|The Pirates of Penzance > Reviews > London Premiere
(The following appeared in our Town Edition of Last Week.)
Originally produced at the Fifth-avenue Theatre, New York, last New Year’s Eve, Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance was at once received with extraordinary favour, and, popular as H.M.S. Pinafore had been, The Pirates of Penzance was declared on all hands to be even more attractive, both in quaintness and originality of subject, and in the charming flow of the music. Since that time it has become the rage in America, and Londoners have waited eagerly for its production, the day performance of the work at Paignton being, of course, merely to preserve the legal rights in this country, and as there were but forty-five persons in all to witness the Paignton representation there are few indeed who know anything about the work. But trustworthy accounts of its reception in New York had reached us, and there was little doubt that Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan had concocted a masterpiece of its kind.
Mr. Gilbert has, in fact, equalled his previous efforts in the drollery of his conception; and the brightness, elegance, and tuneful character of Mr. Sullivan’s music will, we predict, prove irresistible. Many of the musical pieces are absolutely perfect examples of what such music should be. Let us instance the principal duet for tenor and soprano, which is delicious in melody and style, and this is only one of many. Mr. Sullivan has carried out more completely than ever his original and fanciful idea of caricaturing grand opera. The result is that we have music worthy in its artistic qualities to rank with some of the best efforts of the greatest composers, while it has a piquant freshness and buoyancy such as no other modern musician has equalled. Our English Auber has given us melodies as novel in rhythm as the French composer, while there is a geniality in them more welcome even than the glitter and crisp accent of the Gallic school. Mr. Gilbert has parodied the old form of melodrama in the same amusing and characteristic fashion that Mr. Sullivan has treated the pompous style of modern opera. But in both hands the work is done artistically, and keeping always in view the requirements of a first-rate musical and literary production.
Mr. Gilbert’s share in the opera may be caricature of the most positive kind, but such caricature as only a man of genius could indulge in. Just so with Mr. Sullivan. His music is full of whimsical effect, but it is the work of a composer who can at will adopt the grand style. What Offenbach has done in his best works Mr. Sullivan has accomplished in The Pirates of Penzance, with the additional advantage that the latest comic opera is utterly free from any taint of vulgarity, while the former made coarseness one of the chief features. Such very strong claims upon public admiration as are to be found in this opera will probably result in one of the most triumphant successes on record. No wonder, therefore, that anticipation was keen last Saturday at the Opera Comique, and that the handsome Theatre was crowded to the limits of its capacity.
We gave when the opera was produced the fullest details of the story, but it may be advisable again to recall the chief incidents. The opening scene is the Pirates Lair in the vicinity of Penzance, and the Pirates are celebrating the coming of age of Frederic, one of their comrades, who announces his intention to quit the band, which consists entirely of orphans, most noble-minded, generous, self-sacrificing creatures, who, however, find in consequence that piracy doesn’t pay. The Pirate Chief is astonished to hear of Frederic’s resolve; but Ruth, a nurse, explains that in infancy he was to have been apprenticed to a “Pilot,” but through an error on her part she articled him to a “Pirate.” The young man, detesting his occupation, remains, however, with the piratical band “from a. sense of duty.”
But Ruth has matrimonial designs, and, as Frederic has not seen any other woman for sixteen years, she persuades him that she is a perfect example of feminine loveliness. Soon he is undeceived, for twenty charming damsels, wards in Chancery and daughters of Major-General Stanley come to the Pirate’s haunt for a picnic. They are startled by the appearance of the Pirates just as they are about to dabble their pretty feet in the surge, and an extremely brilliant and fantastic chorus is introduced, the score of lovely maidens hopping about to the music in a most diverting fashion.
The young pirate Frederic implores one of the fascinating girls to assist in his reformation, and Mabel, the youngest, consents, and joins Frederic in one of the prettiest love duets imaginable. The Pirates, however, determine to carry off the entire party until warned by Mabel that her papa is a Major-General; and at this point the military hero enters, and a song, delivered with extreme rapidity and full of most astonishing rhymes, increases the fun of the situation. Amongst other quaint lines are the following:–
The Major-General appeals to them as “Orphans,” and they at once relent, and a grand chorus in glorification of duty and morality closes the first act.
The second opens in a ruined chapel on the General’s estate. He is weighed down with remorse in having deceived the Pirates in order to secure the escape of his daughters and wards. They endeavour to console him in vain. Frederic, now in the Eleventh Hussars, is that very night to lead a party of police against his old comrades, and they enter to receive the General’s blessing. Here we have another grotesque song and chorus for the Sergeant and Policemen –
Frederic and Mabel take an affecting farewell, when Ruth and the Pirate Chief appear and the Nurse makes an astounding revelation. Frederic was born on the 29th of February, and will, accordingly, not be twenty-one until 1940. His “sense of duty” is so strong that he feels himself still to be a member of the Pirate’s band. There is another whimsical song and chorus, the following lines forming a portion, sung by the Sergeant and the “Bobbies” under him.
The attack of the Police on the Pirates fails. They are over powered, but the Sergeant calls upon all to yield allegiance to Queen Victoria, and at that honoured name the Pirates, “from a sense of duty,” submit, when Ruth appears and explains that they are no common pirates, but merely “noblemen who have gone wrong.” In fact they are Peers who intend henceforth to devote themselves to the duties of their high station.
This outline of the principal incidents only partially gives an idea of the host of novel scenes, comical situations and grotesque studies of character to be met with in The Pirates of Penzance. It will surprise us greatly if it be not speedily recognised as the most brilliant specimen of the combined efforts to which we already owe The Sorcerer and H.M.S. Pinafore. The subject of the present opera enables author and composer to give greater breadth to their effects.
The performance as a first night’s representation was remarkably free from faults. All the artistes were competent, although in one instance, that of Miss Emily Cross, the indulgence of the audience was requested, owing to the lady having undertaken the part of Ruth at twenty-four hours’ notice, in consequence of the indisposition of Miss Everard. It is only fair to Miss Cross to state that, under the circumstances, she acquitted herself admirably, although, of course, her rendering of the music was less forcible than it would have been after a further acquaintance with the score. Her make-up was extremely effective, and there was much spirit and drollery in her acting.
Miss Marion Hood, a youthful prima donna, appeared as Mabel, and won a success as brilliant as it was well merited. The young, lady has a charming voice of more than ordinary compass, and in quality it is clear, vibrating, and fresh as possible. Some of her high notes rang out above chorus and orchestra with splendid effect, and her artistic qualifications are quite beyond the average. Her first song, by its brilliancy and command of some difficult staccato passages, at once gained the unqualified approval of the entire house. But greater triumphs were in store, especially in the second act, where in the love duet with Frederic the purity of her intonation, the sweetness of her expression, and the exquisite grace and elegance imparted to music equal to anything Mr. Sullivan has ever written, was rewarded with shouts of applause. Again in the waltz melody introduced in the finale, Miss Hood was extremely successful, and the brightness and silvery quality of her voice remained unimpaired by her exertions. In her acting, also, Miss Hood was exceedingly pleasing and natural.
Miss Julia Gwynne is entitled to great commendation, and Miss Lilian La Rue as Kate and Miss Bond as Isabel distinguished themselves.
As the Major-General Mr. George Grossmith, junior, had a character recalling in some respects the First Lord, in Pinafore, and we need hardly say he made the most of it. He was greeted with hearty applause after singing the “patter” song in which the Major-General announces himself and states the variety of his accomplishments. A very droll effect was produced when the General stops occasionally at a loss for a rhyme to some difficult word, but when it is found he “makes a note of it” in an extremely humorous style. Mr. Grossmith acted with much of the same comic dignity that made his representation of the First Lord so amusing.
Mr. Richard Temple as the Chief of the Pirates scored a distinct success even in his first song, which is one of the prettiest melodies in the opera. The song of “The Pirate King” will, we think, be as popular as any. Mr. Temple’s acting was full of spirit and vivacity, and his burlesque of the old-fashioned school of nautical melodrama showed a keen appreciation of the drollery of Mr. Gilbert’s humorous ideas, none of which lost anything in his hands. Mr. George Temple as the Pirate’s lieutenant also succeeded in creating an effective character.
Mr. George Power, possessing a very agreeable light tenor voice and a pleasing style, qualities which have already gained for him no little favour in previous operas, represented Frederic, the lover, with good taste vocally and a fair amount of histrionic skill. He shared the honours of the lovely duet in the second act with Miss Hood, and in other pieces did himself no little credit.
Mr. Rutland Barrington, although his character was a comparatively slight one, that of Sergeant of Police, was rewarded with more applause and laughter than any other artist. We have already given one verse of the Sergeant’s principal song as an example of its drollery, and, besides the burlesque whimsicality of the words, the air they were set to was so tuneful and spirited that it was twice encored. In fact, it was impossible to listen with a grave face to such a, song and chorus as that given by the Sergeant and his men before the attack on the Pirates.
There was a most efficient chorus both male and female, and the twenty pretty girls who represented the daughters and wards of the Major-General merited the warmest commendation. Their dresses, designed by Faustin, were simply perfect. The scenery of Mr. J. O’Connor was charming. Great praise was also due to the efficient band, conducted by Mr. Sullivan himself, who was greeted with tremendous cheers as he stepped into the orchestra, and who was recalled with Mr. Gilbert again and again. Enough has been said to indicate a lengthened and brilliant career for The Pirates of Penzance.
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