| The Sorcerer > Reviews > Review of the 1877 Production
(The following appeared in our TOWN EDITION of last week.)
THE OPERA COMIQUE
All musical London, or rather that portion of it which by hook or by crook could obtain a seat at the Opera Comique Theatre, flocked there last Saturday to witness the production of a new comic English opera, written by Mr. W. S. Gilbert, composed by Mr, Arthur Sullivan, and entitled The Sorcerer.
A glimpse of the author’s share in the opera was afforded to those who happened to read the Graphic Christmas number last year. Therein Mr. Gilbert told a charmingly comic and whimsical story of an innocent curate, whose endeavours to promote happiness and universal love amongst his flock in a remote country parish by an eccentric and unusual method resulted in a grotesque failure. To have read this sketch and know that the opera of The Sorcerer was founded upon it was in itself sufficient to pique curiosity which was increased by the reputation Mr. Sullivan has won as a composer. We need only name a few of the important works which Mr. Sullivan has contributed to musical art during the last half-dozen years to show that the anticipations of last Saturday had substantial foundation.
Very early in life this popular composer achieved a marked success in a very different department. Following in the footsteps of Mendelssohn, but without directly copying that master, Mr. Sullivan produced music for several of Shakespeare’s plays, which was at once recognised as having remarkable ability, freshness of idea, graceful melody, and sparkling instrumentation. The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and recently Henry the Eighth have been musically illustrated by Mr. Sullivan, and in these musical accompaniments to Shakespeare he proved that he could write with dramatic as well as picturesque effect. As further examples of his skill in the same direction we may instance Cox and Box, that extremely humorous setting of a popular farce, and the still more amusing Trial by Jury, in which he was, as at present, associated with Mr. Gilbert.
We remember the vociferous welcome the public gave to Trial by Jury. The verdict was indeed unanimous, and while the laughing spectators gratefully acknowledged the amusement they had derived, the more critical were eagerly asking, "Why cannot we have comic English opera?" and we say and have always said the same thing, for the lackadaisical, threadbare, sentimental love stories which English composers have so frequently set to music sickened sensible people with English opera. If we look to France we find the best composers writing comic operas. What a large proportion of Auber's works are of this school, and where do we find prettier specimens of operatic composition than The Crown Diamonds, Le Domnino Noir, and that masterpiece Fra Diavolo? Even the grave Cherubini is at his best in comic opera, as most people think when they hear his charming Water Carrier. We believe there is a wide field for English composers in comic opera; but the failures into which so many musicians have been led was in writing music without the sparkle and brilliancy requisite to illustrate a humorous subject.
Professor Macfarren and Balfe have tried their hands at comic opera, the former in his Don Quixote, a work worth reviving, and the latter – most successfully, perhaps – in The Rose of Castille.
That a command of the more solid musical qualities is no hindrance to the comic opera composer is conclusively shown by a glance at the more elaborate works of Mr. Arthur Sullivan. There is his Te Deum composed in commemoration of the recovery of the Prince of Wales, and performed at the Norwich Festival in 1872, his oratorios The Prodigal Son and The Light of the World, and other ambitious compositions while the composer's knowledge of the resources of the orchestra enabled him to add in the most musicianly style additional accompaniments Handel's oratorio Jephthah; and his gift of melody – that prime qualification for comic opera – has enabled him to add to the repertoire of the popular vocalist a host of charming songs familiar to all concert-goers, such as “Once Again," “Looking Back," "The Lost Chord," “Sweethearts," &c. With such antecedents to recommend the composer of The Sorcerer, we can hardly wonder that the musical world was on the qui vive last Saturday at the Opera Comique. We need hardly say that Mr. Sullivan received a hearty welcome when he entered the orchestra to conduct his own work. Such a friendly reception must have been gratifying in the extreme.
A little hitch must be recorded at the commencement. Mr D'Oyly Carte requested the indulgence of the audience for Mr. Bentham, who was suffering from a cold and swollen face. However, Mr. Bentham struggled manfully against this drawback, and every consideration was shown him.
After a lively prelude for the orchestra, the curtain rose upon the garden of an Elizabethan mansion, the owner thereof being Sir Marmaduke Poindextre (Mr. Richard Temple). There is a chorus of rustic yokels, and the caricature of sentimental opera commences with the opening scene, for the countrymen in smock frocks and tall hats singing an operatic chorus at once provoked a roar of laughter. Their chorus is to the effect that Aline Sangazure (Miss Alice May) is about to be betrothed to Alexis, the Baronet's son (Mr. George Bentham). The next incident furnishes us with a further revelation of the story. In company with Mrs. Partlett (sic), a pew-opener (Miss Everard), Constance, a pupil teacher (Miss Giulia Warwick), is heard bewailing her hopeless passion for the Vicar, Dr. Daly (Mr. Rutland Barrington), in a pretty melody, which Miss Warwick sang with considerable grace and fluency. The Vicar himself, who has lived single all these years, is not altogether insensible – sometimes the spirit moves him. "Time was when love and I were well acquainted," he sings in a quaint ballad. He recalls how once upon a time, when he was a pale young curate, the maidens "forsook even the military" for him, and if he had a cold half the girls in the parish trembled. Mrs. Partlett, the pew-opener, suggests that Constance should set her cap at the Vicar in earnest; but as yet the good man is not to be caught, and presently the betrothed young lady comes upon the scene. Aline sings a graceful ballad, "Oh, happy young heart," the latter portion of which, thanks to the music and to the talent of Miss Alice May, was redemanded; and there is an amusing scene, in which the ancient and modern styles of love-making are cleverly contrasted by the Baronet on the one hand and Aline's mamma, Lady Sangazure (Mrs. Howard Paul), on the other, who, while acting with great spirit, failed to realise all the effect of which the scene was capable, owing to deficient vocal power. Nevertheless, the close of the duet was encored, chiefly owing to the clever acting and singing of Mr. Temple.
But now we get to the very marrow of the subject. It appears that Alexis has an idea that everybody should marry for love, and love only. He says, "I have lectured on the subject at mechanics' institutes, and the mechanics were unanimous in favour of my views. I have preached in workhouses, beer-shops, and lunatic asylums, and I have been received with enthusiasm. I have addressed navvies on the advantages that would accrue to them if they married wealthy ladies of rank, and not a navvy dissented!” And he sings a ballad to the same tune, "Love, and love only." He has found in St. Mary Axe, of all places, a firm of "Family Sorcerers," and a member of the firm, Mr. Wells (Mr. G. Grossmith, jun.), has come down to the village prepared to supply a "patent love-at-first-sight philtre" in any quantity, the effect of which will be to make anybody fall in love immediately with the first person of the other sex they meet with. Mr. Grossmith has a very amusing "patter song" in which the virtues of the love philtre are described. It was capitally delivered, as also was a mock incantation scene that followed, some ridiculously funny, comic, and pantomimic business causing shouts of laughter; Mr. Grossmith's novel mode of locomotion helping to win the encore awarded. A grand "tea fight" follows, the "Sorcerer" having mixed a quantity of the philtre with the bohea, and the curtain falls upon the general bewilderment caused by the action of the love potion.
In the second act we are shown the results. Constance, the pupil teacher, begins by falling in love with a rusty musty, deaf old lawyer, and Sir Marmaduke has already proposed to Mrs. Partlett, the pew opener; while the Vicar cannot understand what ails the villagers, all the unmarried people of the place requiring him to unite them all speedily as possible. A quintet is introduced in this scene, which is certainly the gem of the opera. It is written with delightful fluency and grace, is admirably harmonised, and the melody is as fresh as May dew. It was redemanded with one voice, so unanimous was the verdict of approval. This is followed by a very comic scene between the Sorcerer and Lady Sangazure. Nemesis has caught the vendor of the love potion, for the elderly dame falls violently in love with him. She will make any sacrifice, and a, whimsical duet is given to the following effect: –
The next scene brings us to a climax. In order to test Aline's affection her lover persuades her to take the potion. She has hardly done so when the Vicar enters playing the flageolet and singing a love lorn ditty, he is the first man the heroine sees after taking the philtre, and poor Alexis is horrified when he enters to find his betrothed and the Vicar in close embrace. But the clergyman declares that he will be no hindrance to their happiness, and the conscience-stricken Sorcerer, seeing the mischief he has made, sacrifices himself, and goes down below, á la Don Giovanni, calmly brushing his hat the while. The spell is thus dissolved, and all ends happily to a grotesque chorus –
The libretto, both in the prose and poetical portions, displays remarkable facility in writing fanciful and witty dialogue; and the lively flow of Mr. Sullivan's music, always tuneful, bright, and sparkling, and frequently reaching a very high standard of excellence, could hardly fail to please. The author and composer were enthusiastically called for at the close, and so also were the chief members of the company. Mrs. Howard Paul we have referred to, but we may again compliment Miss Alice May upon her graceful impersonation of Aline and her artistic singing. Miss Giulia Warwick has something to learn as an actress, but her vocalisation was pleasing and effective. Miss Everard was excellent as the pew-opener. Mr. Richard Temple exerted himself to good purpose as the Baronet, being not only a careful singer, but a lively and humorous actor. Mr. George Bentham will make more of his character on a future evening, when his voice is completely under control. As it was, we may give him credit for doing the best he could, Mr. Rutland Barrington's Dr Daly was a very quaint and amusing performance. It was one of those characters which over-acting would have spoiled, and the air of restraint which the actor assumed was also cleverly depicted. The entire interpretation was decidedly good. Mr. Clifton was amusing in the little part of the lawyer and Mr. Grossmith, making his first appearance as an actor, promises to be an acquisition. His smart delivery of the dialogue and clever singing deserved hearty praise. A full chorus and an excellent band showed that Mr. D'Oyly Carte had determined to give Mr. Sullivan's opera every chance of success; and the satisfactory stage-management of Mr. Charles Harris was worthy of recognition. The incidental dances, arranged by Mr. John D'Auban, helped to enliven the opera, which was preceded by Mr. Arthur Cecil's lively little operetta Dora's Dream, with its graceful music by Mr. Alfred Collier. Miss Giulia Warwick and Mr. Richard Temple represented the hero and heroine successfully. The Theatre was crowded in every part, and there appeared every prospect of a great and enduring success for this amusing companion to Trial by Jury.
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