|Iolanthe > Reviews > First Night Review
From the Daily News (London, England), Monday, November 27, 1882; Issue 11425.
The long-expected production of the new comic opera by Mr. W. S. Gilbert and Mr. Arthur Sullivan took place on Saturday night, and achieved a success similar to that which had previously attended the several joint productions of those gentlemen. It is some years now since Mr. Sullivan first manifested in pieces of a smaller calibre — especially The Contrabandista and Trial by Jury — a vein of refined comic humour which he has since developed to a far greater and more successful extent. His command over all the technical resources of his art has been proved in other works of a high class, both secular and sacred, notably as a symphonist, in his several cantatas, and in the yet more important oratorio The Light of the World, produced at the Birmingham Festival of 1873. In a multitude of songs and other vocal pieces for drawing-room use, grace of style and suavity of melody are eminently conspicuous. With such antecedents, it is not surprising that in music allied even with the most comic associations Mr. Sullivan realises brightness and vivacity of style without sacrificing artistic taste; writes for his solo singers with thorough knowledge of vocal requirements; uses the orchestra — of whatever dimensions — with admirable command of its possible effects and varieties; and impresses all concerted pieces with that touch of constructive completeness which can only be acquired by such a thorough musical training as that which he has passed through.
Since the happy co-operation of Auber and Scribe — those twin-geniuses of opera-comique — there has been no such association comparable to that of Messrs. Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert. The latter possesses (like his coadjutor) special qualities not always found under like conditions. He is an educated gentleman whose keen and pungent humour, caustic satire, and power of word-play are all coloured by literary culture and governed by good taste. We might well say of the author of the "Bab Ballads "— as Sir Nathaniel says of Holofernes — that he is pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection" (affectation), "audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy." As with the late Mr. PIanché's exquisite pieces produced at the Olympic Theatre (long, long ago!) the most fastidious visitors will find in Mr. Gilbert's comic writing abundance of intellectual amusement with an absence of any approach to coarseness or vulgarity. In like manner the most cultivated and serious musician can scarcely fail to be pleased, and can never (unless in the exceptional case of a hypercritical cynic) be in any way offended by Mr. Sullivan's settings of the author's text. It is but right to put all these points thus strongly in days when silly and coarse burlesque and trashy dance music are frequently allied in a combination miscalled opera comique.
The new work brought out at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday night is entitled Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri, and is the fifth important piece of the kind resulting from the association of Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan, its predecessors having been The Sorcerer (in 1877), H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1880), and Patience (1881). All these were brought out at the Opera Comique Theatre, in the Strand, the last-named piece having been, after a long run, transferred to Mr. R. D'Oyly Carte's new theatre, the Savoy, where it had another extended career; and here a fresh tribute may well be rendered to the excellent arrangements of this elegant little house, its good ventilation and lighting, and its safety — the last quality being one by no means to be overlooked in times when attention has been specially called to this essential condition of public buildings.
To return to the novelty of Saturday night, the piece is in two acts, the opening scene being an Arcadian landscape, with a river in the background. Fairies enter and bewail the absence of Iolanthe, banished by their Queen some twenty-five years before, for having married a moral. The intercession of the Queen procures the recall of Iolanthe, who rises from the water clad in weeds; and, being pardoned, resumes her appearance and status as a fairy. When questioned why she close her river abode she replies, in order to be near her son Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd who is "fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal." He enters, playing on a flageolet, and states that he is to be married that day to Phyllis, an Arcadian shepherdess and a ward in Chancery! The entry of Phyllis leads to a love duet, in which the pair vow eternal constancy.
A military march introduces a procession of peers in their robes of state, followed by the Lord Chancellor and his trainbearer, and here occurs one of the most richly humorous scenes in the work. The coroneted peers, including the Earls Tolloller and Mountararat, present an array of pompous and inflated inanities whose gestures and varied facial expressions offer a pungent satire on the merely pretentious aspect of aristocracy. The Lord Chancellor sings a characteristic song in praise of the law, and alluding to the difficulties of his office as guardian of pretty young wards in Chancery, as "none are under [sic] the age of twenty-one; a pleasant occupation for a rather susceptible Chancellor!"
Phyllis is summoned before the assemblage of peers and the Chancellor to make her selection from the noblemen; but she declines to make the choice suggested, and avows her love for Strephon, who enters, the two embrace, and the peers depart disconsolate. The Lord Chancellor takes Strephon to task for disobeying the Court, and an amusing dialogue is followed by a capital song for the former, the pungent satire of which is so good as to justify entire quotation:
Strephon's marriage being interdicted, he seeks counsel from Iolanthe, and is suddenly confronted by Phyllis, who, in jealousy (not knowing the relationship) rejects him, and signifies her consent to unite her self to one of the peers — Lords Mountararat and Tolloller (who now approach) — singing, in her ballad,
This is a portion of the finale to the first act, the remainder of which includes — the expressions of wonder and disbelief at Strephon's statement that the young-looking Iolanthe, apparently seventeen, is the mother of the nearly twenty-five-year-old Shepherd — and the interposition of the Queen of the Fairies, who makes herself known to the astonished Chancellor; the act winding up with the Queen's mandate that Strephon shall enter Parliament, assuring the peers that —
The consternation of the peers and the exultation of the fairies bring the first act to an effective close.
Act 2 takes place in Palace-yard, Westminster, Private Wills (of the Grenadier Guards) being on duty as sentry. He sings a capital song in which he gives his opinion that
Choruses of fairies and of peers announce that "Strephon's a member of Parliament, and carries every Bill he chooses," Lord Mountararat observing that the ci-devant shepherd "is playing the deuce with everything! To-night is the second reading of his Bill to throw the peerage open to competitive examination." Then follows a rich scene, full of caustic satire on aristocratic legislation, succeeded by some comic dialogue between the fairies, a very pleasing song for the Queen, with choral refrain; some humorous writing for the two Earls which might well be condensed, and a charming quartet for them, Phyllis, and the Sentry.
After this comes a "patter" song for the Lord Chancellor — extremely clever both verbally and musically — then a spirited trio, in the buffo style, for him and the two Earls. Phyllis has learned that Iolanthe is Strephon's fairy mother, and this reconciles her to her lover — another discovery being that Iolanthe is the Lord Chancellor's wife. The prohibition of Phyllis's and Strephon's marriage by the law which denounces death to every fairy who marries a mortal is overcome by the Lord Chancellor, who, "as an old equity draughtsman," suggests an emendation of the legal document by which it is made to read that "every fairy shall die who don't marry a mortal." A general union of fairies and mortals ensues — the Queen takes Willis, the sentry, and, asking the nobleman to unite themselves each to a fairy, is answered Lord Mountararat, "Well, now that the Peers are to be recruited entirely from persons of intelligence, I really don't see what use we are down here;" and is seconded by Lord Tolloller, who adds "None whatever;" the Lord Chancellor exclaiming "Happy exchange — House of Peers for House of Peris." A bright finale and a general dance bring the piece to an end.
It must be admitted that there is much farcical and far-fetched absurdity, especially in the second act (which needs compression); but the fun elicited therefrom may well excuse it.
The performance realised the excellence anticipated from the efficiency of Friday night's dress rehearsal. Miss Leonora Braham was a charming Phyllis, always graceful, even when most coquettish; and at times earnest without affectation. Miss Jessie Bond was an excellent representative of the handsome and young-looking fairy, Iolanthe, and sang her music with much charm. Miss Alice Barnett looked majestic as the fairy Queen, and gave her declamatory passages with good effect — the parts of the three fairies, Celia, Leila, and Fleta, having been well sustained respectively by Misses Fortescue, J. Gwynne, and S. Grey.
Mr. G. Grossmith, by his impersonation of the Lord Chancellor, fully sustained his reputation as an excellent comedian (in make-up a miniature Brougham). In action and gesture and the delivery of his music, nothing could have been better. Mr. R. Temple sang and acted well as Strephon; and Mr. Rutland Barrington as Lord Mountararat, Mr. D. Lely as Lord Tolloller, and Mr. Manners as Private Willis, contributed, in their respective degrees, to the general efficiency of the cast. The chorus-singing was good, and the orchestral details were excellently rendered by a select band of first-rate quality.
The two scenes, the Arcadian Landscape and Palace yard by Moonlight, are beautiful stage pictures, and the costumes of fairies and nobles are rich and tasteful. Mr. Sullivan conducted; he, Mr. Gilbert, the principal performers, and Mr. D'Oyly Carte (the manager), having been called before the curtain. The applause throughout the piece (from a crowded audience) was frequent and enthusiastic — there were nine encores — and there can be no doubt that Iolanthe is destined to have a long and prosperous run.
(BY ANGLO-AMERICAN TELEGRAPH.)
NEW YORK, SUNDAY.
A crowded and fashionable audience witnessed the first performance of Iolanthe on Saturday evening. The piece was finely mounted, and greeted with much enthusiasm. The general opinion is that it will be less popular than its predecessors from the same authors, because the music is less meritorious, and because of the strong localisms which prevent many of the best hits being understood. Still the critics praise it generously, and predict for it a long, successful run.
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