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First Night Review from The Times Monday, November 27, 1882.


The artistic collaboration of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan stands so high in popular favour that the success of any work of their composition amounts to a foregone conclusion. It would be almost needless to state that the reception of their now operetta Iolanthe, or the Peer and the Peri, produced at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday night, was as brilliant as a crowded house, innumerable encores, which prolonged the performance till close upon midnight, and enthusiastic calls for author, composer, and the principal executants could make it. All this would, no doubt, have happened if the new work had been indifferent or even absolutely bad; instead of which, however, it is fully equal to its predecessors, and even superior to many of them as regards raciness of humour and extravagance of invention and language. The public once more were indebted to their favourites for an evening of genuine, healthy, albeit not supremely intellectual enjoyment, and they showed their gratitude accordingly. That Iolanthe will, in critical phrase, “add to the reputation of its authors” we cannot conscientiously say. It does not reveal any new resources of creative genius, any new vistas of high art development. Mr. Gilbert’s quaintnesses and oddities are in substance, if not in form, the same at which we have laughed on many previous occasions. Mr. Sullivan’s melodies even more than formerly suggest the idea that one has heard them before. But this surely is much less a matter of surprise than that, in spite of their familiarity, one listens to puns and whims and tunes with unabated pleasure. For the authors set every principle of scientific production at defiance. They go on extracting the same ore from the same mint; they till their field without any “rotation of crops.” For let it be understood that Iolanthe is nothing but a continuation of Patience, with a slight change of external circumstance and habitation.

There is, it is true, the supernatural machinery superadded, but this is scarcely more important than in the second version of the Rape of the Lock. Mr. Gilbert’s fairies are of the world, worldly. They send a member to Parliament; hold their fairy revels in the forecourt of the legislative sanctum, and are in due course married to peers of the realm. They are, in fact, twin sisters in spirit to the cousins and aunts of Sir Joseph Porter, or to the lovesick maidens who worship at the shrine of Reginald Bunthorne in Patience. Fortunately, Iolanthe is free from the jokes about the “æsthetic” movement of which in all conscience we have had quite enough by this time. The House of Lords has become the more august subject of Mr. Gilbert’s wit instead of poets and painters. And here it strikes one how extremely mild our modern satire has become compared with that of Swift or Addison, or even the gentle Steele, to say nothing of Aristophanes or Juvenal. The most scathing thing that Mr. Gilbert has to say is that in the time of “good Queen Bess” and of Wellington the House of Peers “did nothing in particular and did it very well,” and that Great Britain’s rays will continue to “shine brightly” as long as this attitude of “masterly inactivity” is continued.

It is true that a somewhat more serious note is struck in a song treating of “tipsy louts,” brutally “strapped to shutters,” pickpockets, and other social evils. But as this song is sung by Strephon, the aforesaid fairy M.P., and himself a fairy down to the waist, although his legs are mortal, it cannot be said to be artistically very appropriate or morally very impressive. This Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, although not, as by operatic rights he should be, a tenor, may be looked upon as the chief hero and lover of the piece. He is the offspring of a marriage of his fairy mother Iolanthe with a mortal; hence his curious physical composition, of which, by the way, little is made beyond a few somewhat silly jokes in the course of the dialogue.

The weakness of Iolanthe, we are informed in the first scene, is by fairy law punishable by death, but the sentence has been commuted to penal servitude for life, “on condition that she left her husband and never communicated with him again.” This sentence, we are further told, she has been working out for 25 years, “on her head at the bottom of a stream.” We may parenthetically say that in the first scene of the play Mr. Sullivan has somewhat neglected what was, perhaps, his best opportunity for musical development. His fairy revels are of the tamest. There is here nothing of the brightness and lightness which Weber and Mendelssohn would have given to such a scene. But then, it should be remembered, that Mr. Gilbert’s fairies are very different beings from those of Oberon or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here, as on so many occasions in these operettas, the chances of the musician have been sacrificed to the humour of the poet. Moved by the prayers of her subjects the formidable but good-natured Queen of the Fairies is induced to recall the disobedient Iolanthe from her moist prison. Clad in water-weeds the culprit appears, and for the first time discloses the secret of her being the mother of a son, Strephon, the Arcadian shepherd, who presently enters dressed in the prettiest of rococco costumes, and playing a merry tune on the flageolet – a piece of dainty Dresden china come to life.

The plot, if plot it can be called, now begins to thicken. Strephon is engaged to Phyllis, a shepherdess and ward in Chancery, whose charms, we are further informed, have also subdued the hearts of the entire House of Lords, not excluding her legal guardian, the Lord Chancellor. The peers presently enter, enveloped in their gorgeous robes, and preceded by a brass band, which plays a solemn and inspiriting march, bound to become popular in the widest sense. To its strains the peers sing as they go –

“Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
“Bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!”

a very pretty effect being produced by the sentimental trio of the march, to which are wedded the words –

“We are peers of highest station,
“Paragons of legislation,
“Pillars of the British nation.”

When silence is restored we hear in the orchestra the opening bars of an embryonic fugue, which strictly orthodox form of music always precedes the entrance of the Lord Chancellor. The character of that dignitary is explained by the opening stanza of the song which he forthwith proceeds to intone –

“The law is the true embodiment
“Of everything that’s excellent.
  “It has no kind of fault or flaw,
“And I, my Lords, embody the law.
“The constitutional guardian I
“Of pretty young wards in Chancery,
  “All very agreeable girls – and none
“Are over the age of twenty-one.
“A pleasant occupation for
“A rather susceptible Chancellor!”

The curious twists and turns of thought and parlance which such a character in such a situation suggests to Mr. Gilbert may be easily imagined. The high functionary deeply feels the responsibility of his office. “The feelings of a Lord Chancellor who is in love with a ward of Court are not to be envied,” he argues. “Can he give his own consent to his own marriage with his own ward? Can he marry his own ward without his own consent? And if he marries his own ward without his own consent, can he commit himself for contempt of his own Court? And if he commit himself for contempt of his own Court, can he appear by counsel before himself to move for arrest of his own judgment?” Unfortunately, the dilemma thus expounded is not an imaginary one. For, as has already been stated, the charms of young Phyllis have been as fatal to him as to his brother peers.

The heart of that shepherdess, in the meantime, is proof against the temptations of rank and wealth. She clings to her Strephon in spite of the passionate pleading of the noblemen “not to spurn the nobly born,” for

“Hearts just as pure and fair
“May beat in Belgrave-square
“As in the lowly air
  “Of Seven Dials.”

Her virtuous resolve is severely shaken when she surprises her lover in affectionate converse with his mother, who, as a fairy, possesses the gifts of eternal youth and unfading beauty. Strephon’s explanation is received with derisive laughter, and the offended damsel declares herself willing to marry any peer who may be selected for the purpose. In this supreme emergency Strephon calls to his aid his fairy aunts, who, headed by their Queen, appear on the scene and threaten the lords with terrible vengeance. Strephon, declares the Queen, shall go into Parliament for one of the rotten boroughs at her disposal, and shake the very foundations of the British Constitution. Even the exalted rank of a duke shall be opened to competitive examination. This scene, which ends the first act, is turned to excellent musical account by Mr. Sullivan, who has written an elaborate ensemble excellently constructed but for a somewhat noisy and vulgar coda.

The scene of the second act is laid in Palace-yard, Westminster. Strephon has been elected an M.P., and carries his Radical measures with a high hand. Phyllis is wooed by two peers, the Earls of Mountararat and of Tolloller – arcades ambo, a pair of lovers as affectionate, and of rivals as accommodating as any one may wish to see. After much miscellaneous talking and singing, the dénouement is brought about by Iolanthe disclosing to the Lord Chancellor his relation to Strephon. When the Fairy Queen is on the point of punishing this second indiscretion with death, it turns out that all the other fairies have incurred the same penalty by secretly marrying the peers. “I can’t slaughter the whole company,” she remarks, and the difficulty is solved by the entire House of Lords being carried off to the realms of fancy and fable. Thus much for the thin thread of story by which Mr. Gilbert’s humorous sallies are loosely strung together.

It would scarcely be fair to make Mr. Sullivan’s score the subject of serious criticism. Dramatic music is in need of a basis of serious feeling, and that basis Mr. Gilbert fails to supply. The composer’s tact and discretion in the treatment of his difficult subject are, however, worthy of all praise. Nowhere does he obtrude his scholarship, or overload with musical devices words which are distinctly intended for a parlando style of rendering. How any music at all can be applied to the words of certain songs found in this libretto is a matter for surprise to those who do not know that some composers, like Swift, can “write beautifully upon a broomstick.” Mr. Sullivan has this rare gift in an eminent degree. Where his text offers the slightest suggestion of sentiment or passion he is sure to avail himself of it. Where such is not the case he falls back upon the device of “slow” or at least subdued music, and lets the words take care of themselves. His instrumentation, moreover, is always graceful and appropriate, and subtle touches of harmony frequently display the hand of the master.

In addition to the features of the score already referred to, we may point out a charming duet of the pastoral kind (“None shall part us”) at the beginning, and a melodious ballad (“In babyhood”) towards the end, of the first act, the latter apparently inspired by the charming air “Einst spielt’ ich” in Lortzing’s Czar und Zimmerman. The “early English” element, so frequently and so happily introduced by Mr. Sullivan, is exemplified by the song of the sentry in the second act, the final “Fal la la” of which is more especially a real coup de génie. Equally magnificent is the florid cadenza which the same gallant soldier adds to the lovers’ trio a little further on. As an instance of graceful instrumentation we may cite the pizzicato, which, after the model of Don Giovanni’s serenade, accompanies the songs of Lelia and Celia, the fairies.

Of the performance it would be impossible to speak in too favourable terms. Careful rehearsals superintended by author and composer secured an ensemble in which every member of the chorus seemed to take individual and intelligent part. Of the principal artists, Mr. Grossmith deserves to be mentioned first. His mock gravity as the Lord Chancellor was inspired by genuine humour, and, without the ghost of a voice, he gave excellent effect to the three amusing songs allotted to him. Next in the order of excellence was Miss Alice Barnett in the part of the Fairy Queen, which has evidently been designed for her. The slightest suspicion of vulgarity would make the character intolerable, but this gifted artist combines perfect propriety of bearing with the most irresistible vis comica. Mr. Temple is scarcely fitted for the part of Strephon; his action is too pronounced for the idyllic shepherd and his voice suggests anything but Arcadian sweetness. Miss Leonora Braham (Phyllis) was a lively and tuneful shepherdess. Miss Bond, as Iolanthe, appealed to the sympathy of the audience, and Miss Fortescue and Miss Julia Gwynne led the fairy revels with grace and spirit. Mr. Durward Lely and Mr Rutland Barrington represented the rival wooers of Phyllis. As one of these gentlemen is inclined to sing a little sharp and the other a trifle flat, their concentus was not always as perfect as might have been desired, but the dry humour of Mr. Barrington is unsurpassable.

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