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First Night Review

This review appeared in the London "Morning Advertiser" of Monday, 27
November 1882. Submitted the the Archive by Larry Simons.


SAVOY THEATRE

“Patience” having had an unusually long run, the bill at the Savoy is changed. A new fairy opera, “Iolanthe; or, the Peer and the Peri,” by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, was brought out on Saturday night. It was a success, but the second of the two acts will bear cutting.

The opera is written on the lines laid down by Mr. W. S. Gilbert, and no greater compliment can be paid him than to say that his libretto will bear reading. In point of fact, the enjoyment of those who go to see “Iolanthe” will be considerably enhanced by perusal of the text, which is full of those quaint conceits and piquant fancies peculiar to the author. This “Iolanthe” shows no strong or radical departure from the previous style and method of procedure adopted with such profitable results by Mr. Gilbert in the dramatic framework supplied to Mr. Sullivan. Neither of them strikes out anything particularly novel in design. The paths they have trodden are still open to them, and they wisely elect not to diverge from the track too soon.

The Gilbertian school of humour is unique and peculiar. It may not endure, but it has made its mark. Neither Mr. Gilbert as an author, nor Mr. Sullivan as a musician, write for immortality. The school they have founded may not, perhaps, last far beyond their own time; nor can it be said that their operas are likely to confer any benefit upon the future lyric stage. They write for the time, and leave more elevated forms of art to the care of others. For all that, their work is most valuable, and has a distinctly beneficial influence. If they do no more than the majority of their fellows for the eternal glory of the musical drama, they do not degrade it.

Their operas have nothing in common with the inanities of modern burlesque. Burlesques they certainly are in a way, but free from vulgarity, commonplace, or coarseness, direct or inferential. Mr. Gilbert does not forget that he is writing for English women. He is not unwarrantably suggestive, even in his wildest and most eccentric flights of fancy; that is a great point.

Coming to the technicalities of writing, his versification is perfect. His rhymes are invariably true, his dialogue carefully polished, and no slipshod sentences are to be found from one to the other end of any play of his. As usual, in “Iolanthe” he turns human nature upside down, indulges in the most violent outrages against common sense, and puts before us a diverting jumble of the real and the ideal — of prosaic, every-day life, treated from the facetious point of view, and the fantastic proceedings of the fairies. He revels in producing violent contrasts, ultra-ridiculous surprises, and in misrepresenting everything as it exists in human nature. No idea is too ludicrous for Mr. Gilbert to originate and work out, no situation too absurd in which to place his characters. This opera, like some of its predecessors, is a kind of exaggerated Bab ballad. The behaviour of every soul in it is intensely unreasonable. Probability, or even possibility, is held of no moment, and is systematically despised. Folly shakes her bells, and reason is beaten out of the field; but in his wildest moments, Mr. Gilbert is the keen satirist. He has a way of bringing truths before his audience, while seeming to desire nothing better than to make them laugh. He turns human nature the seamy side without, but mirthfully; he is not simply a laborious punster, and twister of words, but in his way is an analyzer of character, and a true if severe commentator on the weaknesses, the meanness, and the shame of the world and of men.

Bearing witness to Mr. Gilbert’s power as a perfectly original humorist, it must be confessed that he sometimes repeats himself, and daringly, too, not so much in the letter as in the spirit. No author with the least pride in his work would, of course, venture upon direct reproduction of himself, but a form of joke that has once told well is not always readily abandoned. In this opera, the Lord Chancellor, one of the characters, has a speech of self-examination, somewhat of that given to the lady in “Engaged,” who cannot quite satisfy herself as to whose wife she is. Again a capital song, given to the Chancellor, is to some extent suggestive of that in which the Judge in “Trial by Jury,” details his upward progress in the legal profession.

As for telling the plot of “Iolanthe,” we may claim exemption from that task. The whole thing is one of those extended jokes to be heartily enjoyed, but not to be described in the ordinary way. The main idea is that the Lord Chancellor of England is in love with one of his wards. Mr. Gilbert elaborates this quite in his own manner, and constantly brings mortals and immortals together in most diverting fashion.

Miss Leonora Braham plays Phyllis, a typical shepherdess of Arcadia, and of the Dresden china pattern. Her lover is called Strephon, the offspring of a fairy condemned to live at the bottom of a river for marrying a mortal, but released at the intercession of a bevy of long-skirted Fays, reigned over by a massive Queen (Miss Alice Barnett). As in the “Pirates of Penzance” and “Patience,” the lady’s stature and proportions are made the subject of many jokes that tell fully with the audience. Miss Barnett is made up in a golden helmet, and looks something like Brunnhilde in the Wagnerian opera. The stately Queen ends by proposing to and marrying a Grenadier Guard, sentry in Palace-yard, Westminster. This is a tolerably wild notion among many others Mr. Gilbert puts into form.

The scene of the first act is a remarkably pretty rustic landscape with practicable bridge. After Strephon and Phyllis, the flageolet-playing rustics, have appeared, the stage becomes filled with a numerous company of English peers, all in their robes, and everyone of them in love with the shepherdess. The entrance of these noblemen, cloaked and gartered and coroneted, is the most absurd thing conceivable. They are preceded by the band of the Grenadiers, and accompanied by the Lord Chancellor (Mr. Grossmith), who finds himself in the extraordinary position of being of being obliged to ask his own consent to marry his fascinating ward Phyllis. He has an exceedingly humorous song, “The law is the true embodiment;” another even better, “When I went to the Bar as a very young man;” and a third, “When you’re lying awake,” in the second act. On Saturday night all were encored, and this will probably be the case at future representations, for Mr. Grossmith sings them with great point and remarkable clearness of articulation. In this second act the solemn representative of English law, the all-powerful Chancellor, tucks up his robes and joins in a wild dance with two of the peers — Earl Tolloller (Mr. Durward Lely) and the Earl of Mountararat (Mr. Rutland Barrington). A trio, of which this ridiculous dance forms part, was re-demanded, evidently on account of the intense absurdity of the situation, although it came late in the evening.

The ludicrous is drawn upon freely by Mr. Gilbert from first to last. Thus we have the robust Strephon with a fairy mother, Iolanthe (Miss Jessie Bond), looking considerably younger than himself.

At the very commencement of the second act, a stalwart Grenadier (Mr. Manners), on guard opposite Westminster Hall, has a song, “When all night long a chap remains.” This, both words and music, is conceived in the best and truest spirit of burlesque. Both the dramatist and the musician are also to be congratulated on the last song of the Chancellor, “When you’re lying awake.” Nowadays comic songs frequently find their way into drawing-rooms, and this is one that will no doubt be extensively taken up. It might be sung in any assemblage.

The opera contains surprises in plenty, and one that came with singular effect on Saturday night. Those who had books of the words came in due course to a kind of Bab ballad, and in Mr. Gilbert’s best vein “De Belleville was regarded as the Crichton of his age.” It fell to the lot of Lord Mountararat, and everyone of course thought Mr. Barrington would sing it. To the intense surprise, however, of the audience, the facetious ballad was recited. It should have made a stronger mark than it did, for it is very cleverly written. The middle verse was omitted, which was a pity, for not a line of so good a thing should be lost.

In this act is a dainty little duet for two of the principal fairies, Celia and Leila (Miss Fortescue and Miss Julia Gwynne), supported by the chorus. It has a charmingly fanciful and piquant accompaniment for the strings pizzicato, and is more than a credit to Mr. Arthur Sullivan. Strange to say, this pretty duet was allowed to go almost unnoticed. A song for the Fairy Queen almost immediately succeeding the duet, has, as a choral refrain, a sham lachrymose appeal to Captain Shaw, head of the London Fire Brigade. This may not seem in the telling to suggest much of the facetious, but the effect of the fairies calling dolorously upon the gallant captain is indescribably funny. It is in consequence intensely absurd, and one of those literary vagaries that only Mr. Gilbert could venture upon. All the characters have solos, in which Mr. Arthur Sullivan’s gift of melody puts itself agreeably in evidence.

Strephon and Phyllis each begin with a pretty little pastoral, one a repetition of the other. Here and in every other number of the opera, concerted music or otherwise, the supporting orchestration is refined and elegant. Some of Mr. Sullivan’s previous operas have contained music more calculated to take at once the public ear, but the score of “Iolanthe” is worthy of the composer, and the finale to the first act is full of brightness, and very cleverly written. The overture, too, is very good. At first the audience did not seem to be very strongly interested, but the entry of the Peers, made up with the modern whiskers above their splendid mantles and dresses, soon put matters upon a different footing. From this facetious point onwards to nearly the close of the opera everything went merrily.

The last scene dragged a little, but it will not be difficult to cut it slightly, and bring the action more closely together. In the last scene a very brilliant and original effect is introduced. The Fairy Queen and her three chief attendants wear each an electric star in their hair. The effect of this brilliant spark of electricity is wonderful. Coruscations of the electric light were introduced, if we remember rightly, in a dark fir forest scene at the Princess’s, some few years ago, but this is a new development, and a perfect success.

“Iolanthe” is well done throughout. Miss Leonora Braham seemed a little out of voice, but is quite equal to the part of Phyllis, which she plays naturally and agreeably. Miss Barnett makes a capital Fairy Queen, and shows a true appreciation of humour. Misses Fortescue, Gwynne, and Sybil Grey are pretty and graceful fairies. Mr. George Grossmith’s Lord Chancellor is rich in quiet, unforced drollery, and the rest of the gentlemen artists do well in their several characters. The moonlight scene of Palace-yard, Westminster, is an excellent example of stage illusion. Mr. Sullivan conducted, and received an ovation on taking his seat in the orchestra. With Mr. Gilbert he was called on at the end of the performance. The like compliment was paid to Mr. D’Oyly Carte, who has spared no expense in mounting the opera.

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