|Princess Ida > > First Night Review
THE NEW GILBERT-SULLIVAN OPERA.
In one sense, the new opera, produced at the Savoy Theatre, London, on Saturday, is not quite fresh to the public, inasmuch as nearly the whole of the spoken dialogue has been heard before. In 1847 Mr. Tennyson published his famous "medley," "The Princess;" and, in 1869, Mr. Gilbert produced at the Olympic, London, a piece with the same title, which he called a "whimsical allegory, being a respectful perversion of Mr. Tennyson's poem." The cast included Mr. David Fisher, (as King Hildebrand), Miss Marie Simpson (Prince Hilarion), Miss Augusts Thomson (Cyril), Miss Montgomery (Florian), Mr. Elliott (King Gama), Miss Mattie Reinhardt (the Princess Ida), Miss Fanny Addison (the Lady Psyche), Mrs. Poynton (the Lady Blanche), and Miss Patti Josephs (Melissa). In Mr. Gilbert's published works, this "perversion" occupies about fifty pages of large type; it is in five scenes, and has twenty five dramatis personæ. In the "Princess Ida" only about half the dialogue is retained; it is entirely rearranged, some of the speeches being given to quite different people; the five scenes give way to a prologue and two acts; and the twenty five characters are reduced to fifteen, Gobbo, the porter disappearing altogether and other alterations being made. Moreover, Mr. Gilbert has introduced about twenty pages of incidental songs, duets, trios, quartets and quintets, the writing contained in these being wholly new, and certainly not less admirable than the dialogue with which they are associated. Here and there Mr. Gilbert has added a few lines of talk; and, in truth, the original "perversion" is so little known, the whole composition has been so carefully prepared, and the fresh matter and the changes are so important, that virtually, if not quite strictly, "Princess Ida" is, as regards the libretto, as well as regards the music, "new,"
The story opens in a pavilion attached to the palace of King Hildebrand. The room is crowded with courtiers and soldiers awaiting the arrival of King Gama and his daughter Ida, to the latter of whom King HIldebrand's son, Prince Hilarion, has been betrothed "at the extremely early age of one." Florian, a friend of Hilarion, expresses wonder whether the lady will fulfil her vows. King HIldebrand, entering with Cyril, another friend of his son's, intimates that if she does not do so, there will be war between King Gama and himself. Presently, the company having dispersed, Hilarion comes in, and tells his father he is afraid the Princess will not arrive. He has heard she has forsworn the world, and, with a band of women, shut herself within a lonely country house, where she devotes herself to "stern philosophies." Thereupon, the three brothers of Ida — Arac, Guron, and Scynthius — are announced. They of course describe themselves in a song:–
They are followed immediately by King Gama himself, who also introduces himself vocally:–
He confirms Hilarion's story about the Princess's retirement. She rules a College into which none of the masculine sex are admitted:–
Hilarion, Cyril, and Florian then determine on a course of action. They will seek out the Princess, but will use no force to gain her:–
Meanwhile, Gama, and his three sons are put in chains as hostages, and the prologue concludes with a trio in which the warriors bemoan their fate.
The first act takes place in the gardens of Castle Adamant, where a number of girl graduates are discovered sitting at the feet of Lady Psyche, "professor of humanities." To the inquiry, what is man, this lady replies (very much in the spirit of the preceptor in Robertson's "School") —
The Princess now enters and delivers an "inaugural address" in celebration of the superiority of women over men:–
In the dialogue which follows we learn that the elderly Lady Blanche, professor of abstract science, envies the Princess her position as head of the College of which she thinks she ought to, and will by and bye, be the ruler. After this Hilarion and her [sic] two friends enter having climbed the walls; and there is a duet and chorus in which the objects of Ida and her pupils are humorously described:–
Finding some college robes, the three youths put them on, and in that guise are surprised by the Princess. They pretend to be intending students, and are graciously received. Then the Princess retires. The Lady Blanche [sic, a misprint for Lady Psyche.] enters, and Florian, who is her brother, is recognised by her, and she then proceeds to unfold, in a song, the theory taught in the college, that "man, sprung from an ape, is ape at heart." We are told of the Ape that, falling in love with a Lady of lineage high,
Melissa next arrives, and it turns out that she has "heard all;" and as Psyche has "taken to" Cyril, so Melissa (who has never before seen a man) "takes to" Florian. The youths and Psyche then retiring, Lady Blanche, who has been an eaves-dropper, comes in, and, suspecting the sex of the strangers begins to cross-question Melissa, who has stayed behind. The truth is then divulged, but Lady Blanche consents to hold her tongue on its being represented to her that if Hilarion carries off the Princess, she will then attain the great object of her ambition — the headship of the college. Says Melissa — "The scheme is harmless, mother; wink at it." To which her mother replies —
After this, all come in to luncheon, which is spread upon the sward. Hilarion devotes himself to Ida; but Cyril, becoming excited and reckless by dint of too great indulgence in the wine provided, begins to give hints of their identity, and finally insists on singing a song descriptive of the sort of girl he loves. Hilarion, irritated, strikes Cyril; Cyril calls out to him by name; and the Princess guesses all. She rushes away, indignant; and, in crossing a bridge, falls into the stream. She is duly rescued by Hilarion, but refuses to be pacified. The youths are arrested by six "daughters of the plough" — when, suddenly, Melissa comes in with news of the arrival of Hildebrand and his men. The latter force their way in, and Hildebrand declares that if the Princess does not wed Hilarion, he will "level her walls in the twinkling of an eye." On this, Ida's three brothers observe —
The Princess, however, is firm, and the act concludes with her declaration of defiance.
The second act takes place in the courtyard of the castle, where Melissa and others of the Princess's ladies, armed with battle axes, sing a warlike chorus, tempered by a colloquy in which they admit that, in reality, they are very frightened at the notion of the coming struggle. The Princess, entering, calls out the army surgeon, who declares she would not cut off legs and arms for any money. The fusiliers are summoned, but it appears that they have no rifles — they are afraid they might go off! The Princess then expresses her despair and disappointment in a song, after which King Gama enters, with a message to the effect that Hildebrand is willing to let the issue hang upon the result of a combat between his son, Cyril and Florian, and Ida's three brothers. Gama quaintly complains that he is being treated by Hildebrand too well. He has everything he wants; but, as he says in the course of a solo,
Thereupon the Princess agrees to the combat, which duly takes place. Hilarion and his friends prove the conquerors, and Ida yields. Hilarion appeals to her to "give man a chance," and she consents, admitting at last that she loves him. The opera then concludes with a joyous chorus.
It will be seen from this rapid resumé that Mr. Gilbert's "perversion" of the Laureate's poem is really a "respectful one." In one instance has he at all caricatured the characters in "The Princess," and that is in the case of the three brothers of Ida, who may be said to supply the more broadly comic features of the new production. Elsewhere, the perversion which the Tennysonian personæ undergo is by no means disrespectful. Ida and Hilarion remain very much in earnest, and for the rest, Hildebrand and Gama, Cyril, and Florian, Lady Blanche, Psyche, and Melissa may best be described as Mr. Tennyson's poetical conceptions made more human. King Gama and Lady Blanche become specially diverting figures, the hearty malevolence of the one and the mock philosophy of the other being very entertaining. With the general outline of the story Mr. Gilbert has not interfered. There is here none of the "topsi-turviness" of which so many dull people complain. On the contrary, the action proceeds smoothly and naturally, and is scarcely even fantastic in its nature. Mr. Gilbert has wisely refrained from constructing his new work on the lines of "Pinafore" and "Iolanthe." We hope he will return soon to the rich and original vein of humour which he cannot yet have half explored; but, in the meantime, the straightforward simplicity of "Princess Ida" is welcome, as is also the easy and witty blank verse in which the dialogue is written. Mr. Gilbert's sarcasm has never been more polished, his sense of fun never more acute, than in this part of his work, and, as for the interpolated lyrics, they have all the old fluency and point and quaint turns of expression. There is not, perhaps, much in "Princess Ida" which will be popularly and widely quoted, but that is because Mr. Gilbert in this new effort has kept strictly to his main subject, and has, with evident intention, refrained almost wholly from general satire. The piece is thoroughly Gilbertian, but it is not wholly after the model of the other operas, and it will be none the less appreciated on that account.
The music, it may be said at once, is in Sir Arthur Sullivan's best style. After a brief but graceful orchestral prelude, we have a tuneful but not remarkable opening chorus, with solo for Florian. The next number is a solo (for Hildebrand) and chorus, which is full of irresistible "go," and is certain to be popular everywhere. Hilarion's first song is not specially characteristic, but is of course musicianly. The trio for the brothers is admirably grotesque and proportionately effective. Gama's first solo is of the light and lively kind that Sir Arthur always writes for Mr. Grossmith, and that, also, will have its share of popular appreciation. The duet for the two kings which comes shortly after is very quaint and pleasing. The trio in which Hilarion and his friends describe how they will besiege Castle Adamant is fitted with a particularly Sullivanesque chorus, which is appropriately used by and bye as a finale to the opera. The trio again, in which the three brothers bemoan their consignment to the dungeon, is admirable in its mock-martial form, and is endowed with a very humorous refrain. In the first act, after a not specially striking opening chorus, we have an elegant and elaborate aria, sung by the Princess on her first entrance. Lady Blanche has a solo in which the pseudo-metaphysical words are very skilfully set. Hilarion and his friends take part in a bright trio; and then comes a duet between Hilarion and Cyril, in which the learned ladies' aims are satirized to music which is charmingly skilful and attractive. In the following pretty trio for the youths, the dance and the ingenious accompaniment are the chief features. The quartet on the hollow pleasures of the world is graceful to a degree, whilst in Lady Psyche's song of "The Ape and the Lady," we have a ditty in the style of "The Magnet and the Churn." The quartet that succeeds reminds one not less powerfully of the quartet in the second act of "Patience" — so similar is it in the character of its inspiration; whilst the duet between Lady Blanche and Melissa brings back agreeable recollections of "Prithee, pretty maiden," though the actual melodies have no resemblance. Passing over the little duet and chorus, "Hunger, I beg to state," we come to Cyril's song in praise of demure maidens, which is likely to be as much enjoyed in drawing rooms as in its place in the opera. It is a captivating composition. The long finale to the first act includes a graceful solo for Hilarion and a lively one for Hildebrand, together with a humorous trio for the brothers. The second act begins with a martial chorus for the amazons. There is also a pretty melody for the Princess, of a sad and sentimental cast. Gama has another characteristic air assigned to him, and it will be found that this, too, is one of the popular things in the opera. A good chorus of soldiers leads up to a clever Handelian parody in which the chief of the brothers repudiates the armour in which he is clothed. To the finale we have already referred. On the whole, the music in "Princess Ida" is mainly of the type of that in "Patience," with some more ambitious work thrown in here and there. Once more Sir Arthur has shown, not only how perfectly he can set Mr. Gilbert's words, not only how tenderly, brightly, and amusingly he can write, but also how thoroughly skilful and individual he can make his work. In "Princess Ida" he is, we repeat, at his best.
The performance on Saturday was a long one, on account of the unavoidable waits between the acts, but it was thoroughly enjoyable. There were eight or nine encores, and four or five numbers narrowly escaped similar recognition. The enthusiasm of the audience was great and spontaneous, and it was quite explainable. The piece went from beginning to end without a hitch. The fall of Ida into the stream and the subsequent rescue were not well managed; but otherwise the stage management was, as usual, perfect. Miss Braham makes a charming Princess, looking very handsome and dignified, singing with delightful ease and sweetness, and speaking her lines with perfect appreciation of their meaning and effect. The address to the girl graduates was most skilfully delivered. Miss Brandram both sings and acts artistically as Lady Blanche, and Miss Bond is a delightfully arch Melissa. Miss Chard has a most attractive presence, a pretty voice, and a neat style; but she struck us as not quite equal to the requirements of "The Ape and the Lady." Mr. Grossmith makes his two songs wonderfully telling and in the prologue his acting is quite up to his best standard. Mr. Barrington is a stately and sonorous Hildebrand, and Mr. Temple a clever and amusing Arac. Mr. Bracy as the hero sings with taste and skill, but we prefer Mr. Lely's Cyril, both vocally and histrionically. The last named gentleman has an excellent sense of humour. Mr. Ryley is an agreeable Florian. The chorus singing is, of course, of the best, and the orchestra, conducted by Sir Arthur, played superbly. The dresses are most brilliant and sumptuous, and the scenery is of a very high order of merit, quite equalling, in its way, the best efforts at the Lyceum. The Castle Gardens, by Mr. Hawes Craven, is a work of art.
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