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First Night Review from The Times, Monday, March 9, 1896.
The welcome accorded to a new Gilbert-and-Sullivan opera increases, perhaps not unnaturally, with each member of the famous series, and its warmth is all the greater on account of the regrettable intermissions in the partnership. But the former works themselves are, as usual, the severest critics of the newer; and, in the case of the opera produced on Saturday night, the recent revival of the best of the whole set inevitably provokes awkward comparisons. The Grand Duke is not by any means another Mikado, and, though it is far from being the least attractive of the series, signs are not wanting that the rich vein which the collaborators and their various followers have worked for so many years is at last dangerously near exhaustion.
This time the libretto is very conspicuously inferior to the music. There are still a number of excellent songs, but the dialogue seems to have lost much of its crispness, the turning-point of what plot there is requires considerable intellectual application before it can be thoroughly grasped, and some of the jests are beaten out terribly thin. There is doubtless much still to be made out of the time-honoured jokes on the parsimonious disposition of the smaller German Courts; but to occupy the greater half of an exceedingly long act with virtually nothing else is surely a mistake on Mr. Gilbert's part.
The less intricate conditions of the "statutory duel" which provides the sub-title for the piece are that the combatants settle their differences by means of drawing cards; the holder of the lower card forthwith becomes civilly dead, and the survivor takes over his responsibilities, including his poor relations, and generally steps into his shoes. After two such encounters, the leading actor in the theatrical company of Speisesaal succeeds to the position, first of his own manager, and shortly afterwards to that of the Grand Duke, who, hearing of a conspiracy to blow him up, is only too ready to arrange that, while he draws a king, the comedian shall draw an ace and enter into his dignities.
As the actor is on the eve of marriage with the soubrette of the troupe, and as a rule has been passed that stations about the Court shall be distributed to the company according to professional position, the leading lady, with feigned reluctance, feels bound to undertake the part of the Grand Duchess; the elderly fiancée of the real Grand Duke insists on being transferred to the new ruler, and finally the Princess of Monte Carlo, to whom the Duke was betrothed in infancy, turns up unexpectedly and establishes her prior rights. The resuscitation of the manager and the Grand Duke is contrived by the discovery of a rule that the ace shall rank as lowest card of the pack, and of course the various ladies, some of whom appear to have been actually married to the actor, find suitable partners before the fall of the curtain.
Though there are next to no topical allusions, the dialogue has a considerable number of whimsical ideas, and when these have been brought nearer to each other by the compression of much that makes the first act and the latter part of the second seem a little tedious, their effect will, no doubt, be increased. "Drains that date back to the reign of Charlemagne" is a phrase that deserves to pass into the language; the ceremonial observed by the seven chamberlains, and their costumes, carefully graduated in the matter of ornament according to their official rank; the adoption of Greek costume by the actor-duke and his Court, he himself appearing in a splendid Louis XIV. wig; and the "job lot" of noblemen, hired from a Jew costumier by the Prince of Monte Carlo — these are among the best things in the piece.
It is a good many years since the composer has given us anything so fine as the opening chorus of the second act, with a sham-Greek refrain, a melody so spontaneous, dignified, and original that it seems hardly suited to its surroundings, or to the taste of most of the audience. From this point, up to and including the tuneful song in which the herald introduces the Prince of Monte Carlo, is, musically speaking, the best part of the work; the actor-duke's exceedingly funny song about the manners and customs of ancient Greece, the clever duet in which the "leading lady" gives her "notion of a first-rate part," her scena "So ends my dream," written in evident imitation and derision of the conventional operatic aria of the last generation, and the elderly baroness's drinking song, which sets out with a reminiscence of the Irish tune "Kate Kearney," are all certain to be popular.
The first act contains a number of pretty choruses, some concerted vocal numbers as effective as usual, and a capital march of the chamberlains, all neatly finished and in strict conformity with the pattern established for such things a good many years ago. That form of instrumental humour, in which Sir Arthur Sullivan has delighted ever since the famous "bassoon joke" in The Sorcerer, finds excellent opportunity in a song in which the grand duke describes his ailments, to the accompaniment of some orchestral symptoms so realistic as to be almost painful. After the entry of the Monte Carlo family in the second act the music is of slighter importance, and the prince's song, in the course of which a roulette table is produced, makes remarkably little effect. The overture consists of a string of tunes that are likely to be most popular.
The "topsy-turvy" element that is looked for in Mr. Gilbert's work is provided by the curious expedient of giving the part of the leading lady of the theatrical company, an English comedian, to a foreign singer, whose broken English is to be taken as representing the broken German of the English performer in a German company. The thing is a little hard to realize, but as the pretty broken English of the singer was greeted with roars of laughter the curious device must be considered successful. The distinguished Hungarian soubrette Mme. Ilka von Palmay, who made her first appearance in London last summer with the Saxe-Coburg Company, has considerably improved and toned down her method, or possibly she is fortunately hampered by her incomplete command of English. Her voice, though far from pleasing, is used with much art, and her delivery of the song in the second act, with its cantabile beginning and brilliant close, fully deserved the encore it received on Saturday. Her resources were fully equal to the scene in which she gives a burlesque specimen of tragic acting, and throughout the second act at least she was entirely successful.
Miss Florence Perry, who must be warned against a growing tendency both to force her small voice and to overact, wins much approval in the part of Lisa; Miss Emmie Owen makes the most of the small part of the princess; and Miss Rosina Brandram is as artistic as ever in the part of the baroness, adding yet another to her series of careful portraits of elderly and amorous ladies.
Mr. Rutland Barrington, on whom, as now usual, falls the chief burden of the piece, is intensely funny as Ludwig, more especially in the absurd costume of the second act, of which the most is made. Mr. Charles Kenningham sings the part of the manager with much care, but spoils it by exaggeration of gesture. Mr. Walter Passmore, in the character of the stingy and dyspeptic grand duke, comes nearer to Mr. Grossmith's level than he has done yet, and his delivery of the songs is in some respects very good. The capital song in which he is obliged to keep back a sneeze until his handkerchief is pompously handed from the "Acting-Temporary-Sub-Deputy-Assistant Vice-Chamberlain" to his superior, and so with much state from one of the seven officials to another, was received with much enthusiasm. Mr. Scott Fishe is an excellent Prince of Monte Carlo; but the effect of his roulette song is thrown into the shade by the herald's song with chorus, one of the most taking things in the opera, in which Mr. J. Hewson was deservedly encored. Mr. Scott Russell was successful as the notary with the engaging name of Dr. Tannhäuser, and the quintet in which he took part in the first act was encored.
The same compliment was bestowed on Mr. Barrington's two songs, the first of which relates the awkward effects of carrying out too faithfully the rule of the secret society which orders the consumption of a sausage-roll as the sign of confederacy; on Lisa's pretty song, in which she commends the faithless Ludwig to her rival's care; on the soprano scena already mentioned; and on the herald's song. The chorus and orchestra are excellent as usual. On Saturday night the opera was conducted by the composer, and went without a hitch of any kind; and the famous Savoy triumvirate were called and warmly applauded at the end. The scenery, dresses, and mounting are as usual irreproachable, and the street perspective in the first scene is one of the most successful things of the kind ever seen on the stage.
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