Retrospect Opera

Great British Operas On Record

Pickwick - The Recording
CDWe’ve now released our second recording, Solomon and Burnand's charming operetta Pickwick. We were delighted to have the extraordinary Simon Butteriss take the rôle of Pickwick, with Gaynor Keeble singing Mrs Bardell, and Toby Stafford-Allen, the Baker. Our pianist was the superb Stephen Higgins.  The CD includes the wickedly amusing Cups and Saucers, by George Grossmith, Gilbert and Sullivan's brilliant and gifted comic baritone. This was written as a curtain-raiser, to whet the audience’s appetite for what was to come, and was very highly acclaimed.

Many others are as enthusiastic about the project as we are -
Mark Charles Dickens, head of the Dickens family, wrote:

I am very pleased to support Retrospect Opera’s revival of Francis Burnand's and Edward Solomon's Pickwick, first performed in 1889. The Dickens family are delighted that the works of Charles Dickens remain as popular as ever and continue to be published and performed in so many ways. This adaptation stands at the head of the tradition of Dickensian musicals, which makes it particularly exciting, and the idea of treating the Pickwick-Bardell misunderstanding in music is most appealing. I thoroughly recommend this project and hope that many will support it.  

And Stephen Jarvis, the author of the acclaimed Death and Mr Pickwick, wrote:

Burnand’s angle on The Pickwick Papers is so audacious that it is thrilling.  Because, in this operetta, Mrs Bardell’s romantic involvement with a baker – a relationship which occupies just a few insignificant lines in the original novel –  becomes the central concern. It is as if Mr Pickwick’s famous spectacles, with which he conducted his observations of human nature, were replaced with high-powered zoom lenses. That such an extraordinary work as Burnand’s could be created, and that it could find a keen audience, is proof of the colossal success of The Pickwick Papers. If you want to experience the sheer power of Pickwick as a literary phenomenon, and how it touched people’s lives so deeply that even tiny details of the book held a fascination, then checking out this operetta is a must. I am delighted that it is being brought back by Retrospect Opera and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

What the critics are saying about Pickwick and Cups and Saucers:

Retrospect Opera, who pride themselves on releasing hitherto unknown British operas and operettas (pre-Britten) to the public in performance and on disc ... are doing English music fans a great service. ... Gaynor Keeble sings the role of Mrs Bardell with wit and insight and her voice is the kind that one could listen to for hours on end. Simon Butteriss plays the role of Mr. Pickwick and captures the character so well in an audio recording that the listener really does not miss a visual production. ... A highly recommendable CD for lovers of Dickens and of Gilbert and Sullivan style operettas, superbly recorded and packaged. (Dan Adams, Light Music Society Journal)

Solomon has an assured sense of theatre ... [his] most memorable tune is a lilting barcarolle (‘A Baker-Roll’) for Mrs Bardell and her erstwhile lover The Baker ... his word-setting is natural and unforced. ... The performers ... are very good indeed. ... Much devolves onto Simon Butteriss’s Pickwick, and this highly experienced Savoyard brings all his skills to bear ... His diction is faultless, his genteel late-Victorian comedy manners unfailingly polite, and he certainly conveys the sunny optimism of Dicken’s original. ...Grossmith packed some sharp dialogue and Thackeray-style social satire into the plot [of Cups and Saucers], as well as a handful of warmly charming parlour songs of his own. ... Butteriss simply channels Grossmith – it hardly feels like acting; and Gaynor [Keeble] is if anything more congenially cast as the pretentious social climber Mrs Worcester than as the more down-market Mrs Bardell. Stephen Higgins’s accompaniment is again nicely judged, bringing an almost Elgarian wistfulness to the General’s sentimental little solo ‘Fare thee well, a long farewell!’ (Christopher Webber,


It is no exaggeration to describe Pickwick as the first great Charles Dickens musical, though in its own day it was categorised as an operetta (and, for the scholarly minded, was officially titled a ‘dramatic cantata,’ following the Gilbert and Sullivan Trial by Jury). Musical versions of Dickens’s stories before Pickwick were little more than disjointed spoken plays with a handful of largely incidental songs. Pickwick, by contrast, was essentially conceived in sung music from start to finish, the most celebrated incident in Pickwick Papers, the hilarious misunderstanding between Mr Pickwick and Mrs Bardell, elaborated in a series of sparkling songs and duets. Pickwick was premiered at the Comedy Theatre, London, on 7 February 1889, where it ran for several weeks, getting excellent reviews. It boasted a superb cast, with Arthur Cecil as Pickwick, Lottie Venne as Mrs Bardell and Rutland Barrington as the Baker. Barrington later recalled that Pickwick ‘used to go splendidly’ and that Solomon was ‘absolutely brimming over with melodies that caught the ear at once.’ But the Baker? Who was he? There is a clue in Pickwick Papers, but you’ll have to listen to the operetta to discover the full extent of his ‘roll’ in the fateful misunderstanding! 

PickwickIt is doubtful whether any Dickensian musical theatre work has ever been created with more practical experience of the stage: by 1889, Burnand had written some ninety theatrical works, while Solomon had composed over twenty theatrical scores. Burnand claimed, with good reason, to be the father of the English operetta. He collaborated with Arthur Sullivan several years before W. S. Gilbert did, writing the text of Cox and Box (1866) for him. Solomon, for his part, was regularly compared with Sullivan, so the Burnand and Solomon partnership, which also produced several other works, can be legitimately considered a sort of alternative Gilbert and Sullivan. Pickwick, for its part, was immediately recognised as a work in the Cox and Box vein, so altogether this delightful little musical may be said to connect two of the great pillars of nineteenth-century British culture: Charles Dickens and the Savoy operettas.

Text © 2016 David Chandler

Edward Solomon

Edward Solomon was born in 1855 in London; he learned to play the piano from his father, a music hall pianist, conductor and composer.

SolomonHe was an extremely busy musician, spotting opportunities, and composing where and when needed. He worked a good deal with Pot Stephens, producing a number of lightweight, popular theatre pieces, but worked with others too. Pickwick wasn’t the only piece he wrote with Burnand - they also wrote Domestic Economy and The Tiger, though this last one was not a success.

His first wife was 15 when they married (their daughter was born the same year), and he later married again, without going to the bother of divorcing his first wife. Once his second wife learned of the first, she divorced him; later so did his first wife, and he married a third time. He accumulated five wives in all, and several children.

Solomon packed a good deal into a short life - he died of typhoid fever in 1895, aged just 39. The Wikipedia article has much more to say about him.

Sir Francis Burnand

Sir Francis Cowley Burnand - usually known simply as F. C. Burnand - was born in London in 1836. He was a prolific playwright, and a leading contributor to the magazine Punch. Even in his teens, he was involved in the theatre, and was a founder member of the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club (which still exists today). His family pressured him into joining the priesthood, where he blotted his copybook by leaving the Anglican church, and converting to Catholicism. Fortunately, his father bowed to the inevitable and gave him his blessing to leave a religious life behind and go into the theatre.  The Wikipedia article on Burnand is extensive and useful.