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Review of the First Night fromThe Pall Mall Gazette
Monday, April 25, 1881.
 
OPERA AND OPERA COMIQUE

The reward due to those who invent a new pleasure has surely been well earned by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, whose joint labour and ability have resulted in a description of entertainement wholly unique and practically safe from successful imitation. Few will deny the immense literary and musical superiority of such pieces as "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Pirates of Penzance" over the best opéra bouffe received from Paris. Whether these productions are destined to greater longevity is another matter. Mr. Gilbert's satire applies exclusively to the manners of to-day, and a subsequent generation may fail to realize its purport to a large extent.In the book of "Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride" his intent is to ridicule a fashionable craze against which pencil and pen have been for some time employed with little or no result. The unfortunate tendency of human nature to rush into extremes has made the task of the caricaturist in this instance a light one. But the complete reversal of the present art-tendencies would be a greater evil than any already existing; and it may be hoped that the effect, if any, of Mr. Burnand's witticisms in "The Colonel" and of Mr. Gilbert's in "Patience" will be to kill the parasitical growths without injuring the true æsthetic tree. The author of the "Bab Ballads" has himself afforded an illustration of our meaning in his latest effort.

When the curtain rises twenty classically dressed young ladies are discovered in various graceful attitudes, intended, we are informed, to represent the most seraphic contemplation, the acute "accentuation of supremest ecstasy." They play upon all kinds of ancient and mediaeval instruments, and sing of their hopeless passion for a fleshly poet, Reginald Bunthorne. The concluding tableau shows the same maidens in the prosaic costume of 1881, all traces of æstheticism having vanished. The first picture is exquisitely beautiful, albeit inpossible; the last is commonplace, everyday, and vulgar. Of course, as Mr. Gilbert has framed the story, nothing could be more preposterous than the conduct of all the æsthetic characters in the piece save that of the poet Bunthorne, who confesses to being a sham and an egotist. The portraits of the idyllic poet Archibald Grosvenor, who tells us that his mission in life is to illustrate in his own person the perfect abstraction of beauty; and of the unsophisticated milkmaid Patience, whom the æsthetes teach the true art of love, "the one unselfish emotion in this whirlpool of grasping greed," are thoroughly Gilbertian.

Perhaps the most laughable scene in the opera is that where three heavy dragoons, whose bluff, honest wooing has made no impression on the intense "damozels," don extravagant costumes, and practice æsthetic attitudes with the aid of lilies and sunflowers.

In one instance Mr. Gilbert has forgotten the principles of good taste. Among the admirers of Bunthorne is a Lady Jane, an elderly and "massive" female, who speaks of her "rugged old bosom," and tells her adored one: "I am ripe, Reginald, and already I am decaying. Better secure me before I have gone too far." The character is inimitably played by Miss Alice Barnett, but it is an unnecessary and disagreeable one.

From a literary point of view the book is perhaps superior to those which preceded it. The dialogue sparkles with epigrammatic touches, and many of the lyrics are in their author’s happiest vein. Whether it is destined to achieve equal popularity is, however, open to question. The simple topsy-turveydom of "The Sorcerer" and "The Pirates of Penzance," and the caricature of things well known in "Trial by Jury" and "H.M.S. Pinafore," are here exchanged for a deeper and more subtle humour, less readily grasped in the course of a performance.

Mr. Arthur Sullivan has necessarily felt the influence of the change, and his music contains a smaller number of catchy tunes. But he has been very successful in infusing the requisite amount of grace and sentiment where these qualities are needed. Nothing could be better than his setting of the lament of the "Twenty lovesick maidens" — the air of languor and yearning being aptly expressed. The delicious little duet, "Pretty, pretty maiden, will you marry me," [sic] with its old-fashioned cadences, created a furore on Saturday night which speaks well for its speedy popularity. Another number that took the fancy of the audience, a sestet in the finale of the first act, did so merely because an accompanied concerted piece well sung is always effective. Lady Jane's ballad at the commencement of the second act is another happy inspiration. The effect of ultra-sentimental music set to such lines as these is irresistible:–

Stouter than I used to be,
  Still more corpulent grow I.
There will he too much of me
  In the coming bye-and-bye!

Bunthorne's first soliloquy and the trio of æsthetic dragoons may be mentioned as examples of Mr. Sullivan's skill in the more directly humorous situations. Towards the close the composer seems to have recognised the desirability of an increase of brightness, and one or two numbers savour rather disagreeably of the music hall. While speaking of defects, we may express surprise that Mr. Sullivan should adopt the rather common place device of assigning the melody in an instrumental movement to the cornet. With this exception, the treatment of the small orchestra is very felicitous, the musicianly accompaniments greatly enhancing the charm in many instances.

The most complete satisfaction may be expressed regarding the performance. Each of the principal characters has an exponent exactly suited to its requirements. Mr. Grossmith's make-up as the poet Bunthorne is a study; and equally effective is Mr. Rutland Barrington's portraiture of his rival, the beautiful Archibald Grosvenor, who, in order to escape from the persecutions of the fair sex, eventually abandons æstheticism and reappears as a typical 'Arry of the period. The skilled vocalization of Miss Leonora Braham is of great service in the part of Patience, the comely milkmaid, and, as we have said, Miss Alice Barnett goes bravely and unflinchingly through her unenviable task of imperonating Bunthorne's elderly adorer, Lady Jane. The æsthetic opera had been rehearsed to perfection, and the stage management on Saturday night was beyond all praise.


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