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“THE SORCERER” AT THE OPERA COMIQUE

The Examiner (London, England), Saturday, November 24, 1877; Issue 3643.

A philosopher has defined the comic element in art as a "close and unexpected juxtaposition of strikingly incongruous things." Mr. W. S. Gilbert, in his dramatic groundwork to Mr. Sullivan's new opera, has acted on this suggestion. There is nothing intrinsically ludicrous in the idea of a sorcerer as we frequently meet him on the operatic stage, dwelling in medieval gloom, and surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade. But when such a person appears in the broad daylight of the nineteenth century, and in the attire of a highly respectable tradesman, the "juxtaposition of incongruous things immediately results, and the effect is intensely comic. Any attempt at inventing a new plot or story Mr. Gilbert has in this instance abandoned. The idea of a philtre or charm causing passionate love for the first comer and at first sight – of

The juice which, if on steeping eyelids laid,
Will make a man or woman madly float
Upon the next live creature that it sees –

is as old as the sacred legends of India and as familiar as Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. The imbroglio which ensues is also more or less identical in each instance. But here, again, Mr. Gilbert adds the amusing element of perfectly modern surroundings. The love potion, which turns the collective head of the village of Ploverleigh, takes the form of an afternoon tea libation, and is, according to Mr. J. W. Wells the Sorcerer's own testimony, "compounded on the strictest principles – on married people it has no effect whatever," All this may at first sight appear to be of the nature of burlesque pure and simple, and such, indeed, the incidents, and especially the final dénouement of the plot, decidedly are. But the story, as we said before, is the least important part of the new drama. It is in the delineation of the characters that the dramatist's gift is chiefly shown, and these are one and all drawn with admirable skill. The silly sentimental lovers, their ceremonious elders, Dr. Daly, the lachrymose vicar, and his charming little sweetheart, down to Mrs. Partlet, the “eagle-eyed pew-opener," are full of life and individuality. They are seen through the medium of whimsical fancy, which sets at naught the rules of ordinary perspective, but cannot detract from the wonderful realism of the picture.

The character of refined humour as opposed to low comicality is fully sustained by Mr. Sullivan's music. That Mr. Sullivan is a learned musician, an excellent writer for the orchestra, and a musical humorist of the true order, are facts beyond dispute. But never before have these qualities appeared combined on so important a scale as in the present instance. The finale of the first act is an elaborate piece of construction with as many as nine solo parts, independently sustained, and grouped according to their divergent emotions in the most masterly way. Here also we meet, in the whispered "aside" of Alexis and Aline, with as pretty a bit of true sentiment as can well be imagined. The ensemble in the second act, "Oh joy, the charm works well," is equally well constructed, while in the quintet of the same act – couplets with intervening bits of concerted music would be the technical description – the lighter vein of comic opera prevails. The introduction to the work also is a charming piece of orchestral writing, in which the composer has largely drawn upon the “Graceful Dance” from his accompaniment to Henry VIII., a circumstance which, by the way, fully confirms our previous remark as to the essentially modern type of that movement. Amongst the happiest touches of humour in the opera is the Handelian character of the music which accompanies the old fashioned courtship of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre and the Lady Sangazure. In other places the claptrap of the modern opera is parodied in the most amusing manner. The preparation of the philtre strikingly recalls numerous "incantation" scenes from popular operas, and such a stanza as –

Now for the tea of our host,
Now for the rollicking bun,
Now for the muffins and toast,
Now for the gay Sally Lunn –

is an admirable equivalent for the familiar “andiam beviam” of the lyrical stage. Space will not allow us to touch upon other amusing details in this bright musical conception. Suffice it to say that on the first night the audience was kept in the best of humours during the whole performance, and that at the end the most cordial applause fell to the share of both dramatist and composer. To this happy consummation the admirable performance of the work contributed not a little.

The artists had one and all entered into the spirit of the Sorcerer, and not a hitch occurred from beginning to end. Mr. Carte, the energetic manager of the Opera Comique, had given numerous opportunities for careful study under the composer's own direction and the result proved the soundness of the system. Amongst the uniformly efficient cast, we can only refer to the discreet and yet intensely comic impersonations of Mr. Wells, the Sorcerer, and Dr. Daly, the sentimental vicar, by Messrs. Grossmith and Rutland Barrington respectively. Miss Alice May well sustained the part of Alice (sic), the heroine, and Mrs. Howard Paul was a gracefully dignified lady of the old school. Miss Giulia Warwick (Constance) is both an accomplished singer and a charming actress. She was, indeed, as sweetly modest, and “good a girl as ever stepped," to adopt the parlance of the worthy pew-opener.

The full success, in which poet, and composer, and performer share, is equally a matter of congratulation to playgoers. Here is at last a work of entirely English growth, which bids fair to hold its own by the side of numberless foreign importations. Mr. Gilbert's dialogue is, as regards true humour, as superior to the ordinary run of French libretti as Mr. Sullivan's music is to the clever commonplaces of Offenbach and Lecocq, and it is quite time that our public should realise the fact. Enthusiasts, moreover, may cherish a hope that an early opportunity will be offered to our rising composer to show his strength on that higher dramatic stage the weaknesses of which he has here so cleverly parodied.


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