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"D" ('Princess Ida' No. 1) Company in Birmingham

Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England), Tuesday, June 17, 1884; Issue 8100.


There is no mistaking the popular qualities of the latest addition to the bright bead-roll of operatic gems, for which we are indebted to the joint labours of Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. With some previous members of the series, the first production has occasionally left it doubtful whether the humour or invention of this famous lyric firm was not beginning to flag, or at all events whether they had been quite as successful as usual in hitting the popular taste; but the reception of "The Princess Ida" last night never left us a moment in doubt as to the captivating qualities of the work, or the brilliant future that is in store for it. The audience seized the humour of the piece at once, and as number after number was enthusiastically redemanded, it became evident that the musical invention of Sir Arthur Sullivan, however prone in parts to self repetition, has lost none of its charm or freshness for the public ear.

Mr. Gilbert's libretto in this instance marks a departure from precedent in the fact that it is neither new nor in subject original. It is simply a rechauffé of a burlesque which he produced at the Olympic some fourteen years ago, garnished with popular melodies of the day, and is based, as the name suggests upon Tennyson's glorious "Medley." Gules upon gules is false heraldry, and it is somewhat against the canons even of lax burlesque art for one satire, however broad, to be based upon another, however refined and subtle. Mr. Gilbert's parody, moreover, is not even a parody. It is a nondescript sort of thing, from which the spirit of topsey-turveyism is entirely absent, and the author achieves his effect chiefly by broadening and caricaturing the essential features of the original. As a whole, the literary portion is inferior to most of the author's previous librettos, though some of the lyrics are very witty and incisive, and the general effect is quite as good as if more pains had been spent upon the dialogue. The piquant and interesting character of the Laureate's story, which is pretty closely followed, counts for much, but it is only fair to Mr. Gilbert to allow that the art of the playwright, which is not confined, of course, to the dialogue and lyrics, contributes largely to the result, and the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan even more.

The operetta consists of a somewhat lengthy prologue and two acts. The curtain rises discovering a crowd of gaily-attired courtiers, who are assembled in the palace of King Hildebrand to witness the arrival of King Gama and his daughter the Princess Ida, the betrothal bride of Prince Hilarion. After some delay the "philanthropic" King Gama makes his appearance, accompanied by his three warlike sons, Arac, Guron, and Scynthius, and after explaining that his daughter disdains the idea of marriage, and has retired to Castle Adamant, which [s]he has transformed into a Woman's University, where "Man" is regarded as "nature's sole mistake," he proceed[s] to give a description of himself in a characteristic ditty, one verse of which runs as follows:–

"I know everybody's income, and what everybody earns,
And I carefully compare it with the income tax returns;
But to benefit humanity, however much I plan,
Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
  And I can't think why!
I'm sure I'm no ascetic; I'm as pleasant as can be;
You'll always find me ready with a crushing repartee.
I've an irritating chuckle, I've a celebrated sneer,
I've an entertaining snigger, I've a fascinating leer;
To everybody's prejudice I know a thing or two;
I can tell a woman's age in half a minute — and I do.
But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can,
Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
  And I can't think why!"

The prologue concludes with the seizure of King Gama and his sons as hostages for Ida, while the disconsolate lover and his friends announce their intention of storming the university in an exquisite trio —

"Expressed glances
Shall he our lances,
And pops of Sillery
Our light artillery.
We'll storm their bowers
With scented showers
Of fairest flowers
That we can buy!"

The first act, which is really the second, shows us the grounds of the college, with Castle Adamant in the background, where a group of "sweet girl graduates" are listening to a lecture by Lady Psyche. They retire on the entrance of the Princess, who is hailed by her pupils as "Mighty Maiden with a Mission," and give place to the three adventurers — Hilarion, Cyril, and Florian — who, finding the forgotten gowns of some of the fair students, don female attire, and are welcomed as members of the university. They are presently recognised by Lady Psyche, Florian's sister, and the ponderous metaphysical Lady Blanche, the "Lady Jane" of the piece, who is in a state of perpetual trouble and perplexity about

"How the Is and Might Be stand
Compared with the inevitable Must."

While feasting with the ladies, Cyril, indulging over much in wine, inadvertently betrays his sex and the secret of their visit, and, as in Tennyson's poem, the Princess in flying from the male intruders falls from a bridge into the lake, and is rescued by her betrothed. The conclusion of the act differs entirely from the original. King Hildebrand and his army storm the castle, and Ida is given one day in which to decide whether she will wed Hilarion, or, by her refusal, cause the death of her father and brothers, who are in durance.

The second act is laid in the churchyard [sic] of the castle, where the girls, transformed into warriors in brilliant armour, present a very fascinating spectacle. The armourer, however, unlike the proverbial tailor, has not succeeded in making the man, or rather Amazon, for the maidens all refuse to fight, the guns are left behind "for fear they should go off," and the band is too unwell to turn out. King Hildebrand, however, is unwilling to war with women, and, on his proposal, the issue is to be decided in combat by the Prince and his friends and Ida's three warlike brothers. The victory is, of course, scored by the former; and all ends, after the customary hesitation, in the usual satisfactory manner, the couples pairing off till the curtain falls upon the grotesque love-making of Gama and Lady Blanche.

The music of "The Princess Ida," though not free from reminiscences and suggestions, chiefly of the composer himself, marks an advance, we think, upon anything he has yet achieved in this light and fantastic line. Whilst full of spirit, fancy, and humour, it touches in parts a more serious chord, and hand-in-hand with the most graceful, spontaneous, and captivating melody, we have harmonic subtleties and orchestral devices which constantly reveal the hand of a master. At the same time the composer always manifests a due sense of proportion, and his scholarship is never unduly obtruded, or his command of polyphony, allowed to overweigh his score to the injury of the essential sprightliness of comic opera. Some of the choruses and concerted pieces are among the happiest things he has ever penned, but he does not therefore neglect the claims of vocal solo, and one or two of the songs are gems in their way, and we may cite the beautiful and expressive lament of the Princess in the last act, "I built upon a rock," as a case in point. Other members [sic] of special merit, and the elaborate mock heroic trio for the warlike sons of Gama, "We are warriors three," and the episode, "For a month to dwell in a dungeon cell," in which the three warriors sing a kind of canto fermo to the counterpoint of the other personages and the orchestra, the patter song of Gama already quoted, Hilarion's tuneful song, "Twenty years ago," the sprightly trio, with dance, for Hilarion, Cyril, and Florian, "I am a maiden cold and stately," in which the three gallants array themselves in the lady's cloaks, a charming quartet, "The world is but a broken toy," in which the intruders are joined by the Princess, Psyche's song with trio, "A lady fair of high degree," [sic] a most effective quartet, "The woman of the wisest wit," the quaintly pretty duet for Melissa and her mother, "Now wouldn't you like to rule the roast;" a lively chorus of girls, with solos, "Merrily ring the luncheon bell;" Hildebrand's fiery song, "Some years ago no doubt you know;" a fantastic song in the minor for Gama, with chorus, "Whenever I spoke" and the finales to all three acts. But the musical interest of the work never flags, as was shown last night by the fact that every other number had to be repeated in compliance with an enthusiastic encore.

The stage mounting and general performance are not unworthy of the high merits of the work. This costumes are singularly piquant, harmonious, and effective, and the scenic accessories reflect great credit upon the taste and enterprise of the management, the scene in the garden of Castle Adamant in the second act being especially attractive and imposing. The cast, on the whole, is a strong one, and preferable in some particulars to that with which the work was produced in London. Miss Esme Lee makes a graceful and charming princess, and sings the music even better than she acts the part. With a little more confidence, which will doubtless come with experience, her performance will leave little to desire. The sprightly Melissa found an admirable representative in Miss Beatrix Young. Miss Minna Louis was charming as Lady Psyche, and the metaphysical perplexities of the austere and ambitious Lady Blanche were admirably expounded by Miss Fanny Edwards.

The King Gama of Mr. David Fisher jun., is a character study of rare merit and finish, admirable alike in make up and manners, though at times a little too youthful in stride and gesture. The Hildebrand of Mr. Fred Billington is bold and effective, but a little wanting in force in the early part. Mr. Courtice Pounds makes a singularly graceful and fascinating Prince Hilarion, and is worthily supported by Mr. Charles Rowan and Mr. F. Federici, as Cyril and Florian respectively. The Cyril, however, was in parts a little obtrusive. The stolid warrior sons of King Gama found competent representatives in Messrs. Charles Prescott, Arthur Hendon, and Leonard Roche, and the subordinate characters were well supported.

The chorus is a large and excellent one, and the band, under the conductorship of Mr. P. W. Halton, satisfied all reasonable requirements. The production altogether is a most praiseworthy and successful one, and can hardly fail to draw full houses.

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