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In spite of the melancholy circumstance of the composer’s recent death, Mr. Cellier’s last work, The Mountebanks, was produced last night with such success that the customary managerial question need hardly have been put to the audience at the close of the performance. In any opera in which Mr. Gilbert bears a share, the libretto must be at least equally important with the music, and it is no disrespect to the composer who has just passed away to admit that in the present case the words claim primary attention.
For the mainspring of his plot, the librettist has returned to a device of happy omen, since some of his greatest successes have turned on similar incidents. The potion which has the power of transforming those who drink it into whatever they pretend to be is obviously allied to the central idea of The Palace of Truth and to that of The Sorcerer; its chief defect, from a dramatic point of view, is the great difficulty of finding an adequate motive for the assumption of sufficiently absurd peculiarities by a number of the characters. The end of the first act will hardly bear investigation on this ground, though, of course, with a privileged merry-maker like Mr. Gilbert, such investigation savours of impertinence.
As in some others of the author’s later works, the dramatis personæ fall into several entirely distinct groups – almost, if not altogether, distinct from each other. The main plot will probably be held to be that section which refers to the scenes of love and jealousy between two Sicilian peasants; it is, perhaps, fair to say that, in spite of the odd coincidence in subject, no idea of parodying Cavalleria Rusticana seems to have occurred to the author. Teresa, whose high appreciation of her own charms will be recognized as one of Mr. Gilbert’s favourite themes, endeavours to rid herself of her pertinacious suitor, Alfredo, by inducing him to make love to Ultrice, a young lady apparently intended to be of forbidding appearance and strong character; the latter and Alfredo are readily persuaded to assume the characters of a duke and duchess who are travelling in the neighbourhood. Why these characters should be assumed it is most difficult to gather.
The members of the “Tamorra Secret Society,” one of those delightful associations in which the author is always at his best, intend to capture the party, and to this end adopt the dress of Dominican monks, in and near whose convent the action takes place. A flirtation between the captain of the band and a peasant bride may be regarded as one of two underplots, and the third group of characters is the party of itinerant performers from which the piece is named. The Pierrot of this company, who is, of course, a blighted tragedian, together with the dancer Nita, is induced by the proprietor of the troupe to assume the actions of a pair of automaton figures representing Hamlet and Ophelia, which have been detained by the Custom-house officer, and which constitute the chief attraction of the show.
At the moment when the potion is taken by most of the principal characters, the manager pretends that it is a deadly poison (again, a motive for this is extremely hard to detect), and during the second act his part has to be performed as if be were in rapidly-increasing agonies of pain. The delicious antics of the clockwork Hamlet and Ophelia, into which the clown and dancer are changed, furnish plenty of merriment, and in public estimation it is safe to affirm that the scenes in which they take part will be the central attraction of the piece. The disdainful beauty Teresa, seeing her lover and rival attired in grand clothes, feigns to be crazed for love of him, and accordingly remains so during the second act. The mock duke and duchess find that their assumed position is a reality, the newly-married peasant girl, Minestra – it is a humour of Mr. Gilbert’s to name some of his characters after Italian dishes – turns into an old woman, and the members of the secret society find themselves actual monks. After various accidents the antidote is found, and with the burning of the label on the medicine bottle containing the philtre all are restored to their real characters.
The situations briefly sketched give obvious opportunities for the kind of dialogue in which the author is so happy. The watchwords of the secret society – “Revenge without anxiety” and “Heroism without risk” – the capital words of the opening, chorus, and, perhaps best of all, the absurd epitome of the plot of Hamlet, given in a trio in the second act, are only a few examples, but the dialogue is so crammed with quips of the true Gilbertian ring that selection is most difficult.
Far more difficult is it to pronounce upon the value of the music, for there is a natural and not unbecoming tendency on all hands to over-estimate the work of a composer recently dead, and it is scarcely the moment to point out weak points which Mr. Cellier, if he had lived, might have altered or improved. As it is, some three songs remain without musical settings, and, though they contain many phrases that would tell excellently in the hands of the actors, they are very properly omitted in performance, though inserted in the book of words. The overture, too, was not completed, and the opera is ushered in by a lively movement from an orchestral suite of the composer’s. An entr’acte has also been adapted by Mr. Caryll, the conductor, from a song in the second act.
The brightest numbers in the score are a female chorus, “Come all the maidens”; the song, “High jerry ho!” which is used again for the finale; a quarrelling quartet, and a far better number in which the gestures of a grand lady are practised by one girl and mocked by the other; a bright little dialogue, “Oh, whither, whither, whither do you speed you?” the opening duet of the second act; the really comic duet of the automata, “Put a penny in the slot,” a number which well deserves the honour of a double encore, a clever double chorus, containing a not very abstruse combination of a waltz theme with a subject of ecclesiastical character; the whimsical reception of the sham duke by the sham monks, and his speech, consisting of a vocalized recitative – a really capital example of musical humour – and the Hamlet trio, “Ophelia was a dainty little maid.”
A very pretty and thoroughly artistic number is Alfredo’s first song, “Bedecked in fashion trim”; but this failed to obtain the encore which was given to most of the above-mentioned numbers, and to many more. A good deal of the music bears traces either of over-fatigue or of a sad lack of inspiration, and the themes not seldom contain reminiscences both of Mr. Cellier’s own compositions or of the Savoy operas. The ensembles with chorus are particularly weak, and most of the soprano music is rather laboured. The “mad song” in the second act is melodious, however, though it does little to reflect the mental condition of the character.
The part to which it belongs is taken by Miss Geraldine Ulmar, who sings and acts with considerable vivacity; the chief honours of the first performance fell, however, to a new comer, Miss Aida Jenoure, who, as Nita, the dancer transformed into an automaton, proved herself a most, welcome acquisition. She uses a very agreeable voice well, dances gracefully, and in the later scene reveals a wonderful command of absurd gesture. It is difficult to see how Miss Jessie Bond and Mr. Barrington could have improved upon the performance of the scenes between the clockwork Hamlet and Ophelia, in which the clever débutante was admirably assisted by Mr. Monkhouse, whose powers as a genuine comedian have been usually a good deal obscured of late by a tendency to exaggerate. His declamation in the tragic manner, in the first act, was enormously successful.
The small part of Minestra was agreeably played by Miss Eva Moore, whose extremely small voice is used with considerable skill. Miss Lucille Saunders, whose voice is of good quality, has not the dramatic experience needful for an effective impersonation of the unattractive Ultrice. Mr. J. Robertson sings in extremely good style, and acts the part of the lover, transformed into the duke, with intelligence and dignity. Mr. F. Wyatt, whose powers do not find very ample opportunity in the part of the captain of the secret society, is yet more fortunate in this respect then Mr. Lionel Brough, who fails to make the leader of the mountebanks very funny. Messrs. A. Playfair, C. Gilbert, Furneaux Cook, and Cecil Burt are thoroughly efficient in parts of minor importance. Mr. Ryan’s two scenes are admirable, and the stage management and mounting of the opera could hardly be improved. Mr. Caryll, the conductor, and Mr. Sedger, the manager, appeared before the curtain at the close of the performance.