The Sorcerer


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Adapted from the book "Tit-Willow or Notes and Jottings on Gilbert and Sullivan Operas" by Guy H. and Claude A. Walmisley (Privately Printed, Undated)

THE SORCERER, which is sometimes given the alternative title, "The Elixir of Love", was produced on Saturday, 17 November, 1877, at the Opèra Comique, Wych Street, Strand. (This delightful little theatre was demolished in 1904 to enable improvements to be carried out at the Aldwych and Kingsway.)

The story of the opera centres round "John Wellington Wells, a dealer in magic and spells" whose love potions work havoc on all who drink them, in the same manner as the juice of a little flower, called love-in-idleness, when "on sleeping eyelids laid", as in "A Midsummer-Night's Dream", made "Man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees".

The results, in the opera, as can well be imagined, are truly Gilbertian. The piece satirizes early Victorian customs, and the now out-of-date idea of the delicate curate who was supposed to receive slippers and other somewhat effeminate articles from kind-hearted maiden ladies.

Act I opens with a scene showing the exterior of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre's Elizabethan mansion at mid-day, with a crowd of villagers collecting to celebrate the betrothal of his son, Alexis, to Aline, daughter of Lady Sangazure. Soon Mrs. Partlet (a Pew Opener) enters with her daughter Constance who appears to be strangely depressed, and on a day of such rejoicing, too. When asked the cause she admits to her astonished mother that she is deeply in love with their elderly vicar, Dr. Daly. Mrs. Partlet speaks to him on her daughter's behalf but he fails to take the hint and they leave him, determined to try again at a more fitting time.

Sir Marmaduke then has a short discussion with his son on the subject of love and admits that, as a young man, he and Lady Sangazure were madly in love with each other though they were far too discreet to admit it in public. Alexis and Aline quickly sign the marriage contract, with the help of an elderly Notary, and when finally left together he explains to her his theory that in marriage alone is to be found the panacea for every ill, no matter how different in rank the parties concerned may be; and in order to support this theory and turn it into fact he sends for a Sorcerer, the famous John Wellington Wells, who produces a phial of-Love-at-first-sight Philtre.

The contents of this, and two similar phials, are brewed in a large tea-pot and given to the merry-making villagers who, in twelve hours according to the advertisement, will fall in love, provided they are unmarried, with the first person of the opposite sex whom they see. Before long it becomes evident by the strange conduct of the characters that the charm is working, and the Act ends with all those who have partaken of the philtre falling insensible on the stage.

Act II has the same setting as Act I, except the mansion is now shown by moonlight, with the villagers still asleep on the ground. However as the prescribed twelve hours have elapsed they all awake and quickly fall in love with each other; for instance Constance, who loved Dr. Daly, has now transferred her affections to the deaf old Notary who drew up the marriage contract — "He's everything that I detest, but if the truth must be confessed, I love him very dearly!"

Alexis then tells Aline that they, too, must drink the philtre, but she refuses, pointing out that her love for him is sufficient to guard against all chance of change. The whole village has paired off in the happiest manner, but nevertheless she is distressed at the prospect of such ill-assorted unions, whereas Alexis is delighted, until his father appears with the Pew Opener, Mrs. Partlet, on his arm; he is then rather taken aback.

Meanwhile Lady Sangazure becomes fascinated by the Sorcerer himself, and Aline, having changed her mind, secretly drinks the philtre in accordance with her lover's wish, only to meet Dr. Daly and fall helplessly in love with him.

When Alexis realizes the damage he has done to others, as well as to himself, through his meddling with nature, he implores the Sorcerer to remove the spell so that all may be restored to their former loves.

In order to do so Mr. Wells explains that either Alexis or he himself must die. When put to the vote it is decided, unanimously, that the Sorcerer must pay the penalty since he was the cause of all the trouble. He submits to his fate, and when all have quitted their temporary partners and returned to their original lovers the Sorcerer sinks through a trap in the stage amidst a blaze of fire. There is some very delightful music in the opera, although it is not so well known or considered so "catchy" as that of some later on in the series. The Vicar's two songs, "Time was, when Love and I were well acquainted", and "Engaged to so-and-so" are both attractive and amusing.

George Grossmith as John Wellington Wells 1877

The part of John Wellington Wells was originally written for Fred Sullivan, Sir Arthur's brother, who played with such marked success the part of the judge in "Trial by Jury" but unfortunately he was dead by the time the opera was produced—he died on 18 January, 1877. It was his death that inspired Sullivan to write "The Lost Chord" while seated at the bedside of his brother to whom he was greatly attached.

"The Sorcerer" is famous for introducing Mr. George Grossmith to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, in fact it was his first introduction to the legitimate stage, as up till then he was, like his father, purely an entertainer at the piano. However, when Sullivan invited him to take the part of the Sorcerer he accepted the offer although he must have realized the risk of giving up an already successful career for one that might prove otherwise. But he chose well as, contrary to some expectations, the opera was quite a success—there were 178 performances in all—and Gee-Gee as Grossmith was called, like his father before him, and his son after him, remained with the Company for twelve years, during which time he played many of the leading parts.

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