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The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Pirate King The Pirates of Penzance Major General


From The Graphic, Saturday April 10, 1880

OPERA COMIQUE – That the Pirates of Penzance would prove a brilliant success in London was to be expected after the unanimous verdict of approval delivered upon its immediate precursor, H.M.S. Pinafore. Two authors like Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan (poet first in accordance with the Wagnerian dictum), exploring the same path which had already served them to such excellent purpose, could hardly fail, with additional experience, in obtaining at least equally happy results. They have, in fact, achieved another genuine triumph through legitimate means – a triumph all the more satisfactory if only, apart from the rare merits of their joint labour, on one special account. These clever gentlemen have shown that "opéra bouffe" of the wildest possible kind, where license after license for the drollest improbabilities (as in the works of Offenbach, Lecocq, et hoc genus omne), are tacitly admitted, can be made diverting beyond measure with scrupulous regard to propriety, and without an incident of action, or a spoken sentence, that through any ingenious perversion will bear an equivocal meaning, suggest a doubtful arrière pensée, or be used as pretext for double-entendre. In achieving thus much, had they done nothing else, Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan would deserve the consideration of all who look upon the theatre as a purifying, rather than as a corrupting, medium of public entertainment.

Let us go to the Opera Comique, and witness a performance of the Pirates of Penzance. We shall see before the lamps bevies of beauty, costumed as becomes beauty when beauty is exhibited to the highest advantage – with modesty; for it is a truth incontrovertible that between Diana unattired and the decently clad maiden there are no lawfully distinguishable grades. The "classics" in sculpture and in painting are, of course, beside the question, having all a deliberate purpose in view, the plain illustration of which on the stage would be a manifest breach of etiquette.

At the Opera Comique we shall hear explosion after explosion of laughter, caused the wit, the humour – the "fun," in short – of the dialogue, impotent to raise a blush on the cheek of boy or girl, yet not a bit less entertaining to the adult man or woman; the whole enhanced by music tuneful and fresh throughout, marked by the nicest appreciation of the situation and the text, gay, grave or sentimental, as text or situation may demand, written for the voices and instrumented for the orchestra with discriminate and masterly skill, accompanying the libretto, as it were, hand in hand, as sister might go hand in hand with brother. "Opéra bouffe" (or whatever we may choose to style it in English), thus exemplified, should be everywhere acceptable and we are pleased to learn that our American cousins have taken to it under such conditions – witness the extraordinary popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore, and again the four companies, organised by the enterprising and indefatigable Mr. D'Oyly Carte, now engaged upon its immediate successor in various sections of the "States."

Our morning contemporaries have dwelt at such length, and with such accurate minuteness, on the story of the Pirates of Penzance, that we may reasonably suppose the majority of readers sufficiently well acquainted with it to exonerate us from the task and privilege appertaining to narrators. English that the piece is of its kind inimitable and this, not withstanding that one or two of the leading characters are clearly modelled after previous types of Mr. Gilbert's own creation – Major-General Stanley, for instance, being from a military point of view an unquestionable "double" of a certain never-to-be-forgotten Sir Joseph Porter K. C. B., figuring conspicuously in H.M.S. Pinafore. Nevertheless, we cannot agree with the opinion that the twenty-four daughters of the General are mere reflexes of the "sisters, cousins, and aunts of Admiral Porter, that Ruth bears any particular resemblance to "Little Buttercup," that Frederic is a bit like Ralph Rackstraw or that the adventurous Mabel is a fair synonym for that gallant seaman's lady love. The daughters of Major-General Stanley, more especially, are mainly important to the progress and denoument of the plot while the "sisters, the cousins, and the aunts” of Sir Joseph Porter are nothing more than accessories, who might be omitted – by no means because they are unamusing, but because they have nothing essential to say or do that affects the march of events. The substratum of the Pirates of Penzance, moreover, is essentially new and original. The pirates themselves, and their mock-ferocious Captain, are a strange lot, such as could only have come to an imagination so peculiarly turned as that of Mr. Gilbert. who, if only by reason of the “Bab Ballads," would in the sphere of fantastic oddity reign supreme. The strong sense of “duty” entertained by these pirates, their tender sympathy for orphans, and “with all their faults," their loyal attachment to the Queen and reverence for “our House of Peers," are unique in the history of sea marauders.   Nor could other incidents and characters in the plot have emanated from a brain less richly stored with such inexplicable conceits. Impossible as is the story from beginning to end, it is worked out so consistently, and with gravity so well sustained, that it may be logically admitted as it stands. No point must be questioned, or the whole fabric crumbles away; accept it as it is, in its integrity, and we are the richer by a humouristic tale of mystery.

The space at disposal will only admit of a glance at the music which Mr. Arthur Sullivan has wedded to the piece thus cursorily described. As in previous instances, he has so completely caught the spirit of his text that the two, instead of distinct things, seem one and inseparable. Tel poète, tel musicien. That no composer can meet the requirements of Mr. Gilbert like Mr. Sullivan, and vice versâ, is a fact universally admitted. One might fancy that verse and music were of simultaneous growth, so closely and firmly are they interwoven. Away from this consideration, the score of the Pirates of Penzance is one upon which Mr. Sullivan must have bestowed earnest consideration, for independently of its constant flow of melody, it is written throughout for voices and instruments with infinite care, and the issue is a cabinet miniature of exquisitely defined proportions. The materials afford opportunities alike for comic, melodramatic, and sentimental treatment, and our composer has made use of them with unvarying discrimination. That the Pirates is a clear advance upon its precursors, from Trial by Jury to H.M.S. Pinafore, cannot be denied; it contains more variety, marked character, careful workmanship, and is, in fact, a more finished artistic achievement. To enter into details is out of the question, and to specify certain points where all is equally balanced would answer no purpose.

Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan are happy in their interpreters, and have to congratulate themselves upon the general getting up of their joint effort which, judging from the outcome, has been carefully prepared. As Major General Stanley Mr. Grossmith shines to no less advantage than as Sir Joseph Porter, supplied too with a comico-satirical song, "I'm the very pattern of a model Major Gineral," which he delivers in perfection. A better representative of the Pirate King than Mr. R. Temple, or a more efficient second, as Lieutenant Samuel, than Mr. G. Temple, could not be desired. Mr. Power, with his small but pleasing tenor voice, sings the music assigned to Frederic (apprenticed "by mistake" to a pirate, instead of to a pilot) with genuine taste, while Mr. Barrington, as Sergeant of Police, is hardly to be surpassed. The ladies are all good. If Miss Marian Hood be really a débutante, and this was her first appearance on the stage, good things to come may be expected from her, both as actress and singer. Her future progress will be watched with interest.

Great credit is due to Miss Emily Cross, who, in consequence of the indisposition of Miss Everard, undertook, at twenty-four hours' notice, the responsible part of Ruth, and in the circumstances acquitted herself wonderfully. Edith, Isabel, and Kate, three of General Stanley's daughters brought prominently forward, were well represented by Misses Gwynne, Bond and La Rue. Miss La Rue has a voice of charming quality, sings well, acts with grace and sprightliness, and looks provokingly pretty. These, with an orchestra efficient in every department, and a chorus of men's and women's voices equal to all demands (as Mr. Sullivan's music affords opportunities of testing), combined in producing an ensemble, which would have gone far to ensure success of a work of less merit than the Pirates of Penance.

Mr. Sullivan himself conducted the first performance, on Saturday. How he and Mr. Gilbert were received, and how the opera was applauded scene after scene, has been sufficiently made known.


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