|Savoy Productions > The Nautch Girl > Review from The Times
The Times, Wednesday, July 1, 1891
That a slight element of melancholy should mingle with the festivities attending the production of a new comic opera last night was surely inevitable. For the first time in the history of the theatre, the entertainment was provided by other hands than those of the collaborators for whose use it was built, and, quite apart from the merits of the new piece, some regret for the good old days must have been felt by many of the audience. Mr. D'Oyly Carte, the one remaining member of the triumvirate which has catered so long and so successfully to the public, has done most wisely in going as far as possible upon the old lines, and in his choice of a librettist and composer for the new opera he has been wonderfully fortunate.
Both Mr. George Dance and Mr. Edward Solomon have, with perfectly laudable intention, subordinated their own individualities to the traditions of the theatre, and have produced a work which, if brought out anonymously, would be unhesitatingly classed, by superficial observers at all events, among the rest of the "Gilbert and Sullivan" operas. It may, indeed, be doubted whether the older collaborators would have followed their own example so closely as their successors have done.
The faithfulness to tradition is more remarkable in the book than in the music; the types to which all the characters in The Nautch Girl; or, The Rajah of Chutneypore, conform — the piece, as usual, was only christened at the last moment — are those which, originally made familiar in "The Bab Ballads," have since delighted a far larger public than they reached before, and there seems no reason why the copies should not obtain so universal a currency as the originals. In another important respect the traditions of the theatre are preserved. One of the "planks" of the Savoy stage, if the phrase may be borrowed, has always been the careful avoidance of "anything French"; this policy, while not seldom resulting in the want of Gallic point and finish, has at least the advantage of making a strong appeal to the parents and guardians of the Young Person. Even the keenest-scented county councillor will probably fail to detect anything calling for protest in the new opera. Even the nautch dances, passed through the crucible of the theatre's censorship, have come out as immaculate as the "blameless dances" of Ruddygore. Whether in these days of universal religious toleration there may not be some danger of wounding the feelings of susceptible Buddhists by certain episodes in the piece is, perhaps, scarcely worth inquiring.
The plot, which, it will be observed, bears no distant resemblance to that of The Mikado, is as follows: — Indru, the democratic son of the Rajah of Chutneypore, loves, and is of course beloved by, Beebee, one of Baboo Currie's troupe of nautch girls. In order to bring himself to a level with his lady-love the prince renounces his caste by eating "a small plate of potted cow," only to find that Beebee herself is a Brahmin and that the relations between them are reversed. The Gilbertian fancy that the lady's father had lost caste by being saved from drowning by a low-caste man — "the dishonour was communicated down the rope" — is of course made the most of, and a good deal of fun is got out of the lengthily-tried question as to his restoration of rank.
The Rajah, with his tribe of female relations, is an old friend in a new dress. The main difference is that in the old days he would have fallen to the lot of Mr. Grossmith, while now he is impersonated by Mr. Barrington, of course with the most unctuous humour. It was a happy idea to make the monarch carry with him on all occasions a chemical analysis of his family blood, which "yields 120 grains of indigo to the square inch." Chinna (Miss Jessie Bond), the leader of a choir of the Rajah's poor relations, imagines that she sees her "affinity" in every male she meets, and ends by espousing, in Ibsenese fashion, the idol Bumbo, and consenting to sit with him during the second of a series of two-thousand-year naps, from one of which he awakes in the second act, to deal even-handed injustice to most of the characters.
The lovers are condemned to death, and the Rajah, being a felon's father, is joined with them in the condemnation. His lot has its mitigations, for he manages to get all his relations included in the doom, and looks forward to the "death by crocodile" with savage glee. One of the relations, or soi-disant relations — for all are impostors, who have imposed upon the Rajah's strongly- developed bump of "consanguinity" — Pyjama, his grand vizier, thinks he is to succeed to the throne, when the circumstance transpires that it is he who some time before stole the idol's left eye, a jewel of fabulous worth, the vicissitudes of which, as related by the Rajah, are enough to stock half-a-dozen stories modelled upon "The Moonstone."
It is surely superfluous to add that, during a visit of Currie's nautch troupe to England, the jewel was presented to Beebee, upon whose neck it is recognized by the idol himself. The usual general reconciliation of everyone follows as a matter of course. There is plenty of fun of the Gilbertian type to be got out of this, and it is only fair to say that the librettist, with whom is associated Mr. Frank Desprez, has made the most of his chances. The love duet of the first act, in which copious quotations are made from the English marriage service, and the equally inappropriate duet in the second, in very poor imitation of Heine's "Ein Jungling liebt' ein Madchen," are almost the only passages that are quite unworthy of Mr. Gilbert. All this author's most conspicuous, and therefore most easily imitated, mannerisms appear more or less constantly in the dialogue and songs, more than one of which is directly modelled, though perhaps unconsciously, upon well-known numbers in former operas of the Savoy series. The Rajah's categorical description of himself, in the style of "The House that Jack built," is indebted both structurally and musically to "The Merryman and his Maid," to go no further back in the series than that. Its serious delivery by Mr. Rutland Barrington is singularly delightful, and the dignified serenity of his aspect, maintained throughout an absurd dance, is exceedingly funny. The rhythmic or non-rhythmic idea which inspires Pyjama's capital song in the second act had seen much service before "Lost Mr. Blake" appeared in "The Bab Ballads;" it is chiefly useful as giving opportunities for plenty of those orchestral allusions which Sir Arthur Sullivan used with happy effect. The idol's topical song is, of course, one of the chief attractions of the piece. The prototype of the whole scene, in which Mr. Denny appears in a wonderful costume to sing it, is, of course, to be found in The Mikado, but it is not much the worse for that. That he has been 2,000 years "on the shelf" suggests not inaptly that such is, after all, the ultimate fate of society idols. The quartet with refrain "quite another different kind of person altogether" carries us back to the "greenery-yallery" period at the Savoy. An obvious quotation from Handel accompanies the mention of "the hallelujah person whose lungs are made of leather," and there are many other points of the same kind "which may," as the analytical programmes have it, "be left to speak for themselves."
The numbers in which the music is mainly prominent are not very many, nor are there many which can be held to deserve the same need of praise that has been given to some portions of the libretto. Mr. Solomon has succeeded in reflecting some of the more salient characteristics of Sir Arthur Sullivan's lighter mood, but has hardly, at least in the first act, given his work the sparkling gaiety and freshness which were present in The Red Hussar. The most meritorious portions of the score are an ensemble in D minor, "Stop the merry marriage bell"; the "crocodile trio," as it will no doubt be called; and the very characteristic nautch dance, with soprano solo and chorus, whereby the execution of the Rajah and his kinsfolk is delayed by the friendly offices of the dancers until the idol, infuriated at being kept waiting for the entertainment, turns his wrath upon the usurper Pyjama. In several passages, and notably in the last number, local colour is used with happy effect and much intelligence. Actual Hindoo melodies are apparently introduced here and there. An elaborate and extremely well-managed song, in which illustrations of national dances are given, is another very good specimen of the composer's powers; the pretty Indian dresses of the ladies lend themselves equally well to the example given, with the aid of fans and castanets, of the cachuca, and to the skit upon the society craze for solo dancing a la Guards' Burlesque. Several other numbers have much grace, as, for instance, Indru's ballad, "The sun was setting," and some of the concerted pieces are decidedly effective. Among these are a quintet and a duet with the refrain "Vive la Liberte!" the latter of which, sung by Miss Bond and Mr. Denny, obtained a double encore. The other two duets already noticed, being the most commonplace numbers in the work, were, of course, rapturously encored.
Miss Lenore Snyder and Mr. Courtice Pounds impersonate the lovers with much success; the lady is a newcomer from America, with a powerful, if not very well-trained, voice, who has the great advantage of good looks on her side, and who acts with a good deal of confidence and effect. Miss Jessie Bond is extremely picturesque as Chinna Loofa, and, of course, puts into the part all the vivacity and quaint humour she has at her command; her effective singing of the song outside Indru's prison must not be forgotten; Mr. Frank Wyatt, as the proprietor of the troupe of dancing girls, is agile, but his part is not very full of opportunities; Mr. F. Thornton might be funnier as Pyjama, the vizier, though his rendering of the song already mentioned has distinctly good points.
The piece is, of course, mounted with all possible elaboration; the beautiful scenery of Messrs. Ryan and Harker, and the dresses, designed by Mr. Percy Anderson, with much taste and due consideration in general as well as detailed effect, will contribute not a little to the success which may be confidently predicted. The opera was received with every sign of favour, many numbers having to be repeated, and the author and composer, as well as Mr. Carte, were called before the curtain at the close.
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