|Princess Ida > > First Night Review
On Saturday, January 6th, a respectful Operatic Perversion of
After a short interval sufficing for the necessary rehearsals, the Savoy Theatre reopened on Saturday last with a new opera by Mr. W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, under the title of Princess Ida; or, Castle Adamant, the author calling it "a respectful operatic perversion of Tennyson's "Princess." It gives us sincere pleasure to be able to record a success as complete as in many previous instances in which the gifted composer and brilliant author have been so delightfully associated.
They possibly did not anticipate themselves the career of popular favour destined to reward their united efforts when in 1877 they commenced this wonderfully successful series with The Sorcerer. This was so altogether new, fresh, and captivating that it could hardly be expected that a number of operas of the same kind would follow. But in 1878 came the genial H.M.S. Pinafore. Then The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, and Iolanthe, the latter having supplied entertainment for the patrons of the Savoy for more than a year. We may predict at once, and with little fear of being false prophets, that Princess Ida will enjoy as brilliant a career as Iolanthe: if, indeed, her reign be not more extended, for, notwithstanding all the care, expenditure, and good taste devoted to that work, the magnificence of Princess Ida far surpasses it. No opera by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan has been so splendidly placed upon the stage. The costumes are as gorgeous in effect as they are rich in colour, and in design they are simply exquisite, while the stage pictures presented in the three scenes of Hildebrand's Palace, the Gardens of Castle Adamant, and the Courtyard of the Castle, are as beautiful as it is possible for such scenes to be.
The music, by Sir Arthur Sullivan, is his very best, full of grace, fancy, elegance, and what is indeed rare in these days, originality. Some of the ballads are as bright and fresh in idea as anything we have heard for years, and the musicianly effects introduced in the orchestral and choral passages are novel and picturesque in the extreme. The bright wit and satire never fail to exercise their attractive influence, and frequently in the most jesting moods we hear a sentence indicating in a playful manner how keen is the author's knowledge of human nature, and what an extensive acquaintance he has of modern life and society.
As our readers generally are aware the first attempt of Mr. Gilbert to found a work upon the "Princess" of the Poet Laureate was made at the Olympic Theatre in 1870. Mr. Gilbert had an intention of reforming burlesque by inducing playgoers to seek entertainment in productions of a higher class. In his address to the public at the time he alluded to the commonplace character of such pieces, and claimed for his version of The Princess that it was an attempt to treat such subjects with refinement and elegance. It was given with musical selections of more or less merit, but failed to make much impression, simply because Mr. Gilbert had not then, like Earl Beaconsfield, "educated his followers." They have learned his system since then, and the interest with which audiences flock to the Savoy to witness the latest production is keener than upon any former occasion.
As the outlines of Tennyson's poem are well known we need not dwell upon the details of the story. We learn in the prologue that the Princess Ida, daughter of King Gama, has been betrothed in infancy to Prince Hilarion, son of King Hildebrand. When the prologue opens they are expecting King Gama and his daughter, but when that crusty old monarch does arrive the Princess Ida is not in his company. In fact, the king states that the princess is shut up with a hundred maidens in Castle Adamant, and intends henceforth to hold no communion with the sterner sex. There is a stormy scene between the two kings, ending the prologue; and in the first act we see the lovely gardens surrounding Castle Adamant, and the charming ladies pursuing their studies after the plan suggested in Tennyson's delightful poem, with the addition of Mr. Gilbert's brilliant satire to make the scene still more effective.
Hilarion, the lover, with his friends Florian and Cyril, climb the outer walls of the domain, and, arraying themselves in feminine garments, claim admission as "sweet girl graduates." At first they are accepted by the Princess Ida, but soon they are discovered, and there is a, terrible commotion in the circle, as a few of the youthful students are inclined to welcome the new comers. The Princess, however, has them arrested by her Amazonian attendants; "the daughters of the plough" and the three young gallants are imprisoned in Castle Adamant.
In the second act Princess Ida finds that her female warriors "don't want to fight," and some very amusing scenes take place, leading to the almost entire desertion of her army, and at last in despair the Princess calls in the aid of her farther and his three warrior sons. A burlesque combat takes place, in which the sons of Gama are worsted by Prince Hilarion and his two friends, and the fair Princess, seeing that her project has failed, consents to become the bride of Hilarion, his companions having without difficulty found partners for themselves.
Sir Arthur Sullivan conducted the orchestra himself, and, with Mr. Gilbert, was enthusiastically received. We regret to learn. that the excitement and hard work the composer devoted to the production of the opera led to an attack of illness after the performance ended; but he is, happily, improving in health.
No praise can possibly be too great in referring to the magnificent manner in which Princess Ida is placed upon the stage. It is a feast for the eye to witness the exquisite scenes in which the action takes place, and when the charming groups, so admirably and picturesquely arranged, are seen in the midst of these artistic surroundings it is hardly possible to imagine stage illusion more complete, more beautiful, or in more perfect taste. The dresses of the girl graduates alone are costly in the extreme, and the contrasts afforded by rich suits of armour and quaint mediæval costumes of knights and warriors cannot but delight the eyes of all possessed of any artistic feeling or love for what is beautiful.
Mr. Gilbert was blamed by some for basing the new opera upon a work already produced, but, although it is to a great extent founded upon the Olympic extravaganza, the introduction of new and attractive lyrics and witty allusions, and a better working out of the story, quite alter its character; and the transformation is complete, when we consider the delightful music in which Sir Arthur Sullivan has enshrined Mr. Gilbert's libretto. Sweet, fresh, and tuneful from first to last, in some instances it is far higher still.
The prelude for the orchestra is a gem, and the first ballad, "Ida was a twelvemonth old," is charming. The trio for the three sons of Gama is full of grotesque martial spirit, and admirably suits the situation, and the finale to the prologue is extremely animated. The humorous spirit in music is freely developed in the song for Lady Blanche "Come, mighty Must!" and the exhilarating trio for the three young gallants after they have scaled the walls of Castle Adamant is one of the composer's happiest inspirations. It is as gay and sparkling as the immortal trio in the Pinafore, and it was vociferously encored, and we have no doubt it will generally be received with enthusiasm. A very beautiful quartet in the first act was greatly admired, and the quaint song for Lady Psyche "The Ape and the Lady," a whimsical burlesque of the Darwinian theory, was much applauded. The duet for Melissa, and Lady Blanche "Now wouldn't you like to rule the roast?" is written with the old-fashioned grace of a past century, and it was so melodious that it was encored. The burlesque song of Cyril in which he alarms the Princess was whimsical and pretty and had to be repeated, and the entire finale of the first act was literally brimming over with good passages, and here we must compliment the chorus especially, for the full chords rang out with bell-like tones. The plaintive regrets of the Princess in the air "I built upon a rock" were charmingly illustrated in the music, and the funny song for King Gama, had exactly the ring required for the verses:–
Mr. Grossmith was very droll in this whimsical and characteristic song. The song of Arac, King Gama's son, "This helmet I suppose," was excellent in itself, and afforded Mr. Richard Temple one of his few opportunities of distinction. The rendering of the work, with one exception, almost reached perfection.
The exception was Mr. Rutland Barrington, whose name, first on the list, was by no means first in point of merit. We have heard enthusiastic ladies speak of Mr. Barrington's appearance as "almost regal," and we quite agree that he has an imposing presence. But when the characteristics of King Hildebrand are so distinctly referred to in the libretto we must confess to a feeling of surprise that Mr. Barrington should have played the part so tamely and have rendered the music without either force or style; unfortunately also with so little voice and with such imperfect articulation that it was difficult to hear either the words or the music. Hildebrand speaks of himself as "a peppery sort of kind [sic] indisposed for parleying," but Mr. Barrington's acting and singing only recalled the mildest moods of the Vicar in The Sorcerer. Of the fierce temper, the blustering tone, the mock-heroic and defiant manner there was not a vestige. Mr. Barrington spoke fierce words, but he looked a very lamb. His tones were meek and his defiance would not alarm an infant. His action was also as awkward and ungainly as it could well be. For the sake of his own reputation Mr. Barrington ought to throw more spirit and energy into the character, and certainly for the sake of the opera, for one of the best scenes unquestionably suffers through his tameness.
Mr. H. Bracy did good service as Hilarion, singing with much grace and delicacy the pretty ballad "Ida was a twelvemonth old." Mr. Bracy also gained credit by his unaffected acting, which was sufficiently animated without any trace of exaggeration. Mr. Durward Lely was to be commended for his liveliness as Cyril, and his merry song at the luncheon was encored. He rendered the character with much spirit throughout. Mr. Ryley made a capital Florian, and joined in the concerted music to good purpose.
The quaint, eccentric, and ill-tempered monarch King Gama was made a very amusing personage by Mr. George Grossmith, who in his opening scene in the prologue acted with the most grotesque drollery. His song describing his unaimiable temper and his surprise that people called him disagreeable was very comic indeed. To hear Mr. Grossmith repeat the phrase "I can't tell why" invariably caused a response of hearty laughter. His other song to which we have referred of the unhappy position of a king who has "nothing to grumble at" was even more successful still; and the whimsical expression of face and strange, angular attitudes of the King caused infinite amusement.
Mr. Richard Temple had but a small part, but, like a true artiste, he made the most of it, and gave it individuality by genuine artistic talent. Mr. Temple also sang admirably. Messrs. Lugg and Gray as the other sons of Gama deserved commendation.
Miss Leonora Braham as the Princess has never done better work in all her career, not only in singing but in acting. Her charming delivery of the address of the Princess to her maidens had elocutionary merit of a very high class. Every syllable told, and the variety of tone and expression imparted made this speech one of the great hits of the night. Miss Braham sang the music, some of which is by no means easy, with great taste and vocal skill, and in look and manner she realised the character thoroughly. The management was fortunate in having so clever a lady to undertake this important character at so brief a notice. Her success is complete, and will have much to do with the success of the opera.
Miss Brandram must also be credited with a thorough success as Lady Blanche, the professor of abstract science. Miss Brandram made her mark in her first scene, and sustained the character with most amusing effect throughout. Miss Chard acquitted herself well as Lady Psyche, singing gracefully and looking charming; and the sprightliness of Miss Jessie Bond, combined with clever acting and really excellent singing, fully justified the hearty recognition she obtained in her principal scene. Miss Sybil Grey as Sacharissa also gained applause and admiration, and Miss Heathcote and Miss Twyman proved adequate to their respective duties.
That Princess Ida will have a long career of popularity cannot be doubted, as it contains so many elements of interest and attraction; while in splendour of stage surroundings it surpasses all previous works of the kind.
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