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29 May 1879

Remembering the success of Trial by Jury and of The Sorcerer, it is evident that it must be an exceptionally happy hit which sets those who have laughed at the two quaint caricatures discussing whether the new piece is not brighter and funnier than its predecessors; and when it has been said that this is the case with Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore visitors to the Opera Comique will be justified in forming high expectations of what is in store for them. The peculiar vein of humour which Mr. Gilbert has struck continues to yield richly; and the more Mr. Sullivan works in it, with the more ease and adroitness he turn his materials to account. How skilfully the two coadjutors play into each other's hands, how thoroughly the author understands what the composer wants, and how entirely the composer catches the author's intention, has frequently been pointed out; and perhaps this has never been better exemplified than in the new nautical comic opera which was produced with the most complete success on Saturday evening.

H.M.S. Pinafore is another specimen of a dramatised "Bab Ballad," and those who remember the amiable captain of "The Mantelpiece" will be able to form some slight idea of what happens to and around the equally mild and agreeable commander of "The Pinafore." On board this vessel there is a theoretical belief that love levels all distinctions of rank; but the conclusion to be drawn from the experiences of those chiefly interested is that, while theoretically excellent; the idea cannot he made to work practically.

The Pinafore is a very perfect man-o'-war, and when first taken on board we find the gallant mariners engaged upon their various duties under the supervision of a youthful midshipman, a young martinet of ten or thereabouts, whose enthusiastic regard for duty is only checked when presently he falls a victim to the mature charms of Little Buttercup, the stout and elderly bumboat woman, who, however, assuages his consuming adoration by the present of a sugar stick, which he goes off to devour. Captain Corcoran commands the ship, and prominent among the crew are Ralph Rackstraw, who modestly describes himself as the smartest topman in he navy, and Dick Deadeye, a well-meaning creature, though, in consequence of his unpleasant appearance, his sentiments are usually regarded as particularly atrocious. Even his casual remark that "it's a queer world "brings upon the luckless Dick a stern reproof from the crew, and an assurance from Ralph that “such revolutionary sentiments are enough to make an honest sailor shudder." Only it must be explained that Ralph is not happy, as he loves the Captain's daughter, which is the more unlucky as his rival is Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., the First Lord of the Admiralty.

When Sir Joseph comes on board, however, attended by his sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts, who accompany him everywhere, and echo his opinions in bursts of choral music, the doctrine of equality is emphatically preached. Captain Corcoran is reproved for not saying "if you please" when he wants his crew to do anything, and Sir Joseph explains that the British sailor is the equal of any man on earth, except, of course, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Ralph, therefore, plucks up courage; tells his love to Josephine, the captain's daughter; vows that he is in his present state of mind nothing but "a living ganglion of irreconcilable antagonisms," and asks her to marry him. She calls him "audacious tar," and refuses with some warmth, whereupon he loads a pistol and is on the point of blowing out his brains — to the great annoyance of the crew, who hate a noise and put their fingers to their ears to shut out the sound — when Josephine thinks better of it.

A plan of elopement therefore contrived, but Dick Deadeye warns the Captain and he meets the would be fugitives. Ralph, however, has an unanswerable defence and explanation. He is "an Englishman," and this assertion is regarded on all hands except Captain Corcoran's entirely satisfactory; indeed the First Lord is so much affected that he borrows sixpence and presents it to the gallant sailor. But when the First Lord comes to understand the real state of the case, and finds that it is the girl he proposes to marry who is eloping with a common sailor, his opinions change. He has announced officially and formally that "love levels all ranks;" but he now amends that sentiment by the further explanation that "it does to a considerable extent, but it does not level them as much as that," and, requesting to be informed whether there is a dungeon on board, he would have despatched Ralph to it forthwith only Little Buttercup relates the fact at which she has been mysteriously hinting throughout the piece. In former times she had been by profession a baby farmer, and had changed Ralph for Captain Corcoran, and Captain Corcoran for Ralph. No one disputes the evidence — no one can. The two reappear in the respective uniforms of the new ranks to which their birth entitles them. Sir Joseph consoles himself with a cousin; Corcoran, A.B., joins hands with Little Buttercup, and Ralph condescends to the humble Josephine, formerly so far above him, now so far below him in station.

The music to which Mr. Sullivan has set this most diverting legend is unfailingly bright and tuneful, sometimes exceedingly tender and melodious, and frequently in the truest spirit of burleque. That all of it is entirely original can hardly be asserted, for more than once or twice not unfamiliar phrases strike the ear. A few suggestions of what is to come make up the overture, and then follows the opening chorus of sailors, “We sail the ocean blue," a bold and swinging "nautical" melody, with a cunning suggestion of fun about it. Little Buttercup then has a pretty if not very novel melody in three-four time, and Ralph, after a madrigal and a few lines of recitative, sings a very pleasant ballad in C, "A maiden fair." Upon the Captain's arrival comes what will be one of the songs of the piece — a ditty which on Saturday evening evoked a hearty encore. The Captain politely greets his crew in recitative, and they return the compliment with unanimity of sentiment and simultaneous hitches of their trousers.
Among his other qualifications for command the Captain remarks that he is “never, never sick at sea." But this the crew cannot quite admit. “What, never?” they ask in chorus. "No, never," he replies boldly. With arch smiles and expressive forefingers the crew slily reiterate, "What, never?" and then he remembers what is clearly a notorious incident, and amends his boast with "Hardly ever," which is generally allowed to be accurate. After this Josephine has a ballad in F minor, "Sorry her lot who loves too well" and then the First Lord's sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts enter to an extremely bright chorus, "Gaily tripping," the sailors at the same time repeat their opening "We sail the ocean blue," the two harmonising with excellent effect; an example of the composer's melodious fancy and command of the resources of his art.

In his ardour for the sea Sir Joseph has written a trio in E, "A British tar is a soaring soul" harmonised elaborately after the style of the good old glees, a fashion cunningly and  very cleverly burlesqued by the composer. The subject matter is in reality an old hornpipe, which the First Lord strives to disguise by his treatment; but in the symphony the real nature of the melody manifests itself, and, with all respect to the illustrious composer, the vocalists cannot resist an indulgence in a few sedate steps a the familiar dance. A graceful and particularly well-written duet in F minor, with a change to the major key, "Refrain, audacious tar," provides Josephine and Ralph with an opportunity of coming to a misunderstanding, and the end of the first act is most ingeniously, and even powerfully, worked up into an admirable ensemble, certainly one of the finest things of the kind Mr. Sullivan’s fluent pen has yet produced.

The second act takes place on board the ship at night, a crescent moon illuminating the scene, and, to her the Captain sings, begging the beaming planet to tell him why everything is at sixes and sevens, and accompanying his requests for information on the guitar; in fact, the song is a very tasteful barcarolle in D, scored for strings pizzicato. In the course of a duet with the Captain in D minor, Little Buttercup becomes oracular; Josephine has an appropriate scena, and then there is a trio for her, the Captain, and the First Lord, " Never mind the why and wherefore," a movement in E so vivacious and tuneful that even the First Lord has to retire at intervals behind the wardroom skylight and relieve his feelings by a dance, in which his dignified playfulness is delightful to behold. A duet in C minor between the Captain and Deadeye, written with a refrain after the manner of certain mysterious poets of the day, apprises the Captain of his daughter's impending elopement, and this leads to an ensemble the extremely comic nature of which completely took the audience by storm. It is here that Ralph defends himself by the plea that he is an Englishman, and the Boatswain, struck by the sentiment, bursts into song, a burlesque of the ordinary patriotic ballad, congratulating Ralph on so happy a circumstance. "For," sings the Boatswain —

"For he himself has said it,
And it's greatly to his credit;
  That he is an Englishman!
For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, a Turk, a Proosian,
  Or, perhaps, Itali-an!
But, in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
  He remains an Englishman!

and there is a cadenza on the word which shows conclusively how ardently Boatswain and crew admire their comrade's noble persistance.

A well written octet in C, and expressive song for Buttercup, in E minor, "A many years ago," are among the other numbers, and the finale is very brightly made up of the principal refrains.

So perfect a quarter-deck as that of H.M.S. Pinafore has assuredly never been put upon the stage. Every block and rope to the minutest detail is in its place, in fact it is an exact model of what it represents; and thanks, no doubt to the untiring diligence of the author the piece is admirably represented all round. Here we find that marvel of marvels, a chorus that acts, and adds to the reality of the illusion.

Concerning the performers we have left small space for comment. Miss Howson, a very accomplished vocalist, sang as Josephine in a manner rarely heard in light comic opera; Miss Everard was a most humorous Little Buttercup; and Miss Jessie Bond played and sang with agreeable vivacity as the First Lord's favourite cousin. Mr. Power's sweet voice found most peasant occupation in the part of Ralph, and he acted cleverly; Mr. Rutland Barrington, though out of voice on Saturday, will, when he recovers, be the ideal Captain of the author's fancy; Mr. Grossmith displayed his original comic powers to the utmost advantage as the First Lord; Mr. Temple gives an ingenious sketch of the unfortunate Deadeye; and Mr. Clifton makes a capital Boatswain.

The piece was received with hearty and unanimous applause, and promises to become, as it thoroughly deserves to be, a lasting success.


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