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Review of the Opening Night

from "The Times", Monday, December 6, 1897.

The long-promised revival of La Grande Duchesse under Mr. D'Oyly Carte's management took place on Saturday evening, when Offenbach's immortal work entered upon a new career of popularity. In the thirty years which have elapsed since the first performance of the opera bouffe, and its production in an English dress at Covent Garden, with Julia Mathews as the susceptible Duchess and Harrison as Fritz, Offenbach's music has been successively enjoyed for its sauciness, despised for its vulgarity, and admired for its brilliant verve. His position is no longer a vexed question, for the present production sets the seal upon his fame by admitting him into the blameless precincts of the Savoy. His work has, happily, been treated with the reverence due to a classic, and is presented with a completeness which the more intelligent admirers of Wagner sigh for in vain in our opera season. Hardly a cut is made, save the unnecessary entr'acte between the two scenes of the third act and a preliminary musical dialogue before the lovely "Dites-lui." The conspirators' chorus and the funny scene of the grindstones have been restored, with the curious statement (in a managerial note contained in the book of words) that these two were "written by the composer for the 1887 revival" — an assertion that needs explanation, seeing that Offenbach's death took place in 1880 and that the two numbers appear in the original edition, whence they were excised before the first performance. The same note informs us that the orchestral score has been strengthened, to suit modern requirements, by Mr. Ernest Ford, and gives us the comforting assurance that no music by other composers has been added. In view of the treatment of other French works on the modern English stage, this resistance to the prevailing temptation calls for hearty approval. Although many of the sly hits at the mannerisms of Meyerbeer are less patent to an English audience of the present day than they were to the French public of the Second Empire, the spontaneous freshness, the irresistible gaiety, and the winning charm of the music have lost none of their attractions. The lower forms of comic opera have of late reached such a point of ineptitude and sentimentality that a tonic was eminently necessary, and no better tonic could be conceived than the manly direction of Offenbach, who, after pedantry has said its last word concerning his audacities, remains a musician of no inconsiderable equipment.

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that the libretto of Meilhac and Halevy has not been treated with the respect that has been shown the music; and, indeed, it would have been absurd to preserve the slang of the sixties in a piece of which the action is laid in the 18th century. The musical numbers have been re- translated by Mr. "Adrian Ross," who has fitted his verses to music with care and success. The difficult metre of the opening line of "Ah! que j'aime le militaire" has suggested the equivalent "Soldiers! I'm simply mad about 'em," which is possibly an improvement on the old version. The substitution of "broadsword" for "sabre" in another famous song is of more doubtful advantage; but the Gazette de Hollande suggests a more or less pertinent skit on society papers. The "legende du verre," with its obvious parody of Goethe's famous ballad, is well translated, and this part of the work has been decidedly well done. The dialogue has been freely adapted by Mr. C.H.E. Brookfield, with good results in some passages. To convert Prince Paul from the conventional simpleton of French farce into an effeminate young man of the present day was a capital idea, and one which no one is better fitted to carry out than Mr. Brookfield. Less certain is the success of the expedient whereby Fritz is turned into a very modern type of cockney, and forced to adopt a strong London accent, even although Wanda is allowed to speak naturally. The process of deodorization which has swept away every trace of double entendre from the dialogue has been still more forcibly applied to the third act. The hymenical humours of the first of its two scenes are considered as too full-favoured for the eminently respectable audience of the Savoy, and accordingly the love-duet, now sung without the continual interruptions which used to be so diverting, precedes, instead of follows, the marriage ceremony. Things have gone so far that Fritz no longer receives a genuine castigation at the hands of a jealous husband — an idea which would be altogether too shocking — but is persuaded by pecuniary inducement to pretend that he has been worsted in a duel with Prince Paul. It cannot be denied that the fun flags considerably in the third act, and the general effect of the piece is in no way improved by the absurd change of the charming "Good night" ensemble, with its restful music, into an animated abjuration to the lovers to "Come to church"!

The English stage has no artist so well fitted as Miss Florence St. John to do full justice to Offenbach; but it would be foolish to assert that she exhausted all the possibilities of the Grand Duchess at the first performance. Her voice shows signs of recent illness and fatigue, but her artistic singing would more than carry this off if she could recover the abandon of some of her former efforts. In a series of splendid costumes, she looks the part to perfection, but she seems so afraid of overdoing the suggestion and roguery which are essential that she makes the impersonation seem sadly tame. It is as if she were overwhelmed with the atmosphere of the theatre in which she finds herself, or were affected more than all the rest by the prudish spirit in which the work has been approached. It was a decidedly happy thought to modify the famous game of leap-frog at the end of the second act — that situation which so scandalized the world in the days of Schneider — by letting the Duchess check herself with a shocked expression after she has started for her jump; but the can-can just before the end might surely have been given with a little more animation. Miss St. John's singing was at its best in the fine burlesque ensemble of the first act, "She's going to faint," and in the beautiful "Dites-lui" song. Miss Florence Perry is a graceful and sparkling Wanda, but a little less energetic manner of delivering her words would very much improve matters and would check the detrimental effect which her present method is gradually producing on her voice. On Mr. Kenningham, as Fritz, must be bestowed the heartiest commendations; granting that the part is to be played as a cockney, it could not be better done; every point tells, and the music is admirably sung, from the lovely little waltz at the beginning to the doleful recitation of his injuries in the final scene. Mr. Passmore has done nothing so good as his General Boom; it is always in keeping with the right Offenbachian tradition, and the part fits him in every respect like a glove. The business of firing off the pistol and sniffing the barrel instead of taking snuff was recognized and hailed by the audience. Mr. Henry Lytton is duly effeminate as Prince Paul, and Mr. William Elton plays Puck in finished style, although his powers as a vocalist are not great. In the small part of Baron Grog, Mr. Brookfield makes a decided hit, and his get-up is most artistic. The dresses, designed by Mr. Percy Anderson, are altogether successful, and the colours are not only well chosen but grouped very effectively. The two maids-of-honour in the first scene, with their marvellous head-dresses, look as if they had stepped from the memoirs of Margravine of Bayreuth, and the mounting and stage direction of the piece are excellent, the latter being due to Mr. Barker, the best practical authority on Offenbach. Mr. Francois Cellier conducted an excellent performance, and the work was enthusiastically received. Mr. Carte had sufficiently recovered from his recent illness to appear before the curtain at the close, with the other persons principally concerned.

It is sincerely to be hoped that this revival will have the good result of restoring the vogue of Offenbach's best work, and that the present generation will before long have an opportunity of making the acquaintance of his earlier opera bouffes, such as the classical pair La Belle Helene and Orphee aux Enfers, the latter of which might have been successfully revived a few years ago, when Gluck's great opera was in fashion. But the ruthless system of bowdlerization from which the present revival suffers must be modified, if not frankly discarded, if the works are to obtain the success that is their due.

This review was submitted to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive by Cliff Coles.

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