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OPERA COMIQUE

The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Monday, November 19, 1877;
Issue 3978.

The co-operation of Mr. W. S. Gilbert and Mr. Arthur Sullivan in the production of the comic opera performed for the first time on Saturday night under the title of "The Sorcerer" is an example, as fortunate as it is rare of a well-assorted union between dramatic poet and musical composer. The work in question derives its title from an advertising vendor of patent love-draughts, whose elixir, rashly and promiscuously administered, has the effect of bringing together those whom a wise providence would certainly have kept apart. Some similar influence would seem to have been at work in connection with the strange partnerships often contracted between librettists and composers. In the case, however, of "The Sorcerer" the author is worthy of the composer and the composer of the author; and the two have evidently worked together in full sympathy and with one will. As a consequence of this cordial understanding between the joint producers the opera contains several very happily designed pieces, in which one cannot tell (and need not know) whether the merit of the original underlying idea belongs to the composer of the poem or to the author of the score. Every "number" is thoroughly tuneful; and the melodies of various forms in which the work abounds are destined, beyond doubt, to obtain private as will as public success. As for the book, it may be read (strange merit for a libretto) with keen interest apart from the music to which it is set. Indeed, many of its songs and ballads are equal in humour and ingenuity to any that have been penned by the same hand.

In a work full of droll originality there is nothing more original than the figure of the Sorcerer himself, who, possessing the demoniac power of a Zamiel, is attired in the black frock coat and grey trousers of order and respectability. A more inoffensive wielder of supernatural power than Mr. J. W. Wells, of St. Mary Axe, as represented by Mr. George Grossmith, can scarcely be imagined. Yet at the proper moment, Mr. Grossmith is grotesque and wizard-like enough and his impersonation, alternating as it does between the commonplace and the weird, has a strange effect, like some of Hoffmann’s tales, in which the most ordinary incidents of every-day life are closely interwoven with ideas and apparitions from another world. The composer has furnished this remarkable character with music which gives appropriate emphasis, shade, and colour to all his utterances, whether he is rapidly enumerating the various kinds of blessings and curses which his firm keep on hand, or is indicating by horrid gestures to the amazed Alexis the "gibberings, grim and ghastly," in which the prophet retained on the establishment occasionally indulges.

Alexis Pointdextre is an officer in the Grenadier Guards, just married (when the Sorcerer appears) to Aline Sangazure, and full of a curious theory to the effect that love means marriage and marriage happiness. The pessimist philosopher thought that men – if women would only leave them alone – might, by a strict system of celibacy, bring human misery and the human race simultaneously to an end. This is the very opposite of the creed entertained by Alexis, who, anxious to render the inhabitants of his native village thoroughly happy, wishes, as a first step, to make them all fall in love. Mr. J. W. Wells enables him to do this by selling him a certain amount of love-potion, which he is in the habit of supplying either in the wood or in bottle "for laying down." The magic liquid is given to the villagers in their tea at a banquet for which the recent marriage furnishes a fitting occasion; and in due time they all go mad with love. But each of them becomes enamoured of the wrong person. For the philtre made up by J. W. Wells causes love at first sight between any two persons who may have partaken of the bewildering draught. Sir Marmaduke, father of Alexis, falls in love with an ancient pew-opener;
Constance, a charity girl, at one time enamoured of Dr. Daly, the rector, forgets him for a deaf old man; while Aline, the bride, becomes devoted to Dr. Daly who sees no escape from the impossible situation but in the "congenial gloom of a colonial bishopric."

It would be tedious to go piece by piece through the score. Of the ballads which it contains in large numbers it will be enough to say that they are as melodious and as graceful as Mr. Sullivan’s ballads usually are; which implies that they will soon be sung in every drawing-room. The waltz air for soprano voice at the beginning of the second act is of a must fascinating character; and the concerted finale of the first act is thoroughly tuneful in its various movements, while, as a whole, it is well constructed and admirably effective. This, from the musician's point of view, is, of course, Mr. Sullivan's most important "number," and it is worth noticing that in this species of test piece the composer has not, under pretence of being dramatic, ceased even for one brief interval to be melodious. The short duet for Alexis and Aline in this final scene ought not to be overlooked. It is very beautiful and admirably disposed for the voices. In recalling the most remarkable pieces in the first act no one will be likely to pass over the Mozart-like minuet, followed soon afterwards by the obligatory gavotte, which latter is treated most ingeniously as a duet for the old-fashioned lovers, Sir M. Pointdextre and Lady Sangazure. Both these parts were played very artistically – the one, by Mr. Temple, the other by Mrs. Howard Paul. Mrs. Howard Paul had, on her first appearance, been received with a special burst of applause, which this favourite vocalist and actress fully justified by her able performance of a very slight though by no means ungrateful part. The piece which appealed most directly to the musical tastes of the audience was a very charming quintet in the second act, treated, somewhat after the manner of Mendelssohn, as a part-song. This act, too, contains a trio in which fine dramatic music is united to very humorous words.

A good deal of the music is intrinsically comic – as where certain well-known operatic effects are humorously exaggerated without being actually burlesqued. But much of it is comic only because associated with comic words. Heard by itself as "absolute music," it would be simply beautiful. Heard with the droll but always refined verses to which it has been set, it loses none of its beauty and gains a certain piquancy. There can be no mistake as to Dr. Daly's solo in the pastoral style, with flageolet passages executed by the singer himself, being humorous in every respect. Mr. Rutland Barrington, who impersonates the worthy divine, appears sublimely unconscious of the ludicrous nature of his performance, and thus renders it still more droll. Finally, there is nothing more original in a work remarkable for its originality than the duet for Lady Sangazure, in which the high-born dame, who has drunk deep of the love draught, pursues the tradesman of St. Mary Axe. The advertising magician, finding that his patent philtre has, so to say, "returned to plague the inventor," is in despair, and adjures the infatuated lady, by all that is Cockneyfied not to love a man who drops his h's, eats peas with his knife, and spends happy days at Rosherville. The awfully sepulchral andante of this duet is followed by a ghastly tarantella-like allegro; and in both movements Mrs. Howard Paul and Mr. Grossmith were as good as it was possible to be.

Miss Alice May as Aline sang and acted with great spirit. Miss Giulia Warwick did full justice to the music of her part, and as much may be said of Mr. Bentham, the representative of Alexis. Miss May's dresses were intensely admired by those most capable of appreciating them. The dress of the second act is what a contemporary painter might call "a symphony in green." It seemed perfect as regards harmony of colour, and from the initiated evoked silent but strongly marked enthusiasm. It is remarkable, when one thinks that the action of "The Sorcerer" takes place in an English village at the present day, that  the costumes should be so varied and so picturesque as they in fact are. Alexis, by a pardonable if not praiseworthy exercise of dramatic licence, is made to appear in uniform on the occasion of his marriage, which, it must be remembered, is celebrated on the grandest possible scale and in the true operatic style, with a notary to sign the contract and a chorus of villagers to proclaim its validity. Sir Marmaduke figures at the ceremony in court dress. Lady Sangazure is sufficiently old to wear in memory of youthful triumphs robes of an antique cut. Dr. Daly’s dignified attire is that of an old-fashioned English clergyman. Constance, his pupil-teacher, is distinguished by the quaint white cap, the Quaker-like frock, and the coloured stockings of the charity girl; and there is character, if not brilliancy, even in the impressive garb of Dame Partlet, the pew-opener. Naturally the piece was successful. It was received, as it deserved to be, with hearty and unanimous applause.


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