|The Pirates of Penzance > Reviews > London Premiere
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
On Saturday evening Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s new “melodramatic opera,” The Pirates of Penzance; or, the slave of Duty, was produced at the Opera Comique, and to the inevitable question, Is it as good as The Pinafore? an affirmative answer may at once be given. The same vein of humour is worked, the same spirit of topsy-turveydom governs, in both: indeed, in some few points a distinct resemblance will be traced between the two. Ruth, the pirate’s maid-of-all-work, is of the family of Little Buttercup; Major General Stanley has points in common with Sir Joseph Porter (though the two are placed in entirely different circumstances), and there is a certain similarity between the ideas of yielding everything to the plea that Ralph Rackstraw “is an Englishman,” and of submitting unresistingly when called upon to do so, as the pirates are, “in Queen Victoria’s name.” But the likeness is rather in the manner than in the matter.
Frederic, the hero of the story, has been bound apprentice to a pirate owing to a mistake made by his nurse, who had been instructed to bind him to a pilot. The words were so much alike, she explains; and Frederic not only admits that they were, but confesses that they are so still, though years have rolled over their heads. The apprentice has been industrious and able during his professional career, but his indentures are now out, and he sorrowfully tells his late companions – who are carousing in their rocky stronghold, as pirates should – that he shall be reluctantly compelled to give them all up to justice. Individually he loves them as brothers, collectively he hates them as pestilent scourges; and though his duty to his master has obliged him to learn the trade and work hard, his duty to society now forces him to destroy the gang. The Pirate King, though prone to wave a black flag ornamented with skull and crossbones, and sing songs about the pirate’s life, is really rather a well-disposed man, one good part in his character being that he never lets the band hurt orphans, of whom they find an altogether unaccountable quantity afloat.
However, the pirates go and leave Frederic to the contemplation of the knotty point, Is Ruth a beautiful woman, and shall he take her with him? She is the only woman he has ever seen. He thinks he loves her, and is almost on the point of accepting her when the very numerous daughters of Major General Stanley, delightfully and quaintly dressed, come tripping down the rocks. One of them proposes that they shall paddle about in the water, and they have all taken off one shoe, when Frederic, who is hiding, suddenly comes forward. The ex-pirate is delicate and shy, and knows that the young ladies would be hurt if they found that they had been watched. Of course he loves them all, and musically asks, “Oh! is there not one maiden breast Which seems to feel the moral beauty Of making worldly interest Subordinate to sense of duty?” – who would not, in fact, devote herself to the task of reforming him? All refuse except Mabel, who accepts the position at once, and sings love duets with him while her numerous sisters talk, or rather sing, with the greatest earnestness, about the weather and the crops.
Upon this pleasing scene the pirates enter, seize the Misses Stanley, and are about to send for the nearest clergyman when the Major General appears. His identity he declares in a song, the peculiarity of which is that he can never at first catch a rhyme for the last line; thus, having said “Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,” he has to stop and think hard before he hits on the next line, “And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore,” &c. He knows the pirates’ weakness, and to save himself and his daughters does not scruple to declare that he is an orphan boy, upon which the Pirate King not only lets him go, but elects him as an honorary member of the band.
In the second act it appears the Major General has a conscience. Even on damp nights he will sit in the ruined chapel of the estate he has just bought and humble himself before the tombs of his ancestors. Frederic, the accepted suitor of Mabel, points out with some force that his prospective father-in-law has only just settled down in the neighbourhood; but this does not comfort the sufferer. “Frederic,” he says, “in this chapel are ancestors; you cannot deny that. With the estate I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what I have no doubt was an unstained escutcheon.”
The extermination of the band is, however, the chief work in hand, and for this end a serjeant and company of policemen have been secured. The daughters bid these rather timid constables “go to death and go to slaughter,” and promise them regretful tears if, as is very probable, they fall before the fierce and ruthless foes they are about to assail; and the serjeant does not at all like this way of putting the thing, – “We observe too great a stress On the risks that on us press, And of reference a lack, To our chance of coming back,” he sings. Nevertheless, after many declarations of “We go! We go!” from the police, and expostulations, “Yes, but you don’t go!” from the Major General, away they march.
The ludicrous scene in which Frederic discovers that, being bound till his 21st birthday, and having been born on the 29th of February, he has still several scores of years to serve, need not be described. Pirates and police meet when the former come to revenge themselves on Stanley; the police fall, but the victors are quelled when urged by their prostrate foes to be good enough to yield in Queen Victoria’s name; after which Ruth explains that the band are all – that is, nearly all – noblemen who have gone wrong, and universal matrimony is left to follow.
With the exception of three or four numbers, every song and concerted piece was encored, and the policemen had to sing a supremely funny song and chorus, which we have not mentioned in this resumé of the story a third time. How completely Mr. Sullivan enters into the spirit of his companion’s words has been acknowledged again and again; and here even the simplest airs are rescued from being commonplace by the piquant and skilful orchestration. But there are some special points to be noted, and chiefly, perhaps, the remarkable ingenuity shown in the combined “Chattering Chorus” for the General’s daughters, and love music for Mabel and Frederic. The chorus “How beautifully blue the sky,” is in two-four time; while the tenor and soprano are singing in three-four time; but the result is singularly smooth and bright. Again, the combined choruses of the girls and the policemen, “Go, ye heroes, go to glory,” and “When the foeman bares his steel,” are managed with striking ease and ability. But the gem of the opera is an exquisite little madrigal in G, three-four time, scored for strings, “Oh, leave me not to live,” sung by Mabel and Frederic. Mr. Sullivan has written nothing more tender and graceful than this beautiful melody, which contains all the best characteristics of old English music. Mabel’s song, in three-four time, “Poor wandering one,” is an air which at once takes the fancy. It is repeated in the finale, and – a proof of its being sufficiently “catchy” – was to be heard whistled in the Strand more than once as visitors were leaving the theatre. The Girls’ Chorus, especially the snatches of solo in it, is pretty; graceful passages of melody constantly recur, and again and again the humour of the words seems to be echoed in the music. If there is nothing so supremely quaint as the horror-stricken chorus of sisters and cousins and aunts in The Pinafore to the words “He said damme!” in the same order of whimsicality comes the ensemble here in which the girls and General argue as to whether or not the statement that he is an orphan can justly be said “to come in the same category, as a regular terrible story.” The twice encored policemen’s song begins “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment,” but all their music is capital; not least so when Mabel tells them they are “going to death and glory,” their solemn expostulations in monotone, “That is not a pleasant way of putting it.”
It seems probable that The Pirates of Penzance was written expressly for the company by which it was played at the Opera Comique, except that Miss Cross at a few hours’ notice replaced Miss Everard, who was injured at rehearsal by the fall of some scenery. Miss Cross, with one trifling slip in a song, was not only perfect in words and music, but played with admirable humour and appreciation. Her performance was in fact a striking proof of what a well-trained artist can do under adverse circumstances. She and the management are alike to be congratulated on the manner in which a difficulty which might have proved serious was obviated. Mr. Power acts as Frederic just in that simple-minded way that brings out most strongly the absurdity of the character, and he sings exceedingly well. Mr. Grossmith’s Major General is a most suitable companion picture to his First Lord of the Admiralty – surely no more need be said. Mr. R. Temple as the Pirate King is a buccaneer of the deepest dye, and, dressed in the glowing colours that were in former days associated with “Skelt’s characters,” he exactly reproduces their attitudes. He sings the dashing song with abundant spirit, and, what is equally valuable, with a distinct enunciation of the words, a virtue which Samuel, his lieutenant, Mr. G. Temple, likewise displays amongst other good qualities. Mr. Rutland Barrington, as the lusty looking timorous-hearted serjeant of police, is wonderfully lifelike and highly diverting. Miss Hood, as the heroine, makes, so far as we know, her first appearance on the stage, and plays the part very prettily. She has a pleasant soprano voice, and sings well when not too severely tested. Her training does not permit her to do justice to florid music, and the attempt at a shake is singularly unsuccessful, but her intonation is usually accurate, and she sang her share of the madrigal very sweetly and simply – as it should have been sung. Miss Gwynne as Edith shows much graceful vivacity, and Misses La Rue and Bond lead the General’s daughters.
The “business” of the scene and arrangement of the characters are invariably strong points in Mr. Gilbert’s pieces, and the results of his careful superintendence are always visible. The scenery is picturesque, and an excellent orchestra was heard at its best on Saturday under the guidance of Mr. Sullivan, whose appearance was the signal for hearty and long-continued cheers. At the end of each act author and composer were called to receive fresh congratulations. The success is in every way complete.
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