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25 August 1878

"Was there ever such an odd name for a comic opera?” said the visitors who thronged the Opera Comique on the night of the first production of Messrs W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's fanciful and original work. When they heard that the comic opera was the outcome of a “Bab Ballad” they were prepared for anything in the way of drollery, seeing that these whimsical effusions are the very essence of the grotesque. "Oh, but they are all nonsense,” says some grim playgoer of the old school. "Precisely," respond the modern school, "that's why we like them.” Truth to tell a bit of innocent nonsense is a delightful relief amidst the noise, the bustle, the whirl, and competition of this prosaic London.

And that Mr. Gilbert accurately comprehended the taste of the public the unquestionable success of H.M.S. Pinafore is a proof. For, although less noise has been made by the Management of the Opera Comique about this work than is often made about some production that turns out an utter failure, the fact has been that the public have taken kindly to the comic opera, and when we visited the Theatre a few nights ago we found a greater demand for places than could be easily supplied, and it is well known that the Opera Comique has been visited frequently by the highest personages in the land, who have enjoyed Mr. Sullivan's pleasant music and Mr. Gilbert's extremely quaint ideas thoroughly. Grave Ministers of State have chuckled over the novel ideas of government suggested in the dialogue; solemn Bishops have failed to keep their faces from grinning while listening to it; High Church ladies have tittered behind their fans; Low Church curates have indulged in hearty guffaws; Royalty has been fain to draw the curtains of its private boxes lest the public should suspect it of being undignified; while the homely denizens of upper circles and gallery have simply roared outright at the nautical etiquette of the opera.

The first appearance of the heavy bumboat woman — the woman, by the way, who knows the secret of the Captain's birth, and keeps the secret until the closing scene of the opera — is the signal for fun, for who would not laugh at the name of “Little Buttercup" for a bumboat woman of Portsmouth? Then, the notion of the able-bodied seaman, Ralph Rackstraw, in love with the Captain's daughter, and giving vent to his love sick ditty about the moon and the nightingale, and so forth, is very whimsical. Everything that on board a man-of-war an able-bodied seaman would not be likely to do Ralph does. He makes love in the most sentimental fashion; his ballad speaks of a "blushing beauty for whom proud nobles sigh." Well may the cantankerous Dick Deadeye say; "It's a queer world." But queerer still it appears when Captain Corcoran comes upon deck and we learn his system of commanding a vessel. The song wherein the Captain declares that he never uses a "Big big D — is extravagantly funny. But what laughter there is from the audience when his crew inquire “What, never?" and the Captain, hard pushed, is obliged to respond, "Well, hardly ever." The high-flown utterances of the Captain's daughter, who loves the common sailor, yet hardly dares confess it to her father, who receives the intelligence so calmly, is a laughable satire upon such scenes described in gushing novels. Josephine, the Captain's daughter, is sought by Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., First Lord of the Admiralty, and, naturally, the Captain is unwilling to lose such a son-in-law. The song of the Admiral is one of the great hits of the opera. The career of an Admiral who begins life in an attorney's office, and gets appointed because he has never been to sea, is a daring bit of satire. So is the Admiral's plan for regulating the behaviour of the ship's company, as, according to his system, the commander should only address a seaman as "Sir," and say "If you please" when he requests him to "haul taut the mainbrace," or perform any other nautical operation. The Admiral holds that the expression "if you please" is calculated to give a gentlemanly tone to nautical life, "and so do his sisters and his cousins and his aunts," for with these feminine relatives the Admiral is plentifully supplied.

The kind of music which the Admiral would like to be cultivated on board snip is best understood by the following glee:‑

A British tar is a soaring soul,
  As free as a mountain bird,
His energetic fist should be ready to resist
  A dictatorial word.
His nose should pant and his lip should curl,
His cheek should flame and his brow should furl,
His bosom should heave and his heart should glow,
And his fist be ever ready for a, knock-down blow.

The combination of the suaviter in modo with the fortiter in re strikes us as exceedingly whimsical.

It will be remembered that Ralph Rackstraw arranges to elope with the Captain’s daughter, when the mysterious bumboat woman, " Little Buttercup," hints to papa that she is the possesor of a dark secret. The duet which occurs in this scene is one of the best examples of the music of the opera, although it is in the choruses that Mr. Sullivan is heard to the greatest advantage. Still the duet between the Captain and Dick Deadeye will please many as much as anything in the opera. It is heated with so much quaint humour that we cannot possibly forbear quoting it:—

DICK. Kind Captain, I've important information,
    Sing hey, the kind commander that you are,
  About a certain intimate relation,
    Sing hey, the merry maiden and the tar.
BOTH.     The merry merry maiden and the tar.
CAPT. Good fellow, in conundrums you are speaking,
    Sing hey, the mystic sailor that you are,
  The answer to them vainly I am seeking;
    Sing hey, the merry maiden and the tar.
BOTH.     The merry merry maiden and the tar.
DICK. Kind Captain, your young lady is a sighing,
    Sing, hey, the simple captain that you are,
  This very night with Rackstraw to he flying;
    Sing hey, the merry maiden and the tar.
BOTH.     The merry maiden and the tar.
CAPT. Good fellow, you have given timely warning,
    Sing hey, the thoughtful sailor that you are,
  I'll talk to Master Rackstraw in the morning;
    Sing hey, the cat-o'-nine-tails and the tar!
      (Producing a “cat.”)
BOTH.     The merry cat-o’-nine-tails and the tar!

The chorus where the crew rejoice that the hero is an Einglishman is a capital parody upon the "Jingo" songs of the day; and the finale, where the bumboat woman reveals her story of the children changed in infancy, resulting in the Captain and Ralph changing places, is an amusing burlesque upon a stereotyped expedient of the old-fashioned school of melodrama.

From a literary point of view the opera is an extraordinary contrast to the silly so-called comic operas of a past generation, in which some ridiculous farcical scenes were hashed up in doggrel verses, without rhyme or reason. Here the versification, as our examples will prove, is neat and finished, and in comicality the libretto is absolutely overflowing. We have read the book ourselves with infinite amusement since seeing the opera, and so have thousands besides. Mr Sullivan's music is everywhere melodious, fresh, and tuneful, and it is well suited to the subject. More ambitious music would be out of place.

Regarding the performance we must speak in hearty praise of the exceedingly comic impersonation of the Admiral by Mr. George Grossmith, jun. His success is unquestionable.       The caricature is perfect in its way, and shows how rapidly Mr. Grossmith has advanced as a comic actor. There is a finish and refinement of style, an unforced and spontaneous style of drollery, in this young artiste which is entitled to the warmest commendation. High praise must also be given to the Dick Deadeye of Mr. Temple. The mere effort of keeping the grotesque attitudes of that sepulchral-looking tar throughout the opera must cost Mr. Temple no little trouble, and the fantastic portrayal of the character shows not a little creative power on the part of the performer. Mr. Temple, in the duet we have quoted, is capital. Mr. Rutland Barrington, when the opera was first performed, appeared under the drawbacks of cold and hoarseness. Since then he has been able to do himself justice as a vocalist, and his acting from the first was satisfactory. If the part does not enable him to shine as he did in The Sorcerer that is not Mr. Barrington's fault. The Vicar in that opera was the cream of the entire performance, and was the talk of the town. Mr. Clifton is thoroughly jolly and genial as the boatswain's mate; and Tom Noel is an agreeable representative of the ultra-sentimental sailor hero. Miss Emma Howson has succeeded well as the heroine, and we are glad to recognise in the descendant of a good vocalist an artiste who is proving herself a valuable acquisition to the English stage. Miss Emma Howson's bright, elegant style, fresh voice, and pleasing appearance on the stage, could hardly fail to win for her a hearty welcome. Miss Jessie Bond as the Admiral’s first cousin is clever; and Miss Emily Cross, who appears as the substitute for Miss Everard, the original "Little Buttercup,” is well up in the business of the part.

The opera is put upon the stage with the care that distinguishes everything that Mr. D'Oyly Carte produces. Band and chorus deserve a final word of praise. It will be seen that H.M.S. Pinafore is not an ordinary ship, but one that well deserves to float upon the flood-tide of popular favour.


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