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Review from The Times
Monday, April 25, 1881.
 
AN ÆSTHETIC OPERA

Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s new extravaganza, produced at the Opera Comique on Saturday, deals with the fashion, or, as some will have it, the craze generally termed “æsthetic.” To define the meaning of that word in this technical sense would not be quite easy. That the group of highly gifted artists and poets who have in many respects beautified the surroundings of English life do not come under the category of “æsthetes” Mr. Gilbert would probably be the first to allow. What he and other satirists try to ridicule is not the movement itself, but rather the exaggerated and ridiculous form it takes among persons who, without natural taste of their own, try to assume the attitudes and mimic the appearance of their intellectual superiors. From this point of view the aim of the opera may be fully approved of.

Neither must it surprise us that Mr. Gilbert at this comparatively late hour should enter a field so successfully cultivated by others. His racy and individual sense of humour might be expected to discover new and quaint aspects even after all that has been read and seen in the columns of Punch. Mr. Du Maurier and Mr. Burnand have anticipated him in many respects. The antics and the jargon of imaginary “æsthetic” circles have become familiar as household words. But still it remained that Postlethwaite, after having being admired in a pictorial and a dramatic capacity, should at last become vocal, and this feat the united efforts of Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan have achieved.

There is indeed in the new piece a dualism of the Postlethwaite principle represented by Mr. Reginald Bunthorne, a “fleshly poet” (Mr. Gilbert should have avoided the meaningless and offensive epithet), and by Mr. Archibald Grosvenor, an “idyllic poet,” his compeer and his rival in the affections of a chorus of rapturous maidens of title. Patience, a dairymaid, gives the title to the play, and supplies the contrast of healthy ignorance of æsthetic idealities. Colonel Calverley (somewhat resembling the familiar type of “our friend the colonel” in Punch), and other officers of the Dragoon Guards, represent another phase of realistic opposition till they also assume the garb of mediæval bards to win the favour of the rapturous maidens.

The scene of the play, we should add, has been transferred from the drawing-room of the Cimabue Browns to a glade near Castle Bunthorne, situated, it would appear, in that undiscovered country of whimsical fancy in which Mr. Gilbert is so thoroughly at home. A story that can be told in plain prose would be out of place in such surroundings, and we shall not attempt to assign a local habitation and a name to what is obviously and purposely an airy nothing. It will be better to give the outline of some of the characters and types which Mr. Gilbert has drawn forth from his inner consciousness, for it would be difficult to identify them with anybody or anything that ever has existed or under any circumstances could exist.

There is, in the first place, Reginald Bunthorne, the æsthetic or fleshly poet, who expounds the mysteries of his heart to a bevy of twenty love-sick maidens, receiving in return their passionate devotion. Of Mr. Bunthorne’s effusions several specimens are given, notably a song somewhat in the Rabelaisian vein, setting forth, among other things, that poetry and the tender passion are but forms of indigestion, curable by “colocynth and calomel.” The lines are neither very refined nor very witty, and all the more disappointing if one considers how amusing a clever parody of certain tricks and mannerisms of modern poetry might have been made. The love-sick maidens, however, are of a different opinion. To them Bunthorne’s work appears “purely fragrant,” “earnestly precious,” and they soundly rate their admirers, the Dragoon officers, for failing to be “Empyrean, Della Cruscan, or even Early English.”

The poet, it need scarcely be added, treats the admiration of his fair votaries with scorn. His passion, he declares, is fixed on Patience, the milkmaid, who, on her part, does not appreciate the raptures of the poet, and, indeed, is totally insensible to the pangs of passion until a new hero appears on the scene in the shape of Archibald Grosvenor, another bard of the æsthetic school, who has made the simple and pastoral his speciality and recites “decalets” about “Gentle Jane was good as gold,” and “Teasing Tom was a very bad boy” to the enraptured maidens. For these fickle damozels have without a moment’s hesitation transferred the allegiance from the lean and languid Bunthorne to the handsome Grosvenor.

One lady, however, has remained faithful to her first idol. This is the Lady Jane, a damsel of mature and highly developed charms, who soliloquises to this effect, accompanying herself on a gigantic violoncello the while:– “The fickle crew have deserted Reginald, because he has glanced with favour on a puling milkmaid! Fools! Of that fancy he will soon weary, and then I, who alone am faithful to him, shall reap my reward. But do not dally too long, Reginald, for I am ripe, Reginald, and already I am decaying. Better secure me ere I have gone too far.”

How the Lady Jane is ultimately rewarded by becoming the bride, not of Reginald, but of a “duke with a thousand a day;” how the heavy Dragoons, after transforming themselves for a season into æsthetic worshippers finally regain their uniforms and their fickle lady loves; how Patience, after loving the unsympathetic Bunthorne from motives of duty finds happiness in the arms of the irresistible Archibald – all this is set forth in the course of the piece. The dénoument Mr. Gilbert has borrowed from his own incomparable ballad of the Rival Curates. For, like the Rev. Hopley Porter “doing it on compulsion,” Archibald doffs the uncomfortable garb of the æsthetic bard and appears at the end of the play in his natural shape as –

“An everyday young man;
“A commonplace type
“With a stick and a pipe
“And a half-bred black and tan;
“Who thinks suburban ‘hops’
“More fun than ‘Monday Pops,’
“Whose fond of his dinner,
“And doesn’t get thinner,
“On bottled beer and chops.”

We are conscious that the bare outline of Mr. Gilbert’s fanciful characters we have endeavoured to draw gives but a very imperfect idea of the quality of the plot, lit up as it is by the incessant fireworks of his wit and humour. In this kind of pyrotechnic display the new piece is certainly not inferior to anything that has preceeded it from the same pen. There is, indeed, a perfect embarras de richesses of truly humorous sayings and doings, as harmless as they are laughter-compelling. We need scarcely add that there is not a sentence in the dialogue which, to use Mr. Archibald Grosvenor’s words of his decalet, “is calculated to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty,” the superiority in this as in other respects, of English over French burlesque being again manifested in the most striking manner.

As a piece of extravagant fun, Mr. Gilbert’s new piece is simply admirable; as a satirical picture of a certain phase of modern life it cannot be recognized. There is scarcely a trace of poetic, artistic, or even social aspects of æstheticism. Mr. Gilbert has shown his taste in avoiding distinct personal references of any kind; but even the general features of the original, which, to judge by the denomination of his “æsthetic opera” he intended to portray, seem to have escaped him. The poetry of Reginald Bunthorne is totally unlike anything published by any real poet in England; even the dresses and colours of the rapturous maidens (not excepting the peacock embroidered gown of the formidable Lady Jane), would scarcely pass muster in an æsthetic drawing-room. Such at least will probably be the impression of most observers in this country; in America no doubt the new opera will be hailed with welcome as a faithful counterfeit presentment of London society.

With regard to Mr. Sullivan’s music we can speak more briefly. Not that its merits are in any way inferior to those of the poetry. The two ingredients will in this, as in previous cases, combine to secure the success which may be safely prognosticated for the new opera. The difficulties of Mr. Sullivan’s position in his collaboration with Mr. Gilbert have previously been insisted upon. Mr. Gilbert’s dialogue is made up of wit and point and verbal quibble; and music knows nothing of wit and humour. All that can be done, and that Mr. Sullivan does with consummate skill, is to supply flowing and pretty tunes for melodious or rattling lines, as the case may be. That so skilful a writer for the orchestra, moreover, does not miss any opportunities for instrumental characterization it is almost unnecessary to add. Thus the dragoons are duly announced by the flourish of trumpets, and a kind of pastoral leitmotiv, assigned to the wood wind, accompanies the idyllic poet.

It is, moreover, curious to observe how, as soon as any chance offers, music resumes her natural attitude as the purest and most earnest of arts. We are referring less to such sentimental ditties as the pretty ballad of Patience, “Love is a plaintive song,” than, for example, to the charming little duet between that young lady and the poet Grosvenor. Here the purport of the poetry is distinctly humorous, and the refrain, “Hey, but I’m doleful, willow, willow, waly,” may be cited as one of those weak attempts at parody, which apply as it happens to Shakespeare at least as much as to Mr. Swinburne. But Mr. Sullivan’s music very properly ignores all this; it takes everything seriously, and the result is an exquisite ditty in that “Early English” style, which Mr. Gilbert tries to ridicule. Even the finale of the first act – clever caricature of the conventional operatic finale as it is – might well be accepted as a genuine tragic action by a naïve audience unprovided with the book of words. The same finale, by the way, Mr. Sullivan might easily have turned to better musical account than he has done. The piece is lengthily rather than organically developed, and the unaccompanied sestet is no more than a pretty tune sung in harmony.

The overture also leaves something to be desired. It is made up of themes from the opera loosely strung together, the principal motive showing a striking resemblance to a familiar melody from Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor. But in spite of all this, Mr. Sullivan’s workmanship is infinitely above the level of opéra bouffe as imported from abroad. One may regret that a musician of his power should occupy so much of his time with this class of composition; at the same time it is a matter for congratulation that in England the demand for burlesque opera is supplied in a refined and truly artistic manner.

Reasons of space compel us to speak of the performance with great brevity. The opera was produced under the personal direction of author and composer, and its rendering may, therefore, be accepted as representative. Most of the artists in the cast are, moreover, well known to the frequenters of the Opera Comique. Mr. George Grossmith, dressed in the early Florentine garb, familiarized by Sir Frederick Leighton’s illustrations to Romola, looked and acted the æsthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne, to perfection, Mr. Rutland Barrington being his worthy brother bard in the “idyllic” line. Colonel Calverley of the 35th Dragoons (Mr. Richard Temple) was as dashing a soldier and as sentimental an “æsthete” as the most rapturous maiden could expect in her varying moods; Mr. Frank Thornton, his major, and Mr. Durward Lely, his lieutenant, endeavouring to follow in the footsteps of their superior officer. Miss Leonora Braham (Patience) was a sweet-voiced milkmaid, whose appearance suggested that she had stepped from one of Mr. Walter Crane’s or Mr. Caldecott’s picture-books; but, perhaps, the most remarkable piece of acting was Miss Alice Barnett’s Lady Jane, a masterpiece of humorous impersonation. Of the success of the piece on the first night – of the incessant applause, the encores, the calls before the curtain – it would be difficult to give an idea.


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