Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



by Clifton Coles

The limited run of Utopia Limited left Richard D'Oyly Carte with the Savoy Theatre empty in the summer of 1894. Despite the fact that Utopia would have the longest run of any Savoy Opera in the 1890s, Carte rejected a proposed collaboration between Gilbert and composer-educator George Henschel. Sullivan had nothing ready, so Carte began a search for someone new.

This was the third time in the 1890s that Carte had to find a new composer for the Savoy. He had tried both the familiar (Edward Solomon, a composer with a lengthy if not particularly distinguished career) and the unknown (Ernest Ford, a composer at the beginning of what could have been a promising career) with mediocre success at best.

Emmie Owen as Mirette

The choice of Andre Messager (1853-1929) was not a bad one as he combined the best aspects of both options. Messager was an established composer with a growing international reputation. He was already being touted in his native France as a successor to Offenbach in the opera comique genre. His best works up to this time were the ballet Les deux pigeons (1886) and the operas La Basoche (1890) and Madame Chrysantheme (1893, on a theme similar to Puccini's Madame Butterfly).

In England, however, he was something of an unknown quantity. Many of his operas had played in England, and La Basoche had been Carte's choice to run in repertoire with Sullivan's Ivanhoe at the Royal English Opera in 1891-92. Though the opera was critically successful, it played for only 59 performances.

Carte's estimation of Messager proved to be correct  though it was not with Mirette that the composer established himself in England. That would have to wait until 1904, when his Veronique would be produced in London to thunderous acclaim six years after its Paris premiere. Messager's career in London, which included a six-year stint at Covent Garden, concluded with the successful Monsieur Beaucaire (1919), his second (and last) opera in English.

It was probably his inexperience in an unfamiliar idiom necessary for British audiences which prompted him to seek assistance for Mirette from Irish-born songwriter Hope Temple (1859-1938). Temple, nee Dotie (Alice Maude) Davis, later became his wife. Messager admitted that she had helped, but her name is not acknowledged on any published source, and who wrote what remains a mystery.

According to Selwyn Tillett's research, the libretto was originally written in French by Michel Carre. The dialogue and lyrics were then translated and additional songs written by Frederick Weatherly and Harry Greenbank. The results pleased no one, the story being too reminiscent of The Bohemian Girl (1844), one of the most familiar operas to Victorian audiences, and used many time-worn dramatic devices.

The romantic opera comique style also contradicted Savoy Theatre fare. The result was that Mirette has the dubious distinction of the shortest run of any Savoy Opera, lasting only 41 performances (July 3-August 11, 1894).

During a two-month break, Carte took it in hand to produce Mirette in a revised version. For this he enlisted the pen of Adrian Ross (1859-1933), then at the beginning of one of the most impressive careers in musical theatre history. Sixteen of his London musicals had runs of more than 400 performances; seven ran more than 600. One of his later assignments was as lyricist for Messager's Monsieur Beaucaire.

A prolific writer, Ross (born Arthur Reed Ropes) possessed the under-appreciated gift of writing words to already-existing tunes. His efforts turned Mirette from a romantic opera comique into a genuine comedy, closer along Savoy lines but also having a healthy dose of musical comedy. It ran for two additional months (October 6-December 6, 1894), but this could by no means be deemed a success. Mirette was forgotten by all parties involved. Unlike Monsieur Beaucaire, it was never produced in France. Messager, Ross, Weatherly, and Greenbank all went on to bigger and better things.

The familiar names of tenor Courtice Pounds (Picorin) and contralto Rosina Brandram (Marquise) graced the cast list of Mirette, as well as relatively new Savoyards Florence Perry (Bianca), Scott Fishe (Gerard), Scott Russell (Bertuccio), and Walter Passmore (Bobinet), all of whom had scored in minor roles in Jane Annie and Utopia Limited. Avon Saxon, Friar Tuck in Sullivan's Ivanhoe, played Francal.

The title role was taken by newcomer Maud Ellicott, who had understudied in Walter Passmore as BobinetUtopia Limited. Her performance was less than successful, and for the second version she was replaced by opera singer Kate Rolla and later musical comedy star Florence St. John. Emmie Owen's role of Zerbinette was built up from nothing in the first version to principal dancer in the second, and Richard Temple returned to the Savoy as the Baron. He and St. John would be featured in Sullivan's The Chieftain, as would most of the other principals

The song "Long ago in Alcala" was recorded by baritone Thomas Hampson and remains available on his disc An Old Song Re-Sung: American Concert Songs (EMI 7540512). The lyrics reflect the revised version by Adrian Ross.

Messager's ballet Les deux pigeons is also available on compact disc, as are his operas Fortunio, La Basoche, Passionement, Coups de roulis, L'amour masque, and Monsieur Beaucaire (in French).

For more information on the history and reception of Mirette, as well as details regarding casting and the opera's two versions, refer to Selwyn Tillett's article published in 1996 by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society in a booklet devoted to Mirette and His Majesty.

Page created 28 May 1998