Arthur Sullivan: Ivanhoe (1891)

Opera in three acts (nine scenes), what? this one is in English!

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

OperaScribe beat me to finishing this one, but I started working on this review back in February, and then ended up with a few issues in my professional life, including changing jobs and relocating for said job. I completed the introduction on the 7th of June, the day before the conductor of this recording, David Lloyd-Jones, died at age 87.

This is another of my long introductions, close to 900 words. This is also one of my jumbo reviews at over 4100 words, so it is longer than my Rienzi review, and possibly my longest review so far. I tried to break this one up into more manageable paragraphs than my usual, massive, tome, but there was just so much information to write here.

I probably should have been doing better things with my time on Tisha bAv, the day of Jewish mourning commemorating the destruction of both Jerusalem temples (although this opera ironically has some connections to the holyday), but I finally had some time to put the finishing touches on this LONG review.

Ivanhoe was written in response to a long unanswerable question: can English-language operas really hold their own against the masterworks of Italy, France, and Germany? Arthur Sullivan, the musical half of the Gilbert and Sullivan duo, sought to answer this question following the demise of Michael William Balfe, an Irish composer who was probably the most important musical figure in Britain during the mid-19th century.

As stated in an 1885 interview, Sullivan had a distinct take on what the future of opera would entail: it would be neither French, nor German, nor Italian, but (perhaps following in the shadow of Meyerbeer) opera would have to be a compromise between the three continental schools. For Sullivan, French Opera was tinsel and dominated by stage-effects, German Opera a lethal combination of myth, philosophy (his greatest criticism was to say that music should impact the heart, not the mind), and ear-splitting orchestral-effects, and Italian Opera sacrificed reality and flesh and blood human emotions for vocal-effects. After having reviewed 370 operas, I can admit to this being a rather fair (and more so, accurate) criticism.

Instead, Sullivan chose one of the most famous novels in English-literature: Ivanhoe, an 1819 novel by Sir Walter Scott, a work which tackles multiple levels of racial conflict, not only Anti-Semitism, but also the strained relations between Saxons and Normans in 12th century England. This was a good choice because much of the educated public was familiar with the novel and its plot, which allowed for Sullivan and his librettist (the novelist Julian Sturgis, who filled in after W.S. Gilbert claimed that no one would take him seriously in the genre of grand opera) to structure the opera around nine scenes (three in each act) which although within the narrative of the novel, are not immediately connected to each other.

One reason why the opera is not so well known today is that its production was attached to the opening of a brand new opera house, the Royal English Opera House. As one can guess since the three older London opera houses (the Royal Opera, Her Majestys Theatre, and Drury Lane) still exist and the REOH does not, the decline and fall of the Royal English is attached to the success of Ivanhoe, although not in the way one would assume at first glance. Ivanhoe itself was a massive success when it opened in 1891, scoring an almost record 161 performances within its first eleven months (155 between February and July alone) with daily performances and alternating singers on the lead roles. The reason it closed was because of the traditional theatre closings in July. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, excluding George Bernard Shaw.

Unfortunately, the initial enthusiasm for the work did not continue in the Autumn season (when the schedule was filled up by performances of La Basoche, a three-act Opera Comique by Andre Messanger about mistaken identity set in Paris in 1514) and after a season of performances by Sarah Bernhardt, the theatre was permanently closed. The conductor Henry Wood speculated at the time that had the REOH had six operas in its English repertoire instead of just one, it might have brought about the intended revival of English-language opera (which would not occur until after the Second World War, with the works of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett).

But what of Ivanhoe? There were some traveling productions from 1894 to 1896 (mostly moderately successful apart from a cold reception in Berlin in 1895), followed by a performance at the Crystal Palace in 1903, the Royal Opera House in 1910, and in New York in 1919. The BBC presented two for-radio performances in 1929, then again in 1973, and a concert version was produced by the Boston Academy of Music in 1991. The current review is based on the 2010 Chandos recording conducted by David Lloyd-Jones with the National Orchestra of Wales for the BBC.

And what of the score? Well, to return to the compromise proposed by Sullivan, it is truly a combination of French, German, and Italian concepts, but with neither dominating. There is Wagnerian influence (the tamer Wagner of Tannhauser, Lohengrin (especially) and Meistersinger ), the orchestra is expansive compared to the Savoy Operas, but there is also defiant influence from Verdi in the vocal lines (especially the recitatives, which could easily misidentify the opera into the 1850s or 60s). The aria written for Rebecca (act 2 scene 3) is distinctive for its melody, attributed by Sullivan to a Synagogal melody he had heard decades earlier while studying in Leipzig when attending a liturgical service there.

SETTING: England, 1190s. Cedric of Rotherwood (bass-baritone) is a Saxon Thane awaiting the return of King Richard (bass). Living with him is his ward, the fair Rowena (soprano), who is of a noble and pure Saxon (re. Aryan) bloodline and who is in love with his disowned son, Wilfred, knight of Ivanhoe (tenor) who shows up disguised as a monk and recounts a tournament in the Levant in which the Saxon Ivanhoe beat the Norman Templar Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert (baritone). Sir Brian and Maurice de Bracy (tenor) conspire to abduct Rowena following another tournament at Ashby hosted by Prince John (baritone) during which Ivanhoe beats Sir Brian a second time. Meanwhile, Isaac of York (bass) and his daughter Rebecca (soprano) get mixed up with all of this and get abducted along with Cedric, Rowena, and a wounded Ivanhoe by the Normans. DeBracy attempts to force Rowena into marrying him, and ruin her pure Aryan bloodline. Meanwhile, Bois-Guilbert tries to seduce Rebecca, and declares that she is an Hebraic witch after she refuses him because she is in love with Ivanhoe. Ultimately, Ivanhoe rescues the innocent Rebecca from the stake, but returns to Rowena after Bois-Guilbert dies from, well, being just so darn evil just as he was about to kill Ivanhoe, and King Richard banishes the Templars from England.

Unlike popular belief, the scenes themselves all make sense and flow together okay, but the structural decision to have three tableaux per act leads to the highly dramatic scenes of the Ashby tournament occurring at the end of the first act, and Ivanhoe being rescued by King Richard during the conflagration at Torquilstone at the beginning of act three (which would make for a better act closer). Friar Tuck and Robin Hood show up in act two scene one, mostly for scenery and to introduce the return of King Richard. Much of the action occurs off-stage (such as the mass abduction which is described in act two scene one or the trial of Rebecca which is told, not shown, in act three scene two). Logically, act two scene three and act three scene one should actually be combined (the scene change after the fire scene required more time than either of the original intermissions, some twenty minutes!), with Ivanhoe being too weak to help Rebecca, who is tending to him when she is encountered by Bois-Guilbert, and the act should end with the fire and the King rescuing Ivanhoe (again the 20 minute scene change within the act). Also, De Bracy has suddenly been captured in act three scene two after just having run off with Rebecca and accused her of witchcraft. Oh well, let us get to the review finally, after all it is nearly three hours long!


ACT 1: (59 minutes)

Scene 1: The Hall of Cedric, evening. (24.5 minutes, the longest of the nine scenes.)

3, 8: And now to supper/Room for the Lady Rowena! After a fanfare prelude (the main theme of which gets repeated as a sort of leitmotif for combat, especially tournaments, and knighthood) and an opening recitative from the forlorn Cedric which sets up the Saxons=good, Normans=bad and destructive, the first item of any note is a surprisingly grand male chorus from the guests before they sit down to supper *. This is followed by much more recitative as Isaac is introduced and Cedric, although he curses the Jews, offers Saxon hospitality to everyone, literally, everyone, including the dreadfully class-conscious Normans. A tenor squire (who will double for Robin Hood in act two) introduces Sir Brian and De Bracy (as well as their reason for being there, the tournament at Ashby). De Bracy introduces the tournament in Syria to a very Italian-sounding bit of recitative (in which he references Rowena), Sir Brian gives more references to anti-Semitism. Sir Brian references his interest in Rowena, but Cedric tries to tame down the flames by stating that Rowena may only marry a man of noble Saxon blood. A chorus of Saxon ladies announces the arrival of Rowena * (accompanied by some orchestral grandeur and chorusing which could easily have come from Lohengrin.

11: Drink, drink ye all Cedric leads his guests in a toast **, which prompts Bois-Guilbert to claim that the Knights Templars are second to none among warriors, but Ivanhoe (who has arrived disguised as a pilgrim)

15: The Palmer, the Holy Palmer! The guests (who have literally stepped out of Lohengrin by this point *) ask the pilgrim to go over a list of tournament winners from the Syrian expedition Bois-Guilbert went over, most of them Saxons, but refrains from giving his own name, allowing Bois-Guilbert to pronounce it and enrage Cedric mildly. Sullivan really milks the tenor vocals here from both Ivanhoe and de Bracy. Eventually, Rowena retires, the two Normans voice their supremacist views, and the scene ends with some gentle, dreamy, male chorusing.

Scene 2: An anti-chamber in the home of Cedric. (14 minutes)

25, 32: Oh moon, art thou clad in silver mail/Sound of a String Rowena sings of her longing for Ivanhoe ** in a shimmering aria. Ivanhoe (still in the guise of the Palmer/Pilgrim) is brought in by her ladies and kneels before Rowena. She questions him about Ivanhoe (there are traces of Tchaikovsky accompanying their dialogue) and slowly develops into a duet * (although he does not reveal his true identity to Rowena at this point). Ivanhoe reveals to Isaac that he is going to be kidnapped by the Normans and taken to Torquilstone, but for now they are off to arm Ivanhoe for the tournament at Ashby.

Scene 3: The Tournament at Ashby. (20 minutes)

39: Will there be no more fighting? Sullivan pulls off a frantic choral opener here ** before we find King Richard in disguise (with Friar Tuck) and then Prince John (who is hosting the tournament).

43: Plantagenesta! A second choral sequence bookending the set up before the fighting begins ***, but it goes further musically and dramatically with a strong climactic tune. Prince John, who has escorted Rowena (as Queen of Beauty) to the tournament, orders that room be made for Isaac and Rebecca as well (he remarks on her beauty in particular, claiming that she is far more beautiful than her race would afford her). Ivanhoe (disguised as The Disinherited) eventually challenges Bois-Guilbert, again, after Prince John repeatedly asks for Saxon challengers.

53: What means his motto? The tournament *** takes place off stage and is described musically by the orchestra and singers (particularly the chorus). Although it starts unassumingly, it builds to a musical climax as Bois-Guilbert is again thrown thanks to Ivanhoe and he draws his sword on him. Prince John stops the fighting, and has Rowena crown The Disinherited. Prince John demands that the victor take off his helmet to be crowned, which causes Rowena to cry out as she recognizes Wilfred and the chorus reprises the Plantagenesta chorus as the curtain falls. A very effective act ender.

ACT 2: (52 minutes)

Scene 1: The Forest, outside the hut of Friar Tuck. (19.5 minutes).

0: The entr’acte * is similar to other such pieces by Sullivan, and the forwarding dialogue between King Richard and Friar Tuck has two features worth looking out for, a religious theme in the bassoon and oboe, and then a scampering string melody.

8: I ask nor wealth Friar Tuck finally embarks on a song ** which comes close to resembling typical Sullivan. It is slow, and the orchestration is unusually dark, but it is also charming in its own way.

12: The wind blows cold across the moor Friar Tuck gives us a much more jolly drinking song next **. It doesn’t sound like Sullivan at all, actually it is closer to Gounod, but it is also the only show in town for the moment. The Merry Men show up at the end for good measure.

17: What folly have we here? Robin Hood shows up and fills us in on the plot *: Cedric, Rowena, Ivanhoe, Isaac, and Rebecca have all been captured by Bois-Guilbert and are imprisoned at Torquilstone. Sullivan pulls off an orchestra fanfare out of Verdi for this one.

Scene 2: A chamber in Torquilstone. (10 minutes)

25: In mercy save him! Sullivan pulls off a most Wagnerian recitative (does sense a thing exist?) as Cedric and Rowena are brought in by masked Normans (this is running a little too close to an ISIS kidnapping for comfort) and Cedric challenges the criminals to reveal their identities. Only De Bracy is willing, and declares his love for Rowena. He also reveals what has happened to Ivanhoe: he has been taken to Rebecca. Cedric wants to think his son dead, but Rowena pleads with him to recognize Wilfred again, and begs De Bracy to make sure that Ivanhoe lives (which prompts a brief trio *).

26: Her Southern Splendor, like the Syrian moon As De Bracy goes off to try to seduce Rowena, Bois-Guilbert embarks on what can only be termed the black-washing of the Jewess Rebecca as be fantasizes about what sex must be like with a non-shiksa. Although musically pulled off well **, it is more than a little disturbing.

Scene 3: Another Chamber in Torquilstone, a parapet. (22.5 minutes)

30: Whet the keen axes The Saxon witch Ulrica sings her song ** before Rebecca comes on asking for a fortune. Ulrica recounts how she was raped by Norman soldiers, so why should she, a Jewess, expect better of the Normans? She tells her that ordinarily she would pray to the Virgin Mary, but she will have no pity on a Jewess (wasn’t Mary, herself, a Jewess?, just saying?). Also, death comes too late for all of us. Good lucky, she says as she leaves.

38: Lord of our Chosen Race Rebecca embarks on her first aria, which at first resembles a kinnah, a hymn sung on Tisha bAv to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Although not great, the second part is slightly more musically upbeat and she embarks on a mild bit of coloratura **.

41: Take thou these jewels The remainder of the act consists of a long duet * between Rebecca and Bois-Guilbert (who reveals that he loves her, but also that he plans to rape her and make her his mistress, since, as a Templar, he has taken a vow never to marry any woman. She responds first with fear that in his own religion their relationship would be accursed. Later, as she realizes his seriousness of his intentions, she threatens to throw herself off the battlements of the fortress. References to the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and the sacrificed daughter of Jephthah precede the inevitable arrival of the forces of King Richard and Robin Hood. Bois-Guilbert departs for battle, leaving Rebecca collapsed in prayer. The scene is a combination of Gounod and Verdi (as is the prelude to the following act) but in spite of the climactic line from Rebecca, the act finish is not appropriate given the next scene.

ACT 3: (54.5 minutes)

Scene 1: Another room in Torquilstone (I am getting tied of writing this!). (21 minutes)

2: Happy with winged feet Although a lovely tenor aria for Ivanhoe starts the act **, I can not help but wonder, is not a battle happening outside the castle right now? Ivanhoe falls asleep. Ulrica and Rebecca come on to tend him.

6: Ah, would that thou and I might lead our sheep Rebecca gets a long aria ** in which she gets to fantasize about life with the gentile Ivanhoe, I suppose as a Giyur? He wakes up and asks her to help him to the window to see the battle. She tells him not to get up.

12: O God of Israel, shield us in this hour! The battle is described by Rebecca and along with the ensuing destruction of the castle is the musical peak of the opera ***. There is a contrast between Rebecca (who begs forgiveness from G-d for the fighting) and Ivanhoe (who feels dishonored for not partaking in the violence). Suddenly, Rebecca sees that the castle is on fire (Ulrica taking her revenge on the Normans by killing everyone in the castle). Bois-Guilbert comes in to drag off Rebecca, Wilfred attempts to protect her but is struck down and Rebecca is taken out. Sullivan pulls off perhaps his most dramatic orchestral feature (a mini-Gotterdammerung). King Richard arrives and rescues Ivanhoe as Ulrica throws herself off the battlements to the cries of the Normans amid the flames. This is what should be the actual ending of act two.

Scene 2: Into the Woods. (17 minutes)

21: Light foot upon the dancing green The Merry Men sing and dance ** before we come upon King Richard (with lute) and Ivanhoe. De Bracy is brought in, now a prisoner of the King. Richard frees him, charging him to ride out and find his brother, Prince John, and order his immediate surrender to the Crown.

29: I am grown infirm of purpose The Quartet as Cedric and Rowena come on and Richard asks Wilfred if his father will recognize him again **. As can be expected, Cedric takes Wilfred back. King Richard leaves so Rowena and Wilfred can finally be alone.

33: How oft beneath the far-off Syrian skies The brief, but touching **, Rowena-Wilfred love duet, before Isaac comes on and forwards the plot: Rebecca has been sentenced to death at the stake by the Templars, accused of having used witchcraft on Bois-Guilbert to cause him to fall in love with her, she has called for a champion to save her, Wilfred is that man! Ironically, this accusation was not made by Bois-Guilbert himself, who is still besotted with Rebecca. He rushes off with Isaac, Rowena collapses.

Scene 3: The Templar Headquarters, stake stage center. (16 minutes)

38: Fremuere principes The bizarrely religious and pretty hymn of the Templars * oozes Gounodesque pseudo-holy sugar to an almost nauseating degree (also, it is the only part of the libretto not in English!). It also lacks any sense of the doom which has befallen our dear Rebecca. The Templar Grand Dragon, sorry, Master, goes over with Rebecca why she is about to be sentenced to death in a goyishe auto da fe. Rebecca declares her innocence, waiting for a Champion (Wilfred) but if not, is prepared to die. Bois-Guilbert attempts to stop the Templars (it was they that accuse her of witchcraft, not he, although his sexual desire for her is the reason why they continue their accusations of witchcraft. Bois-Guilbert tells Rebecca that if she but tells him that she loves him, he would fly with her on his noble steed and take her away from the Templars for sinful (unbridled) sexy time. But she remains stedfast in her devotion to Wilfred, or G-d, not sure which actually.

48: A Champion! A Champion! Wilfred arrives and challenges Bois-Guilbert. Rebecca, knowing that Ivanhoe is still recovering from his injures, begs Bois-Guilbert not to fight him, but he is enraged because he knows she loves him. Bois-Guilbert attacks Ivanhoe, but almost as quickly he drops dead (Divine Intervention). King Richard then banishes the Templars from England (who claim that they will appeal to Rome for this!), he dares them **.

52: See where the banner of England floats The finale **. Rebecca gets her own vocal part above the rest, referencing the Temple, as the Christians praise Love (whom I suppose they worship anyway).


The first thing that is noticeable about Ivanhoe is that is doesn’t have a dull moment. The music itself is consistently lyrical and melodious, bar the occasional chromatic chord (usually in reference to Judaism), and yet, in spite of this, it has few distinctly great moments within its nearly three hour running time. This is probably because Sullivan was trying to prove, to himself and the British music scene, that he could be a composer of a through-composed theatrical work. But the problem is that Sullivan was really an operetta composer, and the best moments in Ivanhoe are those that come closest to the stand alone operetta numbers which made him a household name. Truly, Sullivan is probably the finest English composer of the stop-and-go format, even the English counterpoint to Ferdinand Herold. There are exceptions to this, such as the tournament choruses and the dramatic effects he successfully pulls off during the burning of Torquilstone, but otherwise, the finest moments in the opera are just very good, usually in the work for Wilfred and Rebecca, Rowena getting more vocal effects than dramatically powerful sequences.

The first scene, although the longest, is also the weakest musically. Apart from the drinking song for Cedric, what keeps it going are the orchestral features and the vocal effects for the tenors and sopranos (always the strongest voices for Sullivan, he seems to have loved the high registers so, I am not complaining here, at least he was not being Richard Strauss about tenors!). This remains consistent throughout the opera, where Sullivan has to confront his vocal casting (7 of the 14 soloist roles go to baritones and basses with only 4 tenor parts (2 doubled by the same tenor here as they are such small parts) and 3 female soloists), but is nevertheless able to use his orchestra effectively when need be (the tournament, the burning of Torquilstone, the finale). There are leitmotifs, especially this lurking theme which accompanies any reference to combat. Another problem might be the lack of character buildup for Ulrica, given that she turns into the lynchpin character, causing the burning of Torquilstone. Meanwhile, for the two tenors and the two sopranos, along with the chorus, Sullivan gives some of his most flatteringly dramatic music for the human voice. I am not sure if, were I a professional tenor, I would want to sing Ivanhoe or De Bracy since both get such florid music! Rebecca is perhaps the more fleshed out of the two sopranos, but that has more to do with the libretto, and Sir Walter Scott, than it does with Sullivan.

This is NOT the Sullivan of The Mikado or The Pirates of Penzance, and oftentimes Sullivan (who always parodied even in his best music) is copying features from composers (Wagner, Verdi, Gounod, Berlioz are merely the most obvious) who are far more well known on this blog, but this is, nevertheless, a fine work in places and even at its worst, never boring.

I was temped to alter the structure of the opera and attach Act 3 Scene 1 to Act 2 because I find that it provides for a more dramatic conclusion, and that scene change alone (without being an actual act break) would be a strong preclusion for productions of the opera. Really Sullivan and Julian Sturgis must have realized this technical flaw, you simply can not bring your whole set down and not have an 30 minute intermission!



Chandos Records. Ivanhoe. Pages 14-33 of the booklet includes a 2010 essay in English by Martin T. Yates which includes much of the original details about the composition and first production(s) of the opera. Page 5 includes details about the three intermissions and their length, taken during the first production, and indicating the length of time the act three scene changes required.

Now, if I only could get through Der Roland von Berlin!

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