|The Sorcerer > Reviews > First Night Review
Messrs. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have once again combined their efforts with the happiest result. The Sorcerer, produced at the Opéra Comique on Saturday night before an audience that crowded the theatre in every part, achieved a genuine success, and, moreover, a success in every respect deserved. Though styled by the authors “comic opera,” the chief incident partaking of the mock-supernatural brings it within the limits of extravaganza. It is, however, extravaganza of the best, set forth in Mr. Gilbert’s raciest manner, full of genial humour and such droll fancies as come to him so readily, but with little or no trace of the cynical sarcasm with which he is occasionally charged. The plot hangs upon a “philtre,” or elixir, those who taste of which become enamoured instantaneously of the first persons they happen to meet who may also have yielded to the seduction. The idea of the love potion exists from time immemorial – from Tristan and Iseult, the fate-struck lovers whom Wagner has resuscitated, to the Philtre of Auber and the Elisir d’Amore of Donizetti.
Mr. Gilbert’s treatment of the subject, nevertheless, is quite original, the libretto finding its source in a Christmas story contributed by him some time ago to the Graphic. The “Sorcerer” here, though a no less consummate charlatan to all appearance than the renowned Dulcamara, is gifted with powers not conferred by unearthly agency upon that specious quack; for while Dulcamara’s elixir, innocent as the “cattivo port-wine” of which Ronconi used to speak, could only impose upon an already love-stricken simpleton like Nemorino, that of Mr. Gilbert’s hero is an unquestionably diabolic compound. This is shown in the “incantation” required to produce it, and the lamentable fate of its promulgator, who expiates his errors at the end by a descent through sulphurous fire to the nether regions. “Mr. John Wellington Wells, of the firm of J. W. Wells and Co., Family Sorcerers,” is all the more odd and diverting from the fact of his being costumed in the garb of a respectable tradesman of the present time – in which, it may be remarked, the action of the opera is fixed. His peculiar “philtre,” when brought into use, sets the entire population of a village by the ears.
To explain how this occurs it is necessary to glance briefly at the chief dramatis personæ. These are Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre (Mr. R. Temple), whose son, Alexis, of the Grenadier Guards (Mr. Bentham), is about to wed Aline (Miss Alice May), daughter of Lady Sangazure (Mrs. Howard Paul); Dr. Daly (Mr. Rutland Barrington), vicar of Ploverleigh, the village referred to; Mrs. Partlet (Miss Everard), a pew-opener whose young daughter Constance (Miss Giulia Warwick), before the “philtre” comes into question, unaccountably entertains a strong affection for the Vicar, who, though old enough to be her grandfather, is unconscious of her preference; a notary (Mr. Clifton), who draws up the wedding contract for Alexis and his bride; and Mr. Wellington Wells himself (Mr. George Grossmith), the necromantically mysterious cause of the imbroglio.
In Act 1 the tenantry are assembled in the gardens of Sir Marmaduke’s house to celebrate the approaching affiance. Aline and Alexis are sensitive young people, but the lady is more absolutely trusting than her future spouse, in whom she entertains unbounded confidence. Alexis has read something about a “patent oxy-hydrogen love-at-first-sight philtre,” advertised by Wells and Co., of St. Mary Axe, and not only desires to make certain of Aline’s enduring affection, by trying it upon her, but, “from philanthropic motives,” to distribute it among the villagers. Accordingly he summons Mr. Wells, orders a sufficient quantity of the liquid for his purpose, and has it mixed with the tea which is to form part of the banquet prepared for the festive occasion. The Vicar makes the tea for his parishioners, who all drink of it, though the tender inducements of Alexis have not prevailed upon Aline to join them. “Half an hour” is supposed to be the interval between the first and the second acts, and this half hour has successfully accomplished its work before the curtain rises upon Act 2.
First we find Constance, Mrs. Partlet’s daughter, transferring her affections from the Vicar to the Notary; then we learn from the Vicar that the inhabitants of Ploverleigh have come to his residence in a body, imploring him, couple after couple, to fasten them in the bonds of matrimony, old people with young, and vice versâ – “not a match among them,” remarks the inexorable Aline, “that the hollow world would consider well-advised.” Even old Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre has made proposals to, and been accepted by, Mrs. Partlet, the venerable pew-opener; and, awful to contemplate, the proud and stately Lady Sangazure makes a dead set at Mr. Wells, the sorcerer, he not having drunk of his own philtre, being anything rather than fascinated. Worst of all, Aline, beginning herself to be nervous about the possible constancy of Alexis, swallows some of the fatal nostrum, and as, with slow steps and in tristful mood, she retires to tell her lover how she has obeyed his wish, encounters Dr. Daly, and straightway becomes enamoured of the Vicar, who, under the same influence, responds without hesitation. The nature of the kind old gentleman, however, revolting against this unhoped-for position, restores Aline to her lover, the disappearance of the sorcerer, in the exceptional circumstances alluded to, undoing the spell which the administration of his “philtre” had exercised. The newly formed attachments are then immediately exchanged for the old loves; and the curtain falls on a general rejoicing, in anticipation of a fresh wedding feast, at which, though tea is again to be the chief beverage, it will be tea without “elixir.”
Strange as this plot may be pronounced, so cleverly is it developed that, the impossible world through which the author conducts his spectator once admitted, it appears consistent enough – the only inexplicable feature being the sudden means of its unravelment. Supernatural incidents, however, involve supernatural conclusions; and it might be hard to suggest to Mr. Gilbert another way of extricating his characters from the difficulty under which he has placed them.
There are so many good things in the music of Mr. Sullivan that to dwell upon them seriatim would occupy far more space than is now available. A line or two must, therefore, suffice for the moment. Above all, the music is spontaneous, appearing invariably to spring out of the dramatic situations, as though it was their natural concomitant. It is also distinguished by marked character and skilfully varied in accordance with the nature of the incidents its composer has had to illustrate; while, as essentially comic as the story and dialogue themselves, and fitting both to admiration, it is everywhere tuneful, and comprises not a few concerted pieces of the highest expressive merit, showing also in their construction and working out (as might be expected from Mr. Sullivan) the hand of a practised master. Those who look for such sallies of humorous musical definition as are to be met with in Cox and Box, the Contrabandista, and Trial by Jury, will not be disappointed, there being several examples which may rank with anything the composer has written in this style. The Sorcerer contains fewer attempts as what may, with submission, be termed “burlesques” upon favourite existing models than any one of its precursors. It aims, indeed, in the greater number of instances at a higher mark, seldom failing to reach it.
The orchestra, according to Mr. Sullivan’s usual method of treating such subjects, takes a conspicuous part in the humorous delineation of personages and incidents, and as he is thoroughly acquainted with every resource of that important element in operatic music, it need scarcely be added that it is invariably used with pointed and well-considered effect. Since, however, there is more to be said about the music of this very entertaining production, the foregoing general observations will for the present answer all purposes. Enough that by this new effort Mr. Sullivan has certainly not deteriorated from, but, on the contrary, added to his well-earned repute.
A more careful first performance of a new work of its kind has rarely been witnessed. The orchestra and chorus were excellent, and quite strong enough for the size of the theatre – the former numbering nearly 30, the latter upwards of 40. The leading singers, whose names are given above, were also thoroughly efficient, every one of them, doing all that was practicable to insure an effective “ensemble,” and succeeding in proportion. To them, also, some words of acknowledgement will be due on returning to consideration of the music. Mr. Sullivan directed the performance, and, with Mr. Gilbert, was called before the lamps at the conclusion, amid applause the genuine nature of which could never once have been mistaken. In short, the audience had been diverted from the rise of the curtain to the fall, and the laughter was incessant.
The Sorcerer was preceded by Mr. Alfred Cellier’s one-act operetta, Dora’s Dream (libretto by Mr. Arthur Cecil), with Miss Giulia Warwick and Mr. R. Temple as Fred Fencourt and Dora Leslie. This pleasant and sparkling bagatelle at once put the house in good humour.
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