyone looks real. “Jurors (men) in full regalia would pretend to meet each other and spectators (the women) would file in.” He explained that it is precisely this realism that is the principle of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedy, the pattern being that reality is juxtaposed against a dialogue and plot that is completely ludicrous, while the actors play the situation as if everything were perfectly normal, thereby turning the audience’s perception “topsy turvy.”
To cite an immediate practical value to using Ledbetter’s Critical Edition to those who have never heard the work, the orchestration was noticeably supportive of the singers and didn’t overpower them, while the sonorities served well to successfully capture the tone and style of Victorian entertainment. The plot of this one-act operetta is a jilted bride suing her cad Defendant who is carrying on with someone else, but the Judge (who bolstered his career by courting an ugly and connected, rich attorney’s daughter and then jilted her, making him a worse cad) pardons the Defendant and proposes to the Plaintiff, who accepts. And everyone lives ‘happily’ ever after. Iolanthe is infamous for its line, “Are you a fairy from waist up or the waist down?” but the opening lyric of the Defendant in this operetta is “Be firm, be firm, my pecker…” with a footnote in the program stating, “We can thank Queen Victoria herself for help here. In a letter to one of her daughters, she wrote that, “Keep up your pecker” means, “Keep up your spirits, and don’t be downhearted.” So if there are any G&S fans out there who think the television series “Mad Men” is sexually inappropriate…
The leads were costumed and partially blocked, while the women’s chorus surprised the audience with a uniform prop of garlands they synchronized to place on their heads with the entrance of the Plaintiff, who wore a bridal dress and vale. But before meeting any of these characters, we are introduced to the Usher, who Sullivan must have written for a recruit from a Magic Flute production. In The Spectrum Singers concert, Michael Prichard’s lush bass voice, sub terrestrial range, and majestic demeanor were another very impressive highlight of the evening. John Schumacher as the Judge, and Thomas Best as the Defendant were absolutely hilarious, and Laura Serafino Harbert’s stunningly ethereal soprano voice was not only perfect for the role, but she was both gorgeous and funny.
This performance was not without its technical glitches, which insiders say were the work of the Thespian gods, because dress rehearsal went too smoothly. Certainly with all the excitement of props and costumes, the unexpected happens: One faulty entrance in the wrong key, and a couple of mumbling moments of forgotten lyrics. For if it can be said that Mozart has too many notes, Gilbert surely wrote too many words. But that doesn’t make them any less delicious. Certainly, this was a labor of not just love, but joy that was by and large executed with fine success—a success that indeed unanimously raised everyone’s “peckers.”