|[This review of the opening night of His Majesty from "The Times" on Monday, February 22, 1897.]
Neither of the collaborators who have made this theatre famous is concerned in the new opera, His Majesty; or, the Court of Vingolia, which must have been a surprise to those who, from the fact of Mr. Burnand's experience as a librettist of comic opera, and Sir Alexander Mackenzie's inexperience in this class of composition, expected to find a brilliant book weighed down by music of too ambitious and serious a type. The exact opposite is the case: the book, for which Messrs. Burnand and R.C. Lehmann are jointly responsible, lacks the all important quality of animation, the dialogue is rarely redeemed by even a happy thought, and the confused plot is hardly ever interesting. If the piece should prove definitely unsuccessful -- and its extremely ambiguous reception by a very tolerant pit and gallery promises no certain career of prosperity -- it will not be the fault of the music, which is neither commonplace nor abstruse, but appropriate throughout, musicianly, and very often marked by distinction as well as humour. To follow the intricacies of the argument, which is set forth in six closely printed pages of the libretto, would be tedious and unprofitable; it is enough to say that the it turns on the adventures of two princesses, daughters of the King of Osturia, the elder of whom has been lost as a child. She has been entrusted to an old couple, together with a hair trunk containing the crown jewels, the possession of which is of course enough to prove her identity when the proper time comes for finishing the piece. As the peasant girl, Felice, she is beloved by King Ferdinand of Vingolia in disguise as a travelling portrait painter. According to the laws of those fantastic kingdoms that are known as the Savoy dependencies, this monarch has certain idiosyncracies, but on this occasion they seem to extend no further than the habit of retention of medieval costumes for the Court, the passion for dabbling in every kind of art and science, and the custom of setting everybody to rights on every subject. It will be seen that the strain on the beholders' imagination is not very excessive, so far. An ancient law forbidding any portrait of any member of the royal family is set forth at length in the book of words, but the idea is made nothing of in the story. Another ancient document enforces the marriage of the King of Vingolia to the eldest daughter of the King of Osturia, and accordingly the Princess Lucilla Chloris, the younger of the two half-sisters, comes after the manner of Savoy heroines, to perform her part of the treaty. On her way she has been delayed at the cottage of Felice's foster-parents, and has taken a fancy to her unknown sister, engaging her as lady-in- waiting. As the marriage is against her inclinations, her heart being given to a Prince Max of Baluria, she devises the plan of exchanging positions with Felice. King Ferdinand, in order to keep his identity hidden from Felice, hits upon the expedient of putting the courtiers and himself in false beards, and various scenes of cross-purposes fill up the two acts of the opera. An excrescence on the story, but one that does more than all else to save the fortunes of the piece, is the character of the master of the revels, Boodel, whose name calls up tender memories of Mr. Burnand's earlier days. In various disguises, assumed because he is under sentence of death for giving an imitation of his Majesty, he appears without much connexion with the rest of the piece, and perhaps the funniest moment is when one of the guards, apparently a "super," overhearing the courtiers reading the order for the execution of Boodel, falls upon his face, and reveals the comic personality of Mr. W. Passmore, who enacts the part of Boodel with the utmost success.
The music does much to relieve the tedium which is undeniably felt in connexion with the libretto, and it is impossible to enumerate all its good points. There is a capital overture, a little longer than those to which the audience at the Savoy is accustomed, but surely none the worse for that; a fatuous anthem, composed by the King himself, is sung with all due gravity; and the prettiest number in the opera comes quite early in the evening, being, moreover, sung by two entirely subordinate characters, the foster-parents of Felice. It is a little duet in canon, "Who goes home?" suggested by the cry of a watchman outside; it was well sung by Miss Bessie Bonsall and Mr. H. Workman, and was heartily encored. A charming chorus of ladies ushers in the Princess Lucilla Chloris, whose piquant song and dance is exceedingly taking. A happy specimen of the orchestral joke which has become de rigueur in pieces of this class is the oboe passage illustrating the Princess's assumed sorrow at parting with her father. Max, the tenor, who enters with a melodious solo of a sentimental order, joins the two Princesses in a trio based on a jig-measure, in the course of which Boodel, imperfectly hidden behind a statuette, forms the idea that they are conspirators, and that Felice's hair trunk contains dynamite. Left alone with his discovery, he sings a deliciously funny burlesque of the plantation song now in vogue, with a choral accompaniment behind the scenes. This piece of excellent musical fooling is soon capped, as it were, by a chorus of martial character, in the accompaniment of which a bewildering series of quotations is made from every imaginable operatic source, while the stage picture suggests the "benediction des poignards" in Les Huguenots. The marches in Faust, Le Prophete, and Tannhauser are easily identified, and allusions to "The British Grenadiers" and other martial tunes are introduced in combination, the musical workmanship being altogether beyond praise. Another masterly passage involving the assumption of various styles is in the second act, where a trio is sung in three languages. Felice sings a German version of "Little Miss Muffet" to strains that change from Wagnerian intensity into "Sie solien ihn nicht haben"; Chloris follows with an Italian scena, in the course of which the early style of Verdi is succeeded by an exquisitely absurd parody of Mascagni; after these the French skit, sung by the King to a tune compounded in almost equal measure of Gounod, Offenbach, and "Partant pour la Syrie," falls a little flat, and each of the imitations takes so long that the presence of the other two characters on the stage is for the moment superfluous. The second act contains also a scena for Felice, in which a waltz-refrain is happily introduced and laughed at, a hornpipe for Boodel, a pretty duet for Felice and the King, and a duet, "Noblemen in distress," sung by Boodel and the King of Osturia in the dismal style of street singers. This number comes a little too late to make a great effect, but for all that is distinctly successful. In one respect, and only one, the music is rather difficult for the ordinary theatre-goer to take in; instead of allowing the words, which very often have rather an obvious jingle, to suggest the musical rhythms, the composer has cast his melodies into metrical forms so elaborate as to sound almost far-fetched, and some of the performers are evidently hampered in their delivery of the musical phrases.
Mr. Passmore's performance of Boodel has already been referred to; it is certainly the best and most amusing thing he has done, and the successor to Mr. Grossmith's parts has evidently been impelled to unusual refinement of demeanour by the necessity of appearing in association with Mr. Grossmith himself, who returns to the company in the part of the King. On Saturday this eminent artist was apparently overcome by nervousness, and made next to nothing of his part, except that he gave a prolonged imitation of Mr. Beerbohm Tree. Mr. Kenningham as Max sang and acted excellently, and Mr. Fred Billington was appropriately ponderous as the King of Osturia. Messrs. Scott Russell and Jones Hewson were successful in minor parts. Mme. Ilka Palmay sings the music of Felice with acceptance, in spite of her throaty production; her parody of the German manner of singing declamatory music is clever, and her extremely vivacious acting makes up for her broken English, which is scarcely felt as a disadvantage in such dialogue as is provided for her. Miss Florence Perry's voice and method have been severely tried during the long run of The Mikado, but she acts brightly and is received with much success. The opera is sumptuously mounted, and on Saturday was conducted by the composer, who, at its close, received a far less quantified need of applause than fell to the share of the librettists.
This review was submitted to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive by Clifton Coles of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Baton Rouge (Louisiana).
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