|Princess Ida > > First Night Review
GILBERT AND SULLIVAN'S NEW OPERA.
The test to which a play is put on a first night in London is severe and unfair. The audience, suffering from nervous tension; is restless, irritable, fickle, and the sense of the power to make or mar a great fortune leads to the caprice characteristic of all tyrannies. I have been more than once struck with this fact by the events of the first night of Lotta and of Gilbert and Sullivan's last opera. In the case of Lotta the "damning" was so complete as to be painful to anybody who was present, but it was complete rather than just, for the smallest mistake led to loud hissing, pettiest contretemps roused more than Homeric laughter. It speaks well for the "Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant" — as Gilbert and Sullivan have styled the "respectful perversion" of the Poet Laureate's poem — that it passed through this terrible ordeal of its first appearance triumphantly, for it may be said at once that the success of the piece was beyond question.
The audience was as brilliant as any audience can be at a season when the chief lights of London society are in their country houses still intent on the keeping of Christmas. Lord Garmoyle and his fiancée, Miss Fortescue, have now become inevitable apparitions at a London premiere, and they occupied — as is also their wont — a conspicuous box on Saturday night at the Savoy. The son of Lord Cairns looks a quiet, ordinary young Englishman, and if one were to try a guess at his occupation from his appearance, he would be put down probably as a clerk in the city. Miss Fortescue has the rosebud kind of prettiness of which Miss Connie Gilchrist, of the Gaiety, is the best London specimen. Her figure is poor, for she is thin, narrow-shouldered, and she was just a little too restless and self-conscious. Mr. Edmund Yates, Mr. Archibald Forbes, Mr. Bronson Howard, the celebrated American dramatist, and the whole army of dramatic critics were present. Lord Dunraven occupied a box, and Mr. Pinero — who is rapidly advancing to a splendid position in the London drama — was in the balcony with his wife — who in the theatrical world is known as Miss Myra Holmes. Mr. Pinero has a striking appearance; the face is almost as thin as Irving's. Then there is the same prominence of feature, and the forehead looks higher from premature baldness; in fact Pinero would make a splendid model for the Claude Frollo of Hugo's Notre Dame.
There was, of course, a hearty welcome to Sir Arthur Sullivan when he appeared in the orchestra to conduct his work, and about half-past eight, after an overture which was brief and spirited, the curtain rose.
As everybody must be assumed to know the story of the Princess, it is not necessary to give in detail the plot of "Princess Ida." It follows very closely the original. King Hildebrand (Mr. Rutland Barrington) has a son, Hilarion (Mr. Bracy) who is married to the Princess Ida (Miss Leonora Braham), a daughter of the neighbouring monarch King Gama (Mr. George Grossmith); but the Princess Ida has turned amazon, and is president of a university of "girl graduates," who have foresworn marriage and all acquaintance with man. As in the original poem Hilarion has two bosom friends — Cyril (Mr. Durward Lely) and Florian (Mr. Ryley) — and the three enter within the sacred precincts of Castle Adamant, disguise themselves as "girls," are at first successful, then betray themselves, and are thrown into prison. King Hildebrand and his forces lay siege to the castle, the princess seeks to inspire her amazons to enter into battle with armed men, is-disappointed in all her hopes, has to surrender, and in company with most of her companions sinks into matrimony with the man of her heart.
The piece is divided into a prologue and two acts. The prologue takes place in Castle Hildebrand, and the scene opens with the soldiers and courtiers looking out for King Gama, who is expected to arrive with his daughter. There was a murmur of applause when the curtain rose and revealed the richly-dressed group of women, with soldiers forming the background, and it may be said at once that the splendid dresses, the grouping, and the mise en scène generally had much to do with the success of the piece. Mr. Rutland Barrington came out in all the splendour of a medieval King, and his reception of welcome was mixed a little with an inclination to smile at the transformation in an actor so intimately associated with the Arcadian garments of Bunthorne [sic]; and the severe evening dress in the scene at St. Stephen's in "Iolanthe." The first air that caught the general ear was a song of Hildebrand; "If Gama bring the Princess there give him good cheer," with a fine, dashing chorus. When King Gama does appear he is found to be a Royal Paul Pry in mind, with something of the physical peculiarity of Richard III. A verse of his portrait, as drawn by himself, is worth quoting —
Mr. Grossmith does full justice to the song, and he received the first encore of the night. A trio for Hilarion, Cyril, and Florian — "In expressive glances shall be our lances," announcing the intention of marching on Castle Adamant was received with enthusiasm, and it is a beautiful number. The prologue winds up with a brisk air —
sung by Arac (Mr. Richard Temple) Guron (Mr. Lugg) and Scynthius (Mr. W. Gray), the three sons of Gama who, as eccentrically dressed, and eccentrically behaved warriors, form one of the most entertaining features, and the audience applauded in a manner that showed the success of the piece so far was assured.
The scene of the second act is Castle Adamant, the abode of Princess Ida and her fellow amazons, and when the curtain rose some two score of "Girl Graduates" were discovered reclining on the stage. This was one of the prettiest pictures of the play, the gowns were in rich velvet with brocade, and the graduates were, or at least looked, as pretty an assemblage as any male intruder might wish to encounter. Of course there is chorus, the burden of which may be gathered from the refrain —
Man is Natures sole mistake.
Finally, the Princess Ida appears. This part was originally assigned to Miss Lillian Russell, an American actress of considerable prettiness and talent, but that young lady displayed such strange notions as to attendance at rehearsal that she had to be dismissed, and Miss Leonora Braham, who has played the chief part in most, of the comic operas of the Savoy, was reinstated. It was some gratification to find that so old a favourite did not belie expectation. The address of the princess to her pupils is in Gilbert's best style of eccentric humour. The moral is of course the vast inferiority of man to woman, and the general tone of the humour may be gathered from this extract:–
This long address, which is rather trying, was delivered with excellent elocution, and produced a good deal of this quiet laughter which speaks of keen enjoyment.
Lady Blanche (Miss Brandram) is the professor of science in the university, and it required the excellent contralto voice of this lady to redeem the rather too abstruse fun in which she is made to indulge. The prince and his companions now appeared and sung together, and Mr. Durward Lely gave very beautiful number beginning "As for fashion they foreswear it, so they say — so they say" — and this — the music of which was really exquisite — was received with great applause, and had to be re-sung. Then the three youths finding some gowns left behind, arrayed themselves therein and created immense amusement by the substitution of curtseys for bows, and other attempts to substitute female for male peculiarities. The princess appears, and this is the signal for perhaps the most beautiful air in the whole opera — the quartette, "The world is but a broken toy." As in the original Florian, the companion of the Prince, has a sister in Castle Adamant, in the Psyche, and she recognises her brother. This in some way or other gives rise to the singing of a song something after the style of the "Silver Churn" in "Patience," entitled "The Ape and the Lady," and the moral of the verse is in the last lines —
Melissa (Miss Jessie Bond), another of the girl graduates, and daughter of Lady Blanche, likewise learns of the presence of men, and this leads to very amusing complications. Lady Blanche discovers her daughter's secret, and then they sing a duet,
accompanied with a demure dance, which was one of the very prettiest and most enthusiastically applauded situations of the evening. The song,
Would you know the kind of maid sets my heart aflame — a,
with the refrain,
Oh, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, though I die for shame—a!
in which Cyril reveals his identity, is excellent both in words and in music, and Durward Lely acted it with evident gusto. He was much applauded and had to give an encore. The first act winds up with the Princess bidding defiance to King Hildebrand, who has come to rescue his son, and there is a very beautiful picture as the curtain falls. The Princess Ida stands in the centre, dressed in white; around her knees are the graduates in their robes, and the circle is completed with the warriors of the King standing on the surrounding rocks.
The second act drags a little, and this is felt the more because the action in the first act is also rather slow, and there is the unfortunate fact that the conclusion is so completely foregone as to lose much of its hold. The scene presents the outer walls and courtyard of Castle Adamant, and the girl graduates are now discovered with battle axes and coats of mail. They make at first a show of great warlike ardour, but sotto voce confess that they are terribly afraid. The Princess Ida appears breathing fire and fury, but one by one her forces desert her and she has to yield and throw herself into the Prince Hilarion's arms. Lady Psyche (Miss Chard) acts similarly towards Cyril, and Melissa is taken possession of by the boisterous Cyril [sic]. The play winds up in subdued words and tones, and though this gives a certain tameness when briskness is perhaps more desirable, the music is very beautiful, and conveys excellently the subdued wail that is usually the background to the moments of profoundest joy.
The audience at all events were enthusiastic in their expression of satisfaction. First all the actors had to cross the stage; then Sir Arthur Sullivan and Mr. Gilbert appeared, and finally Mr. Carte, the manager, was called. The verdict of the critics was that the piece was the best libretto Gilbert has ever done. Two curious facts are worthy of note in connection with the work. It was produced as a play — with just an occasional song in 1869 [sic], and its success was but moderate. The public had not yet begun to appreciate the wit of Gilbert, and most of it went over their heads. And the second fact is that the college with girl graduates, which was but a fantastic creation of Tennyson's and Gilbert's grotesque imaginings, is now translated into solid fact in the shape of Girton College, Cambridge.
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