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28 May 1878

THE story of "H.M.S. Pinafore" could not be advantageously told. It would be little to say of a piece so quaint, so comic, so full of ingenious devices, musical and dramatic, that it is highly interesting. But those who wish to hear the melody of the woods must, as Herr Wagner has impressed upon us, go to the woods to hear it; and those who would gain an adequate notion of the humour which fills both the book and the score of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan's new opera can only do so by paying a visit to the Opera Comique.

It is necessary, all the same, to say something about the new work, which recalls in certain respects, and chiefly by its originality, both "The Sorcerer" and "Trial by Jury." The central figure in "H.M.S. Pinafore" is a Radical First Lord of the Admiralty, who, having risen by diligence at office work and by successful speculation to the position of a millionaire, has afterwards entered Parliament and, thanks to his slavish demeanour in presence of his constituents, acquired such popularity that he is appointed by the Government to be chief of the navy. The Emperor Napoleon III., either from a love of the practical or from a sense of humour, employed two kinds of Ministers — working Ministers who understood more or less perfectly the business of their department, and talking Ministers who were skilful at making excuses in the Chamber for the faults the working Ministers were sure at times to commit. Sir Joseph Porter, the naval Minister of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, ought obviously to have confined himself to oratory. But this perverse First Lord will meddle not only with the affairs of his department, but also with the organization and discipline of ships' crews. Sir Joseph visits her Majesty's ship Pinafore, where he insists upon Captain Corcoran, the commander of that vessel, behaving with exaggerated politeness to his subordinate officers and seamen; for the First Lord has always been a friend of the working man, and his sympathy, now that he is at sea, is extended from landsmen to sailors. The captain was already a very considerate chief; but he fails to convince Sir Joseph that his demeanour towards the men is absolutely unimpeachable. Asked whether he sometimes swears, he replies, "Never;" but upon being pressed by the chorus, who interrogatively and emphatically repeat the bold denial, the conscientious Corcoran, reflecting on the wide, limitless nature of his assertion, amends his statement by exclaiming, "Hardly ever." This questioning and answering does not seem very amusing as narrated in flat prose. But it is turned to excellent musical and dramatic account, especially when the same question and answer derive new effect from being presented under new conditions and in relation to new things.

Sir Joseph comes on board the Pinafore attended by a bevy of female relations, who. like the First Lord himself, are never — or hardly ever — sea-sick, and who, when Sir Joseph speaks of what he is in the habit of doing in connection with "grants" or "taunts," sing with one voice, —

And so do his sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts.

A very amusing effect is produced by the frequent introduction of this line with the same musical setting under altered circumstances. When Sir Joseph has familiarized the crew with his doctrine as to the absolute equality of all men beneath his own particular level, to the exclusion of himself alone, a common sailor of the William type (in "Black-eyed Susan") takes courage and makes known the fact which he had hitherto studiously concealed, that he is madly in love with Captain Corcoran's daughter Josephine. Miss Corcoran loves the humble seaman; but her father had already enjoined her to endeavour to fall in love with the photograph of the First Lord; and she seeks, like a dutiful girl, to carry out the paternal injunction in the fullest manner so as to include in her affection the First Lord himself.

One must beware, however, of entering the meshes of an intricate plot, which precisely perhaps because it is well woven cannot easily be unravelled. It may be enough to say that in the end, thanks to some astounding revelations made by a bumboat woman named Buttercup — a sort of cross between Black-eyed Susan and Azucena, the Gipsy in "Il Trovatore" — the Captain changes places with the honest seaman, who marries the Captain's daughter, while the former Captain, now a sailor before the mast, gives his hand to Little Buttercup. A wife has also to be found for the First Lord, and the requisite damsel is forthcoming in the person of one of his numerous cousins, a lively, quick-mannered young lady named Hebe. Hebe has unfortunately very little to do in the piece, but, impersonated by Miss Jessie Bond, she does that little well.

Josephine is represented by Miss Howson, who sings with taste and acts with intelligence. The part of Little Buttercup is played by Miss Everard, whose bumboat woman is a worthy pendant to her pew-opener in "The Sorcerer." Mr. George Grossmith as the First Lord, with his mixture of dignified self consciousness and utter unconsciousness of his own grotesque absurdities, is very amusing, and sings very effectively the air in which Sir Joseph relates the history of his rise from one of the lowest to one of the highest positions in the land. Mr. Barrington, as Captain Corcoran, exhibits the same imperturbable demeanour which gained for him so much success as the Rector in "The Sorcerer." Mr. Temple, the Sir Marmaduke of "The Sorcerer," appears as a kind of maritime Devilshoof ("Bohemian Girl") ; and Mr. Clifton is Ralph Rackstraw (sic), the conventional sentimental British tar, in which character he sings a magnificent sham-patriotic song on the merit of having been born an Englishman.

As to the music, the melodies in which Mr. Sullivan's score abounds are full of freshness and beauty as their treatment is full of ingenuity. The concerted pieces are charming, and among the airs for solo voice everyone must have been struck by at least four — Rackstraw's chauvinistic national ballad, "I am an Englishman;" Sir Joseph's air, "I am the monarch of the sea;” Corcoran's air, "I am the Captain of the Pinafore" and, at the very beginning of the work the bumboat woman's air in waltz measure, "For I'm called Little Buttercup." The motive of Buttercup's solo is reproduced in the orchestral "entr'acte," and again in the finale, which, by a happy idea, is made to include the four principal airs as above indicated. The finale, then, is a sort of musical epitome of the entire work.

The piece had been most carefully rehearsed, and the representation was attended by every sign of success.


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