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First Night Review from The Times, Monday, March 16, 1885.

A JAPANESE OPERA

After the production of Princess Ida rumour would have it that the joint authors, Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan were alive to the necessity of turning over, as it were, a new leaf, and that their next venture would be of a different type: less farcical, more psychologically subtle, more serious in fact, albeit still humorous. There was a certain amount unfairness, not to say ingratitude for much harmless amusement received in such a supposition. A writer and a composer generally know best what they can do best, both conjointly and separately; and it may be safely assumed that, if Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan thought their united strength to lie in serious or even serio-comic work, they would have undertaken such work long before a certain feeling of monotony and tedium had begun to attach to their concetti and verbal quibbles and pretty tunes.

However this may be, certain it is that The Mikado, the new operetta produced at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday evening, does not in any marked degree differ from its numerous predecessors. All the elements which have gone to the making of many successes, and which by this time might be expressed by a mathematical formula of a+b-c without a single unknown quantity of x or y in the equation, are present. We have a comic monarch and a “bloated oligarch,” and no end of Court officials and simpering maidens, whose little life is rounded by the vision of a handsome lover and a becoming frock. These people sing sentimental and comic ditties, and “patter songs” with “topical” allusions to the Japanese village in Knightsbridge and the present Ministry, after the approved fashion; they likewise ogle and flirt and attitudinize, and Mr. Grossmith dances a breakdown. The characters, or at least the types of the drama, are the same although they wear their clothes with a difference.

The robes of the British peers in Iolanthe have been exchanged for the flowing draperies of Daimios, the academic gowns of Princess Ida’s fellow-collegiates have been laid aside for tight skirts, long sleeves, and the curious bustle which, by the way, is in reality a shawl which Japanese ladies unfold and sit upon when so inclined. Let it be acknowledged at once that these dresses are as gorgeous and exquisitely coloured as they are scrupulously correct, that they are worn, moreover, by the actors and actresses with an ease and propriety little short of marvellous. Mr. Grossmith and Mr. Barrington walk and sit as if petticoats had been their ordinary garb from infancy; and Miss Braham, Miss Jessie Bond, and Miss Sybil Grey flirt their fan, and walk with their feet turned in and look so charming withal, that their equals would with difficulty be found on fans or screens or in real life. It is curious, moreover, to see the old adage that the coat makes the man verified in so striking a manner. The European physiognomy marvellously adapts itself to the changed conditions of hair and head-dress, and seen from some distance and in the deceptive light of the stage the English counterfeit at the Savoy is scarcely distinguishable from the genuine article at the Japanese village. For this reason alone the student of comparative ethnology should pay a visit to both exhibitions. The lover of picturesque grouping and harmonious Eastern colour need not be exhorted to do the same.

It is a pity that the illusion thus carefully prepared by the costumier and the scene painter is not in any sense kept up by the author. No attempt has been made to mingle the slightest infusion of Eastern imagery or quaintness with the dialogue or the lyrics, which run throughout in the well-worn grooves of burlesque. Much additional fun might have been derived from such intermixture, which Mr. Gilbert would have been quite capable of accomplishing if so minded. He has, however, preferred not to tax the perception of his admirers by new ingredients, and the composer has followed his example. Sir Arthur Sullivan ignores the pentatonic scale and the minor keys (without a leading note) affected by the musicians of Japan; neither does he treat us to a solo on the 13-stringed dulcimer, called Sé by the Chinese and Koto by the Japanese. There is, it is true, a march prominently used in the overture and afterwards sung by the chorus when the Mikado enters in state. The motive of the theme is presumably genuine, but the treatment and instrumentation are essentially Western and modern. Perhaps the composer – as, indeed, the author – has acted wisely in eschewing novelty of invention or colouring. There were, perhaps, not 30 persons among the audience who had so much as heard about a pentatonic scale or a koto; while the familiar tunes, given in abundance, every one can remember, and whistle, and play, too, when the pianoforte score appears in due course. In burlesque opera familiarity does not breed contempt; rather the reverse.

The story on which Mr. Gilbert’s libretto is founded is extremely slight, and, if the truth must be owned, so childish that on being compelled to sum it up on paper one blushes at the remembrance of many a hearty laugh it has excited. The Mikado, a highly moral sovereign, has, it appears, issued a decree condemning to death every man found guilty of flirtation “unless connubially linked.” To evade this stern sentence the citizens of Titipu have hit upon the idea explained in the following lines:–

“And so we straight let out on bail
“A convict from the county jail
  “Whose head was next
“On some pretext
“Condemnèd to be mown off,
“And made him Headsman, for we said,
  “‘Who’s next to be decapited
“Cannot cut off another’s head
“Until he’s cut his own off.’”

 The person thus raised to the exalted dignity of Lord High Executioner is Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor (Mr. Grossmith), and, to crown his happiness, he is about to be married to his lovely ward, Yum-Yum by name (Miss Braham). This prospective bliss is disturbed, however, by a letter from the Mikado, who, struck by the fact that no executions have taken place at Titipu for a year, decrees that, unless somebody is beheaded within the space of one month, the office of Lord High Executioner shall be abolished and the city reduced to the rank of a village. Ko-Ko, who is first on the condemned list, naturally objects to committing self-execution, which, as he remarks, is a capital offence.

Fortunately, a substitute is found in the person of Nanki-Poo (Mr. Lely), a wandering minstrel, who loves Yum-Yum and agrees to be beheaded at the end of one mouth, provided he be allowed to marry her for that month. “My position during the next month will be most unpleasant,” Ko-Ko remarks; “but, dear me! after all it is only putting off my wedding for a month,” he philosophically adds.

At the marriage feast which is accordingly prepared a new complication arises in the shape of Katisha (Miss Rosina Brandram), a very formidable virago, and the daughter-in-law elect of the Mikado. Nanki-Poo is the son of that monarch, and it was to escape wedlock with Katisha that he fled from his father’s Court and assumed the disguise of a musician. This the lady explains, or rather tries to explain, for the excited guests will not admit her to audible speech.

In the second act the Mikado (Mr. R. Temple) appears on the scene to look after his fugitive son and heir. Ko-Ko, who believes that his imperial master is intent upon witnessing the long-delayed execution, forges an affidavit to the effect that Nanki-Poo has been beheaded that morning, being aided and abetted in his falsehood by Pooh-Bah, a great nobleman, who, in spite of his ancestors, has consented to serve under the ci-devant chief tailor in the manifold capacities of First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, and further castigates his family pride by accepting miscellaneous bribes from any one inclined to pay. This character has really little to do with the action, but, played as it is with the perfection of stolid humour by Mr. Rutland Barrington, it greatly adds to the general effect. The horror of Ko-Ko may be imagined when it is discovered that the wandering minstrel whom he pretends to have beheaded is the Crown Prince of Japan. That Prince, moreover, declines to reappear in the land of the living as long as the formidable Katisha remains single.

Finally Ko-Ko reluctantly makes up his mind to marry the lady himself, and this obstacle being removed all ends happily. It is scarcely necessary to add that this thread of story is eked out and diversified by the quaint entanglements of Mr. Gilbert’s humour. Here is an instance of that humour at its best:–

“Nanki-Poo (about to betray his exalted identity). – But (aside), shall I tell her? Yes. She will not betray me. (Aloud.) What if it should prove after all that I am no musician.

“Yum-Yum. – There! I was certain of it the moment I heard you play.”

And, again, where Katisha, conscious of her super-annuated charms, describes herself as “an acquired taste.” In other places the line between genuine fun and a mere tickling of the ears of the groundlings is not sufficiently observed, as, for example, where the same lady, speaking of the irresistible fascination of her right elbow, adds, “It is on view Tuesdays and Fridays on presentation of visiting card.” This is far-fetched and common at the same time.

The position of Sir Arthur Sullivan in this, as in many a previous operetta, reminds one of that of a hero and a martyr, braving dangers and overcoming difficulties at which a less skilful and perhaps more fastidious musician would stand aghast. To write music in the least relevant to such verses as those above quoted one would think impossible were not the established fact before one’s eyes. And yet the composer does not only this, but he actually adds points to the humour of those verses, as, for example, by means of the orchestral wails which accompany the sensational story of the mock trial already referred to. As another among many instances of genuine vis comica we may cite a trio for male voices towards the end of the first act. That in other places the ingenuity even of Sir Arthur Sullivan fails to establish any rapport between music and words is not a matter for surprise.

The most ambitious number of the score is at the end of the first act, a very long piece, designed on the model of the orthodox operatic finale. It is, however, less successful than similar efforts from the same pen. The melodious development is not sufficiently broad for the purpose it has to serve, and the entire design lacks coherence till the beginning of Katisha’s song, “The hour of gladness,” after which an excellent dramatic climax is attained. For sentimental songs proper there is little opportunity, and the best specimen of this kind, “Hearts do not break,” is curiously enough assigned to the forbidding Katisha. Very graceful is the female chorus and trio, “Comes a train of little ladies” in the first act, while the duet between Yum-Yum and her lover, which follows soon after, is, by way of contrast, as feeble as can well be imagined. The inevitable “old English” madrigal (sung by Japanese!) is not wanting.

To sum up, The Mikado is likely to hold its own among the series of pretty and enjoyable operettas which we owe to Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. As a piece of stage show it is, perhaps, the best of all. In a dramatic and musical sense it holds a medium position, being scarcely as good as The Sorcerer and The Pinafore, and certainly infinitely better than Iolanthe or Princess Ida.

Of the performance we can very concisely speak, because it was as near perfection as a first performance can be. The principal artists, with the exception of Mr. Bovill (Pish-Tush, an irrelevant noble), have already been named. All did well in parts specially adapted to the qualities as actors and singers of which they have shown themselves possessed in other characters of a similar type. Thanks to the author and composer, the ensemble was without flaw or hesitation.

As to the success of the piece there can be no doubt after its reception on Saturday night. Moreover, the popularity of the two collaborators has reached the point where success depends no longer on intrinsic merit. They resemble the poet in the famous parable, which, being told indifferently of Japan and China, may fitly conclude this notice of a Japanese opera. Huang Lu, so says the Chinese version of the tale, was the greatest poet and musician ever born. His verses were replete with wisdom and sweetness, and when he sang the stars stood still in their courses. When he died his gentle craft passed by some miraculous process into the golden pen he had used; unfortunately, after some generations that pen was lost. Many years later a mediocre rhymester had occasion to do an important service to a fairy, and as his reward asked for the pen of Huang Lu. This, or rather the loan of this, the fairy procured for him for five years. His verses during that time were replete with wisdom and sweetness, and he became as famous almost as Huang Lu himself. When at the end of five years the fairy claimed the pen the door poetaster was in despair, but his benefactress said “Be comforted, for henceforth it matters not what you write. The Chinese public will accept anything from you.” So will the English public up to a certain point.


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