Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
The MikadoReview from THE MONTHLY MUSICAL RECORD
1 May 1885, pgs 103 - 104
The new opera written by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan is called "The Mikado"; or, "The Town Of Titipu." The costumes in which the several characters appear are Japanese, and the customs are assumed to be those of the country in which the scene is laid.
The son of the Mikado, to avoid marriage with an elderly strong-minded female who has made love to him, runs away from home and joins a band of itinerant musicians. He sees a beautiful young lady at school, falls in love with her, and follows her to Titipu, where she arrives, to become the ward of the Lord High Executioner - a tender hearted creature condemned to death for flirting. According to the stated Japanese law, no other execution can take place until the penalty of the law has been inflicted upon himself. The difficulties in the way of this business are insurmountable, and the affairs of state are in status quo ante. The Executioner, noting the preference his ward has for the young stranger, consents to their marriage on condition that he gives himself to be executed at the end of the month. This agreement is changed and the lovers are to go out of town while the Executioner and his subordinate - the Lord High Everything Else - make a solemn statement to the effect that execution has been done upon the person of the disguised prince, whose dignity is as yet unrevealed to them. The Mikado noticing that no executions have taken place for a considerable time, comes in person to make inquiries. He is shown a formal document purporting to give the account of the execution of Nanki-Po. The elderly "daughter-inlaw elect," who is with the Mikado, knows that this is the name which the Prince assumed for the purpose of disguise. The conspirators are condemned to a death in which "boiling oil or melted lead" has something to do for compassing the destruction of the heir to the throne. He, however appears on the scene with his newly-made bride, and all ends happily.
Though nominally Japanese, the allusions are more or less thinly-veiled sarcastic references to our native institutions and peculiarities. As these, more over, have been attacked over and over again, alike by Mr. Gilbert and other so-called moral comic writers, it can scarcely be said that this new piece, as far as the book is concerned, contains anything strikingly novel or original.
The characters are not amusing. There is a nobleman of such remote ancestry that he can boast of his descent in a direct line "from a protoplasmic primordial atomic globule." The Executioner is a kind humane man who never killed a bluebottle. The Mikado suits the punishment of his criminals to the offense, One who cheats at billiards is thus treated:
"The billiard sharp who any one catches,
All this may be extravagant and clever, but it is not funny. In a comic opera one naturally looks for humor. In "The Mikado" the spectator looks in vain.
Mr. Gilbert's peculiarity has always been to elaborate the one set of ideas which he started as his literary capital, and "The Mikado" offers no noticeable departure from his habitual method. He changed his costume, it is true, but he has not changed his habits. The book, the consequence of too close alliance with a former stock, is remarkably feeble, and can only be accepted as a degenerated member of a family which at one time was vigorous and influential.
On the other hand, the music which Sir Arthur Sullivan has supplied for the work deserves to be ranked among his happiest efforts. The melodies which give the bearer so much real pleasure, may or may not be completely original, but they are exactly adapted for their purpose, and contain an element of refinement which brings in its train "the joy of gladness."
The "local colouring" which might be expected in a work dealing with a people whose musical scale is divided into twenty-three portions instead of our chromatic thirteen, has been sparingly used. The ear is not bored with choruses or songs constructed out of the Japanese scale which could only be sung in the Japanese manner, accompanied by that pleasant combination of mewing, squalling in falsetto voice, and thumping on a flabby drum, which the popular mind has learned to accept as the perfection of expression both Japanese and its ally Chinese music.
Thus there are only two pieces of "barbaric" harmony in the work. The first, the opening chorus, is almost the same as that employed by Weber to Schiller's Chinese play "Turandot," which, formed out of the pentatonic scale, is said to be an actual Chinese tune. The second piece is the chorus of welcome sung when the Mikado appears. This is a low reverential grumble uttered to words which may possibly be Japanese. It has been publicly stated that the authors have called in the assistance of certain of the inhabitants of the Japanese village now at Knightsbridge, to help them in giving vraisemblance to certain stage gestures, postures and effects. They may have taught them this lovely low-pitched song, which is "like the moaning of the wind among the chimney-pots, or the growls of the overworked slavey who is called upon to carry sixteen scuttles of coals to the top of a five-story lodging house."
There is fortunately only little of this sort of music in the opera. The charm of form and the grace of melody which has always distinguished Sullivan's music is never once absent. The hearer may be reminded now and again of Balfe, Bishop, Gounod, Weber, Verdi, Bellini, Offenbach, or even of Sullivan's other songs, but these sort of reminiscences are ever pleasant and not ungrateful. The scoring is one of the most noteworthy pleasures that the musical bearer will find. It is never overloaded, never unduly noisy, but always artistic and refined, and replete with taste, tact and judgment.
All these elements were apparent on the first night of the representation at the Savoy theatre on March 14th, when the first performance, conducted by the composer, was given. The managers of the theatre pride themselves upon the care with which all their former productions have been given on the opening nights. The cause of pride no longer exists. The first performance was far from perfect. The band made one or two slips, and more than one of the chief performers did not know their work, or did not take the usual amount of trouble about it. The audience, however, recognized the merit of the music, enjoyed the laugh occasioned by the kitten-like antics of the three prominent ladies, "Three merry girls from school," and called for the composer, the author, the manager, and the chief actors, at the conclusion. "The Mikado" deserves to form one of the stock London shows for a long time to come, not for the book's sake, but for the scenery, the dresses, and, above all, for the music.
This review was submitted to the G&S Archive by Louis Silverstein.