|The Pirates of Penzance > Reviews > New York First Night Review
The Fifth Avenue Theatre was crowded last night, and laughter rang there loud and long. The splendid audience assembled to see "The Pirates of Penzance" witnessed a most brilliant and complete success.
The first question about the new operetta by Messrs. Sullivan and Gilbert will be how it compares with "Pinafore." Of course every work ought to stand or fall on its own merits, but comparison in this case is unavoidable. It can hardly be doubted that any play, presented as a successor to the clever piece which had such an extraordinary popularity last season must be seen at a disadvantage. Sir Joseph Porter, Dick Deadeye, Cousin Hebe, Captain Corcoran, Little Buttercup, the Midshipman, the Boatswain, are too firmly established in the public affections to be easily dislodged, and if the new set of characters were really better than the old we should still regret the familiar favorites; we should miss the jokes at which we have laughed so many, many times, and feel that nothing could be so funny as "No, never," or "His sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts," or "He is an Englishman." Somebody asked an old manager whether "The Pirates of Penzance" promised to run as well as "Pinafore." The veteran sadly shook his head and replied, "We shall never have another ‘Pinafore.'" His melancholy prediction was rash; but in the nature of things a phenomenal success like that of last year cannot be immediately repeated by another work of the same class. If Jefferson should play a new part nobody would find it as good as Rip Van Winkle, though it were ever so much better.
We may touch lightly upon a few points of difference between the two operettas which seem to provoke legitimate comparison. The fun of "Pinafore" was so clear and simple, both in the text and the music, that it forced itself at once upon the most careless listener. The humor of the "Pirates" is richer, but more recondite. It demands a closer attention to the words than the ordinary playgoer will always give; perhaps it requires a more distinct enunciation than singers usually think it worth while to cultivate. On the other hand, there are great stores of wit and drollery in the dialogue and the songs which will well repay exploration, so that the opera ought to gain greatly upon the favor of the public after two or three representations.
The music is fresh, bright, elegant and merry, and much of it belongs to a higher order of art than the most popular of the tunes of "Pinafore." There are little gems of melody; and there are duos and concerted numbers of the most delicate device and the most careful construction of which Mr. Sullivan has a good right to be proud. Whether the principal airs are destined to be strummed in all our parlors and whistled in all our streets, remains to be seen. They will last longer if they escape such flattering hard usage. Add to the sparkling text, the excellent music, the droll situations and an unusual abundance of laughable "business," the further charm of a series of stage-pictures in which beautiful scenery and the glow of light and color are deftly used to heighten the effect of very pretty groups, and we have a catalogue of attractions to which the public cannot remain insensible.
The play opens in the Pirates' Lair on the Cornish Coast, a rocky recess with caves on either hand, and in the distant background a view of the sea with the Pirates' cutter at anchor. Here Ruth, in a capital song, tells the story of the blunder by which she apprenticed Frederic to a Pirate instead of a Pilot, and some amusing dialogue and music, between the apprentice Frederic and his pirate companions, with a part for Ruth ingeniously interwoven, introduces the main-spring of the action. Frederic is about to complete the apprenticeship to which he was bound by mistake, and to leave the band forever. He has been faithful to his Indentures through a sense of duty; from a sense of duty he will now devote the rest of his life to the destruction of pirates. Voices are heard in the distance. "Can it be Custom House?" No, it does not sound like Custom House.
The pirates retire and watch. The twenty-five beautiful daughters of Major-General Stanley come tripping over the sand and clambering over the rocks, all clad in the most bewitching of costumes, and smiling under the quaintest of hats. After a pretty bit of chorus, they propose to take off their shoes and stockings and paddle in the water. This is too much for Frederic's sense of duty. He surprises them with one shoe off, and remarks that he is bound to let them know that they are not unobserved. How it comes about that when they have hopped a little, and screamed a little, and sung a little, they are made acquainted with the young man's singular story, we confess that we do not know; but it is all according to operatic precedent, and it is operatically regular also that the prettiest of the daughters, Mabel, should straightway be in love with Frederic, and that they twain should become exceedingly tender and tuneful. What were the twenty-four other girls to do in such embarrassing circumstances? They would not leave their sister alone with a stranger; they determined to sit on the sand and talk about the weather. This is a very droll scene, the twenty-four girls, seated in groups at the foot of the rocks, having a rattling, chattering chorus, of weather observations, while Mabel and Frederic, arm in arm, exhale their souls in a delicate duet. Whenever the lovers pass near, the chattering ceases and the girls lean forward to listen, suddenly resuming their talk about the weather as soon as Mabel turns.
Seized by the Pirates, the whole bevy are about to be dragged away and married out of hand, when Major-General Stanley, in full uniform, equipped "with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse," appears at the summit of the rocks, and descends with the remark that "Oh, yes, it is a glorious thing to be a major-general." The catalogue of his accomplishments, which he rehearses in a galloping "patter song," embraces almost everything that a soldier does not want and nothing that he needs. Even his martial aspect, however, does not move the Pirates from their resolve and the abductions would doubtless have been effected had not the gallant officer bethought him to appeal, in the character of an orphan, to the generosity of the gang. Now, it was a rule with these Pirates (as we learn in the first scene), never to rob an orphan. They surrender the girls to this "poor orphan boy," with a ludicrously compassionate chorus; and the Pirate King having observed;
everybody kneels, and with uplifted hands the preposterous finale, "Hail, poetry!" is solemnly begun.
Alas, General Stanley told a story. He was not an orphan. When the curtain rises for the Second Act he is discovered seated in a ruined Gothic chapel, attached to his [guilt?] weeping by moonlight over the graves of his ancestors. It is true that he has only recently purchased the estate – chapel, tombs and all; but, as he well remarks, somebody's ancestors lie there; he does not know whose they were;he knows whose they are; and he feels that he, their descendant by purchase, has brought a stain upon escutcheons which he has no doubt were previously unspotted. He is roused from his melancholy to give a good send-off to Frederic, who, now an officer in the British Army and an accepted suitor for the hand of Mabel, is about to lead an expedition against the Pirates.
Unspeakable is the pleasure of the public when the lion-hearted forces file upon the stage and present to view a platoon of stalwart policemen armed with clubs and bearing, every man, a lighted "bull's eye" at his belt. Their tarantara song is sure to be one of the most popular numbers in the opera.
Left alone in the chapel for a few moments, Frederic is surprised by the entrance through the chancel window of his old Pirate Chief and the piratical maid-of-all-work, Ruth, who have an awful secret to tell him. For the indenture shows that he was bound apprentice to the Pirates till he should reach "his twenty-first birthday;" but he was born in leap year on the 29th of February; consequently, reckoning by birthdays, he is now only five and a quarter. This information is communicated in the rollicking "Paradox trio"; Frederic does not immediately perceive the effect of the disclosure, and the drollery of it is enjoyed by the whole party in a capital piece of laughing music. But explanations follow; of course the term of his apprenticeship has a long while yet to run; and that stern sense of duty to which the young man has always been a slave compels him to dash the cup of happiness from his lips and return to the hateful trade of robbery and murder. The first service which he feels obliged to render to the band is to inform them that General Stanley has practised upon their credulous simplicity. "The General is no orphan; more than that, he never was an orphan." Enraged at this discovery, the Chief resolves to bring the whole band to attack the General's house.
Of course Frederic takes an affecting farewell of Mabel, promising to come back and claim her when his time is up in 1940, and in this scene Mr. Sullivan has given us some truly beautiful and dainty music, using the muted violins with excellent effect. This pretty andante leads, after the absurd operatic fashion, into a tripping allegro. It is the next number assigned to Mabel and the Policemen, which provokes the greatest delight. Here the Police, in a conversational monotone, chant responses first to the exclamations of the prima donna, then to the observations of their Sergeant, agreeing instantly with the sentiments of the last speaker, whatever they may chance to be, and therein copying the good old custom of operatic choruses all the world over. There follows a song in which the constables lament the necessity which obliges them to interfere with the liberty of their erring countrymen. The Sergeant leads, and the chorus echoes the last syllables of the lines:
Perhaps the climax of absurdity, however, is reached when the Police being hidden but perfectly obvious in one aisle, and the Pirates conspicuously concealed in the other, both enjoining silence at the top of their lungs, and both affecting unconsciousness of each other, General Stanley enters the nave, with dressing-gown and candle, thinking he has heard a noise. "He thought he heard a noise! Ha! ha!" shout both choruses, fortissimo. "No," says the General, listening, "there is not a sound." After which daring nonsense he wanders into a sentimental ditty about "trees," and "breezes," and "lovers sighing well-a-day," with an exquisite and picturesque accompaniment in the orchestra, and occasional help from the chorus. The absurdity of this delicious situation is heightened by the irruption of the five and twenty daughters, in jaunty caps and white peignoirs, who wonder why papa is wandering around the ruins at midnight "so very incompletely dressed." So this elaborate concerted music is carried on by groups of personages supposed to be entirely unaware of one another's presence, until the Pirates rush upon their prey. The Police are overcome without the slightest difficulty. It occurs to the Sergeant, however, to charge the Pirates "yield in Queen Victoria's name!" At that appalling invocation, every cutlass is sheathed, because with all their faults the Pirates love their Queen. The Police get up from the ground, take the victors into custody, and weep with emotion. There is some serious and heroic music in this scene, including an imitation of "He is an Englishman."
The denouement of the opera is now brought about by the disclosure through Ruth that the Pirates are not ordinary ruffians:
Whereat the Police kneel to their prisoners:
And here the whole dramatic personæ raise three cheers "for the noblemen who have gone wrong!" We must give the conclusion in the words of General Stanley:
At this late hour it is impossible to do justice to the musical beauties which we have passed over in this outline of the story – to Mabel's fascinating waltz, for instance; neither can we do more than allude briefly to the merits of the principal performers. Miss Rosavella (sic) as Mabel was certainly a pretty object to look upon; she sang creditably; she acted with zeal and good sense. Miss Barnett as Ruth, Mr. Brocolini as the Chief, and Mr. Furneaux Cook as the Pirate Lieutenant were invaluable; and Mr. Ryley's General Stanley is destined to be famous. Miss Barnett, Mr. Ryley, Mr. Cook and Mr. Brocolini are to be specially commended for the clearness of their utterance. Mr. Talbot would perhaps have done better things with Frederic if he had taken the trouble to learn his part. He has a version of the text considerably different from Mr. Gilbert's, and such as it is, he stumbles over it in a most disquieting way. We shall suspend criticism upon his performance until he knows his lines. The smaller parts were well filled by Misses Bond and Brandram and Mr. Clifton, and the chorus deserves the heartiest praise for good singing and spirited action. The girls especially were smart and full of fun.
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