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"THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE" IN THE ULSTER HALL.
From The Belfast News Letter, 23 August 1881
AFTER an interval of three weeks the theatrical season in the Ulster Hall was resumed last evening, when Mr. D'Oyly Carte's "Pirates of Penzance" Company, under the able conductorship of Mr. F. Stanislaus, produced for the first time in this town the comic opera "The Pirates of Penzance." A more adequate representation of such a piece has never been seen in Belfast. The general efficiency of Mr. D'Oyly Carte's numerous opera companies is well known, but we do not recollect any of the previous performances given under his direction worthy of being placed, in point of general completeness, before that of last evening. The principal artists were highly efficient, and the numerous members of the chorus gave evidence of the training to which they had been subjected. Nor was the excellence confined to the vocalism, for the same element was apparent in the acting of the entire cast, and also in the instrumentalism. The piece having been originally brought out in America, under the direction of Mr. F. Stanislaus, it doubtless owes much to the supervision of so accomplished and appreciative a musician.
"The Pirates of Penzance" is certainly the most characteristic of the joint works of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan. All the comic-operas of these clever collaborateurs are of course burlesques, but burlesques composed in so delicate a vein of satire that it is not always perceptible at first sight. In "The Pirates of Penzance" the humour is astonishing in its variety; Mr. Gilbert does not merely begin to write in a certain humorous mood and sustain his plot — or what does duty for a plot — in this peculiar vein; but he introduces in the course of his libretto almost every form of humour with which we are acquainted. Not only is the piece, viewed as a whole, one of the cleverest of parodies upon the Lara-Corsair-Giaour form of fiction once so highly esteemed in this country, but in its details it parodies and burlesques innumerable usages of society, and even the harmless little shams of everyday life. Mr. Gilbert's perception of the ludicrous is simply unlimited; at the same time we cannot help thinking that it is in many cases far too fine to produce the desired effect upon a general audience. His libretto contains touches of infinite delicacy in satire which are as often as not passed over by a casual listener. It is a fact that while many persons maybe convulsed with laughter at some of the scenes in the opera, others will be unable to see the reason for remaining otherwise than serious, if not solemn.
Last night, for instance, while some of the audience were shaking with laughter, seeing the pirate band kneeling among the ruins of the chapel, and hearing them sing an imitation of one of the old glees, there were undoubtedly dozens of people who only thought the glee a most charming piece of music capitally sung. It would be utterly impossible, of course, to convince this latter class that the ludicrousness of the situation was immeasurably increased by the seriousness which was imparted to it; and it would be quite as vain to assure the opposite party that the scene was not one of the funniest that was over brought upon a stage. It is not pleasant to have to show wherein the elements of incongruity exist in any particular situation, but if such a task were forced upon one it would not prove difficult to accomplish. The notion of a boy being bound apprentice to the trade of a pirate is of itself ludicrous enough, yet it is but one of the many intensely funny points to be found in this libretto of Mr. Gilbert.
The music of Mr. Arthur Sullivan is so very well known everywhere — that of "The Pirates of Penzance" among the rest — it is unnecessary to refer to the numbers of the opera in detail. It may be said to be by turn serious and humorous. There is perhaps more of cleverness about it than any other element of merit. It is throughout brilliant, graceful and full of refinement. Much of it is undoubtedly the music of burlesque, but of burlesque assuredly of the most delicate type. There are, we feel certain, many persons who, after hearing, such a performance as that of last evening, will be found to think it a pity that such good art should be thrown away upon a libretto composed only to amuse the crowd; but it must be remembered that it was mainly through the efforts of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan that the public were led away from the debasing influence of opera bouffe into something better, if not of itself up to a remarkably high level.
The singing and acting of the different members of the company last evening left but little to be desired. Mr. David Fisher as the Major-General showed both humour and discrimination. He proved his possession of an agreeable if very light baritone; more useful than a remarkably brilliant quality; it was quite equal to the requirements of the extremely clever patter song in the first act, which we need hardly say was encored, and it was also heard to advantage in the concerted music of the second act. Mr. G. W. Marnock as the Pirate King acted with all the vehemence necessary to the part. He spoke the mock sentimental lines at all times with capital effect, and sang with a good deal of spirit. Mr. W. T. Hemsley, as the lieutenant, also sang and acted carefully. As the unfortunate Frederic Mr. G. Coventry showed good taste, and more than a little ability, though he was evidently suffering from a cold that prevented him from being invariably correct. He sang the romanza in the first act most tastefully, and in many of the concerted pieces his tenor was heard with effect. Mr. George Marler made a most humorous sergeant of police.
Too much praise cannot be given to Miss Laura Clement for her charming representation of Mabel. She acted with spirit and refinement in every scene, and sang in a highly cultured manner the lovely music assigned to the part. The exquisite waltz in the first act well deserved the encore which it received. Miss Madge Stavart as Ruth was admirable, possessing one of the best voices in the company; the songs that fell to her lot were most effectively and even brilliantly sung. The small characters of Edith, Kate, and Isabel were also played in an adequate manner.
The choruses could not be surpassed for excellence, and more than a word of praise is due to Mr. Charles Bellair for his excellent scenery. The chapel scene was one of the best we recollect seeing from the brush of this accomplished young artist. We may add that the acoustic properties of the Ulster Hall are so good as to leave no cause for complaint.
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