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Review of the First Night from The Standard
Monday, April 25, 1881.
 
THE NEW ÆSTHETIC OPERA

The extraordinary success attained by H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and other pieces in which Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan have worked together with the happiest results, naturally awakened strong interest in the opera that was to continue the series, and this was produced on Saturday night at the Opera Comique, to the entire satisfaction, it may at once be said, of a cordial, and certainly a discriminating, audience. The piece is called Patience; or, Bunthorne's Bride, and the main idea is taken from the "Bab Ballad" called "The Rival Curates," which details how Mr. Clayton Hooper, who had the reputation of being "the mildest curate going," was incensed to find that a neighbouring curate, Hopley Porter, was gaining credit for being even milder still; and how Hooper engaged minions to go and threaten to assassinate Porter if he did not curl his hair, play croquet, and indulge in other vanities, which Porter gladly consented to do, leaving his rival the reputation for mildness which he had striven to gain. Wisely abandoning clerical heroes, Mr. Gilbert has made the two principal figures of his libretto rival poets of æsthetic fancies — as æstheticism is now understood — and the piece is an elaborate satire on the fashionable craze. As a contrast, a troop of Dragoons are introduced into this story, to which they supply a needful element of more obvious comedy.

The scene opens outside Castle Bunthorne, where, in somewhat angular, but far from ungraceful attitudes, twenty young ladies are grouped, clad in æsthetic draperies, and playing on mediaeval instruments, as they sing an extremely pretty chorus, "Twenty love-sick maidens we." They are, in fact, deeply in love with the poet Bunthorne, who, however, adores the village milkmaid, Patience, a truth which is revealed to the others by the Lady Jane, a personage of stalwart proportions, and who would inevitably have been strong-minded in the extreme had she not fallen a victim to æstheticism. Patience knows nothing of love, which Lady Jane describes to her as "a transcendentality of delirium, an acute accentuation of supremest ecstasy, which the earthly might easily mistake for indigestion; but it is not indigestion — it is æsthetic transfiguration."

There is nothing æsthetic about the 35th Dragoons, to members of which gallant regiment the girls had all been engaged; and when those warriors appear they are scorned as Philistines who go about dressed in primary colours. How soldiers should be dressed the Lady Jane explains, in a passage which is a very fair satire on, and scarcely an exaggeration of, much that is accepted as in strict accordance with what are understood by many as being the true principles of the highest art. "There is a cobwebby, grey velvet, with a tender bloom like cold gravy, which, made Florentine fourteenth century, trimmed with Venetian leather and Spanish altar lace, and surmounted with something Japanese — it matters not what — would at least be Early English." The Lady Jane, who has a full sized peacock embroidered on the front of her dress, is an authority.

The appearance of the poet Bunthorne explains to the soldiery why they have lost the favour of the ladies, though the Dragoons see nothing whatever to admire in Bunthorne, a lean figure with wildly expansive hair, and an appearance of mental and physical disorder, he being at the moment in the throes of a poem, which presently he reads at the request of the rapturous bevy of beauties who so very madly adore him. Here occurs one of those ensembles which are features of Mr. Sullivan's comic operas. The officers repeat a brisk and stirring chorus they have previously sung, "Now is not this ridiculous," while the ladies return to the very charming chorus, "Mystic poet, hear our prayers," and the mystic poet slyly continues, aside, the musical confession that he is not what he seems, "Though my book I seem to scan." Perhaps there is less ingenuity in this combination than in the ensemble in the first act of The Pirates where melodies in two four and thee four run together; but it is none the less a very effective piece of writing.

The Colonel of Dragoons having sung a martial song, characteristically scored, in praise of the despised red and yellow uniforms, the poet is left alone to explain how a reputation for culture may be obtained; and this he does in a very tuneful song, "If you're anxious for to shine," to which an extremely graceful accompaniment for violin has been written; and then the love affairs of Patience are discussed with a humour which is perhaps too delicate to be effective; for the faint and subtle flavour of sarcasm with which the subject is treated may at times escape the spectator. It is her duty, she is taught, to love unselfishly; and therefore she proposes to love Bunthorne, because there is no pleasure to be derived from loving him, while to love his rival, the beautiful and accomplished Grosvenor, would be gratifying and selfish in consequence. On Grosvenor's entrance occurs a charming duet in the style of old English music, a simple melody which is certain to be popular, "Prythee, pretty maiden, prythee tell me true."

Bunthorne, not knowing how to dispose of his hand among so many rivals, consults his solicitor, and that sage advisor — who clearly resembles one of the best known London lawyers — recommends him to raffle himself, which he is about to do when Patience relents, for the reason just detailed; whereupon the girls, making the best of the situation, return to the Dragoons, the three leading ladies joining with the officers in a really beautiful sestett, unaccompanied, "I hear the soft note of the echoing voice." But before the cavalry have done congratulating themselves Grosvenor appears upon the scene, declares himself to be an æsthetic poet; to him the feminine devotees of æstheticism transfer their volatile affections, and the curtain falls to an ensemble which is for Mr. Sullivan rather common-place.

A quaint and amusing idea opens the second act. Lady Jane is discovered standing with a violoncello by her side, and upon this she accompanies herself with rapid passages, whilst in recitative she sings of a woman's sad lot when age compels her "to 'make up' for lost time as best she may." A humorous ballad to a remarkably pretty melody succeeds, and then the maidens who used to be seen in Bunthorne's trail come in with his rival, who, however, loves Patience, and in the legend of "The Magnet and the Churn" shows that love is very often a one-sided business. But the existing state of things is abominable to Bunthorne. He cannot live without admiration, and in the course of a very lively duet with Lady Jane, "So go to him and say to him, with compliment ironical," Bunthorne makes up his mind to see Grosvenor and take steps to induce him to abandon æstheticism and become common-place.

While he goes to do so the three officers, who have turned into æsthetes, assuming constrained attitudes, and carrying flowers in their hands come in to try their fortune in the new guise, and are accepted as "not supremely, perhaps, but oh! so all-but." While the Lady Saphir, with a phrase reminiscent of her period of unconversion, declares that "they are indeed jolly utter." To come to the end of the story, Grosvenor, less in dread of "a nephew's curse" than because he is heartily sick of pretence and affectation, agrees to become essentially common-place — "a very delectable, highly respectable, threepenny-'bus young man;" and when abandoning silks and velvets, he reappears in  suit of tweeds, wearing a hat of the ordinary pattern, to the horror of Bunthorne it is seen that the ladies have likewise departed the inner sisterhood, and changed to "prettily pattering, cheerily chattering every-day young girls." Bunthorne's bride is a non-existent personage, and he is left alone to his lilies.

There is even less plot in this than in the previous productions of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, but it was found on Saturday evening that there was quite enough for the purpose, and the simultaneous peels of laughter from all parts of the theatre showed that the satire went home. Portions of the dialogue, however — the repetition of Grosvenor's claims to pre-eminent beauty for instance — are perhaps less telling than in the predecessors of Patience, or at any rate, are not so directly effective; for when a scene is examined a humorous notion is sure to be found underlying it. The opera contains many of those quaint fancies which, indeed, are invariably to be found in Mr. Gilbert's highly-finished work, and the scenes are remarkable for their picturesqueness.

The colouring and grouping are in the best taste, and, indeed, the "twenty love-sick maidens" look very much better in their æsthetic robes than when they have become "every-day young girls" at the end of the opera. The system of thorough rehearsal which has always been in vogue at this theatre since the production of The Sorcerer has evidently been enforced in putting Patience on the stage, for here the chorus — the dragoons and ladies — take their own part in the business of the opera, and give that animation to the scene which is so rare in other theatres, and is almost absolutely unknown at the Italian operas.

It may be assumed that the principal parts were written for their present exponents, for everyone is exactly fitted. Miss Braham, a recruit from St. George's Hall, is the Patience, and happily enters into the idea of Mr. Gilbert's dialogue, giving the speeches with perfect simplicity, as if not conscious that they were whimsical. Miss Braham sings very agreeably, and some bright and pleasant music falls to her share, including a song "I cannot tell what the love may be," a part in the charming duet already mentioned — "Prythee, pretty maiden" — and a ballad, "Love is a plaintive song," with a refrain in three four time which took the fancy of the audience. Miss Barnett is, as visitors to the Opera Comique will have supposed, the Lady Jane, and in her clever hands every point of a very comical character is brought out with the fullest force. Her singing is excellent, moreover, the distinctness with which every word is enunciated being particularly commendable; and while Misses Jessie Bond, Fortescue, and Julia Gwynne are all the most graceful representatives of the ladies Angela, Ella, and Saphir, the latter is perhaps especially successful by reason of the earnestness with which she maintains the spirit of her assumption.

Mr. Grossmith is a highly comical Bunthorne, the restraint which he exercises over the caricature making it all the more striking. The expressions of the models he imitates are caught and reproduced with much genuine appreciation of the comedy; and Mr. Rutland Barrington, as the self-satisfied Grosvenor, is admirable alike in his æsthetic days, and in the "jollity" with which he enters into the new and more agreeable existence of a common-place young man. Mr. Richard Temple is the Colonel of Dragoons, and delivers his two songs "If you want a receipt for that popular mystery," and "When I first put this uniform on," in a capital style. Mr. Durward Lely (late Signor Leli of her Majesty's Opera), as Lieutenant the Duke of Dunstable, employs his pleasant and well-trained tenor voice to great advantage, and the Major finds a skilful exponent in Mr. F. Thornton.

Mr. J. O'Connor's scenery is highly picturesque. The dresses, the effect of which has already been commended, were designed by Mr. Gilbert himself.

Mr. Sullivan conducted on Saturday, and must have been well pleased with the manner in which the well chosen orchestra did their important share of the work. As in the other comic operas from the same source a noticeable feature is the way in which author and composer have played into each other's hands. Now and again a passage of music may possibly remind the hearer of something he has heard before, but there is much that is fresh and charming in the melody, and it is scored throughout with taste and fancy which are characteristic of Mr. Sullivan.

The hearty reception accorded to Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan when they appeared before the curtain at the end of the performance answered beyond all doubt the question as to the success of Patience.


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