|HMS Pinafore > Review of the 1887 Revival
H.M.S. Pinafore, revived at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday night, was received by a large and distinguished audience with all the signs of cordial welcome which one offers to an old friend after a long separation. Produced, if we remember rightly, nine years ago at the Opéra Comique, it was the first to establish the reputation of its authors in their joint capacity; for The Sorcerer, which had preceded it, and which, in our opinion, is the most perfect specimen of its genre, has never taken the fancy of the general public to the same extent as some of its successors.
Looking back upon the long line of these operettas one cannot help congratulating Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan upon their achievement of having supplied London with innocent enjoyment for an uninterrupted space of ten years, to say nothing of the travelling companies which have spread their fame over the length and breadth of England, the United States, and latterly the Continent of Europe. It may be said that these operettas are essentially variations of one and the same theme, that the vein of humour drawn upon is not very deep, and that Mr. Gilbert’s concetti are so harmless and so extravagant as almost to appear childish. It remains, nevertheless, a fact that these works have given pleasure to thousands, we may say to millions, and that they have done so absolutely by dint of their own merit and without any of the questionable accessories which go to the making of a successful French operetta.
Coming back to the Pinafore as almost a new thing, for it has not been performed in London for some time, one finds that its peculiar charm is by no means diminished. Mr. Gilbert’s oddities of idea and of expression – the bum-boat woman “who mixed those children up and not a creature knew it,” the sailor who remains an Englishman “in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations,” the First Lord of the Admiralty who is surrounded by an admiring bevy of female relatives and makes love on official principles – all this is as quaint and humorous as ever, and a ripple of merriment, occasionally increased to bursts of laughter, went through the house without interruption on Saturday evening.
Neither should the musician’s share in this much-to-be-desired result be forgotten. Mr. Gilbert’s jokes are very well in their way, but what would they be if wedded to coarse or commonplace music? It requires all the marvellous neatness, the extreme delicacy and grace of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s touch to place them in proper relief. This music sounds so natural that a casual observer with musical propensities might think nothing easier than to go and do likewise. How erroneous this supposition would be is sufficiently proved by the warning example of the few imitators who have tried to follow in the wake of the Pinafore. Dismal failure in an artistic, although not always in a popular, sense has been the result in every case. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music depends entirely upon individual qualities. It will not form a school; when he lays down the pen there will be no one to take it up, although many may try. Let us further add that this composer is almost the only representative of our native school who is in living contact with English music. Our serious musicians write symphonies and oratorios and operas essentially on the German model. Sir Arthur Sullivan in his tender and in his humorous moods is English to the core. Like his own sailor “he remains an Englishman” in spite of such temptations as his own early training at Leipsic and the current taste of the age may have held out to him. The delicate love-duet in the Kenilworth music or the magnificent roll which gives humorous point to the “Englishman” song in the Pinafore could not by any chance have been written by a foreigner, however gifted; they are racy of the soil.
These facts should be cited to the stern moralist shocked at seeing the élite of London society receive an operetta with a rapture of enthusiasm which works of a higher and more serious class seldom call forth. It is, no doubt, a miserable sign of the times that London cannot support an opera for more than a couple of months in the year; but while the operetta remains the sole embodiment of our dramatic aspirations in music, let us at least be thankful that it is so excellent of its kind, so full of genuine humour, so free from objectionable elements.
In addition to creating a style of art of their own, Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan have also trained a school of actors to perform it. How successful they have been in this respect also, how perfectly their intentions are understood by their interpreters, was proved especially by those members of Saturday’s cast who resumed their original parts. A more sublimely official Sir Joseph Porter than Mr. Grossmith, a more comic captain of the Navy than Mr. Rutland Barrington singing to a small guitar by the light of the moon, it would be impossible to imagine. Neither of these gentlemen has a sound note in his voice, but they act, and what is more wonderful, they sing all the better for that reason. It is, indeed, no paradox to say that if this kind of music were performed by operatic singers with big voices, and bent on vocal effects and high notes, it would simply be ruined. Miss Jessie Bond as a very charming Hebe and Mr. Richard Temple as a desperate Dick Deadeye also repeated former successes, and Miss Brandram, as Little Buttercup, fully realized the humour of her part. Miss Geraldine Ulmar as Josephine acted with grace and sang with an agreeable voice of considerable compass, taking a high B natural with perfect ease, and Mr. J. G. Robertson atoned for want of stage experience by the pleasant timbre of his tenor voice.
Chorus and orchestra under the composer’s direction were all that could be desired, and the mise-en-scéne was in most respects a model of taste and accuracy. The appearance of the deck of a man-of-war was reproduced in every detail; real sailors manned real yards at the signal of the boatswain’s whistle and cheered to the strains of “Rule Britannia,” which the composer has interpolated in the finale of the second act.
Unfortunately the care bestowed upon the ship was not extended to the background. Even in the topsey-turveydom of Mr. Gilbert’s dramatic world it must surely be called absurd to design the horizon literally as a square rectangular box with the side turned towards the audience cut out. The most ordinary back cloth would have been better than this.
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