|Iolanthe > Reviews > First Night Review
From The Graphic (London, England), Saturday, December 2, 1882; Issue 679.
"IOLANTHE "—That Mr. Arthur Sullivan, in partnership with Mr. W. S. Gilbert, his alter ego of several years' standing, has merited and won a new success would seem to be unanimously, and on fair grounds, admitted. The continuous laughter and applause awarded by an audience which, on Saturday night, filled the Savoy Theatre in every part, was equivalent to a verdict of approval not easily questioned; and this acknowledgment of pleasure administered and thoroughly appreciated may be looked upon as a guarantee of popularity in store.
One feeling, however, found expression even among those spectators apparently most delighted with what they saw and heard, acclaimed and eulogised — viz., that some considerable compression of the dialogue in the second, and for cogent reasons least engrossing act, would in no wise weaken the effect, but rather enhance its general significance; nor is such unprejudiced criticism likely to pass unregarded by those who have often, to their own advantage, tested public opinion as the joint contributors to this highly diverting entertainment, which while, with purpose intent, upsetting all fixed notions of congruity, brings art and humour together in genial companionship.
An extravaganza by Mr. Gilbert must be taken cum grano salis. Only to the brain that imagined the "Bab Ballads" could such odd fancies, bewildering plots, and incomprehensible "windings-up" occur; and it is hardly too much to say that in Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri, Mr. Gilbert is as odd, bewildering, incomprehensible (and amusing) — if not, indeed, exceptions here and there allowed or condoned, more so — than in any previous essay of the kind. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that, amid these indications of peculiar wit and humour, occasionally so subtle and apparently distorted as to elude the immediate apprehension of all but keen and attentive listeners, Mr. Gilbert shows a mastery of lyric numbers enough to induce any operatic composer to solicit a libretto from his hand — so rhythmical is his verse, so inviting to communion with music; and no one can be more thoroughly persuaded of this than Mr. Arthur Sullivan, now for the fifth time his successful collaborateur.
That Mr. Gilbert now and then repeats himself is evident, and it would be wonderful were such not the case. One instance, however, may suffice. Passing by the Sorcerer and the maids of the village, we come to the conclusion that a company of young ladies are indispensable to his purpose. In H.M.S. Pinafore we have the "sisters, the cousins, and the aunts" of Sir Joseph Porter; in the Pirates of Penzance, the many daughters of General Stanley; in Patience, the posse of female æsthetes; and now in Iolanthe a bevy of ethereal fairies. In the last three pieces, moreover, all these ladies make incredible marriages. In the first, General Stanley's daughters each wed one of the pirates, their quondam persecutors; in Patience the female "almost too utter" æsthetes wed the male sham æsthetes, when the latter have exhibited themselves in their true colours; and now, in Iolanthe, the denizens of the world of faëry yield to the solicitations of the members of the House of Peers, each of them being married to at least a lord.
The idea of bringing elements so incongruous together, and the practicability of inventing anything like a colourable pretext for the solution, belongs exclusively to the swarm of strange fancies that must perpetually haunt the dreams of Mr. Gilbert, and must in the natural course of things perplex that ingenious dramatist himself, as it not unfrequently does those for whose recreation they are fashioned into shape. If Professor Porson, when stumbling against chairs and tables in the dark, exclaims "Confound the nature of things," what would he not have said in witnessing, under the full glare of the electric light, this last and most extraordinary of Mr. Gilbert's catastrophes! Those, however, who have seen the play, or read it, or perused the lengthy and exhaustive notices in the columns of our daily contemporaries (and who can be so indifferent to Art progress in a certain direction as to fail in one or other of these things) must already have adopted a conclusion.
This conclusion, if we are not deceived, may be summed up with tolerable accuracy as thus follows:—The first act, to which, on the opening night, laughter seemed to be a running accompaniment, is the better of the two, there being fewer moments of evident calculation than in the second, full of telling points as that undoubtedly is; the almost inexplicable commingling of fairies and mortals, with the singular conduct of both, is conceived in the author's happiest vein; the satirical allusions to the Peers of the realm might, at intervals, be toned down, without much hurt to what Corporal Nym would call "the humour of it;" and lastly, the character of the Lord Chancellor (so inimitably personated by Mr. Grossmith) is, perhaps, the drollest and most original creation in all the Gilbert-Sullivan "cyclus." A description of the "plot" in detail is happily spared us, for reasons hinted at above; we may, however, simply state our opinion that Peer and Peri (not Perella) would have been a happier title for the new work than Iolanthe (which suggests little or nothing), and thus have satisfied the majority, who looked forward to an uninterrupted row of "P's " — from Pinafore downwards.
In Mr. Sullivan Mr. Gilbert has once again found his match, the whole spirit and humour of the drama, its personages and incidents, being faithfully reflected, always conspicuously set forth, and at periods even idealised by the music. Not seldom when the dialogue, the "peripétie," in short, of what occurs before the footlights, might otherwise seem to lag, Mr. Sullivan strengthens and seems to hasten it on by the orchestral devices of which he is a deservedly acknowledged master. If at times, like Mr. Gilbert — as is almost inevitable — he repeats himself, and reminiscences of old familiar friends are conjured up, this is amply redeemed by the alluring new dress provided by the taste and skill of the musician. When Mr. Sullivan appropriates, or seems to appropriate, the semblance of phrases not actually drawn from his own spring of melody — which, as we know, is flowing and abundant enough — it is almost invariably with a purpose, and that purpose as invariably put to excellent use. Several instances to the point might be cited, but our limited space forbids. Carefully studied as a whole, musicians and cultured amateurs are not unlikely to rank Iolanthe highest in the scale of those productions for which Mr. Sullivan is indebted to a colleague into whose peculiar, and, it may be added, unique, sense of humour, we doubt if any other composer could enter with such close and undeviating sympathy. Melody comes spontaneously to him, no matter in what form the sentiment or action on the stage may require. "Patter" songs (and in the musical embodiment of these he stands alone), expressive songs, or what is still more difficult, songs with a dramatic purport, made expressive in spite of the apparently antagonistic verbal text, dance-tunes, faery music, and all the rest, seem to answer his summons as promptly as the behests of Aladdin were responded to by the Geni of the Ring and the Lamp. If not always marked with the stamp of originality, they are at his immediate command, amenable to whatever treatment he may desire to submit them. We could say a good deal about the concerted pieces, and especially the amply developed finale to Act I, but all this must be reserved for a future occasion. Enough that the music of Iolanthe deserves more than a passing notice, critical or otherwise.
The performance generally must be dismissed in a sentence. Every sign of careful rehearsal was discernible, and the prominent characters were, without exception, in the hands of artists fitted to make the best of them. Side by side with Mr. Grossmith's Lord Chancellor (already mentioned), the other personages, represented by Miss Jessie Bond (Iolanthe), Miss Alice Barnett (the Fairy Queen), Mr. R. Temple (Strephon), Messrs. Lely and Rutland Barrington (Earls Tolloller and Mountararat), Mr. Manners (the Sentry), Misses Fortescue, Gwynne, and Grey (three conspicuous fairies); and, last not least, Miss Leonora Braham (Phyllis), worthily held their own, and did their utmost, one and all, to render the ensemble irreproachable.
The two scenes, one for each act, the work of Mr. Henry Emden, were generally and deservedly admired, while nothing could be more picturesque and appropriate than the costumes. Mr. Sullivan himself, at the head of a small but efficient orchestra of picked players, conducted the performance; and at the fall of the curtain he and Mr. Gilbert were called in front, and enthusiastically applauded.
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