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The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   The Sorcerer Review 1884


The revival of The Sorcerer at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday evening was distinctly a step in the right direction. At its production at the Opéra Comique seven years ago this charming piece was not sufficiently appreciated. The general public at that time had not yet become accustomed to the peculiar raciness of Mr. Gilbert’s humour in its combination with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s light and graceful strains. They were too much surprised to be genuinely delighted. But although not a great success in itself, The Sorcerer became the stepping-stone on which its successors rose to almost unprecedented popularity. At the same time its merits were not forgotten by those who witnessed its birth and were apt to think that as it was the first it was also by far the best of its joint authors’ productions on the same scale. In endorsing that opinion we are aware that it may be challenged on the ground of being influenced by personal predilection as much as by considerations of abstract merit.

Others whose acquaintance with Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas commenced with the Pinafore or The Pirates of Penzance might very probably claim the prize for either of those works, although few would be prepared to deny that after them a distinct and increasing decline became noticeable. The reason is not far to seek. These operettas are unique of their kind, and in many respects superior to any other kind. Mr. Gilbert’s humour is infinitely more quaint, more original, and more genuine than anything the French burlesque stage can show, apart from being wholly free of the objectionable features of that stage. Neither should Sir Arthur Sullivan’s contributions to the common effort be underrated. Mr. Gilbert would be as impossible in this class of work without him as he would be without Mr. Gilbert. The event has proved it. Princess Toto and Cox and Box are pretty enough in their way; compared with the Pinafore their charm and their vitality are as nothing. It was only by working together that author and composer realized their full strength and struck the right vein.

It was one of pure gold, but perhaps for that reason it was soon exhausted. Mr. Gilbert’s humour is entirely individual; it is not drawn from a dramatic situation, but from the whimsical light in which he looked upon that situation; it is, therefore, not capable of expansion, not even of much variety, for its motive remains essentially the same. The public have watched and been delighted by that humour in its successive disguises of six operettas; whether they would care to witness it in a seventh is a question on which the authors themselves appear to entertain some doubt, for it is said that in the new work on which they are understood to be engaged they mean to try more serious dramatic issues. Before venturing upon this dangerous enterprise they have, however, determined to go back once more to the fons et origo of their long-continued success, and the attitude of Saturday’s audience proved that their determination bad been a wise one. Loud applause, encores, calls for author, composer, and principal performers, and repeated outbursts of merriment, were the order of the evening, and testified to what Mr. Gilbert has elsewhere called the undiminished “capacity for innocent enjoyment” on the part of the public.

The superiority of The Sorcerer as a play over many of its successors lies perhaps chiefly in the fact that its types, however fantastically carved, are derived from a possible reality; for even Mr. Gilbert’s humour, wild and whimsical as it seems, requires this latent basis of truth, and the immense popularity, for example, of the famous “What never?” “Well, hardly ever,” is in the last instance due to the touch of wavering and hesitating human nature which it so strikingly exemplifies. In the present libretto, also, the idea of a sentimental young guardsman, desirous in his own newly-betrothed bliss to communicate the happiness of love do all around him is just conceivable, while the elderly vicar complaining to the sounds of the flageolet that all the eligible maidens of his village are “engaged to so-and-so,” approaches a possible reality still more closely. Again the hero of the piece, Mr. John Wellington Wells,

“A dealer in magic and spells,
  “In blessings and curses,
“And ever filled purses,
“In prophecies, witches, and knells,”

is the true son of an age in which spiritualists advertise the arcana of their craft in newspapers of their own founding, and conjure up ghosts for the amusement of evening parties at so much per night. From the solid substructure of realism thus established, the spectator is enabled to watch the extraordinary entanglements caused by the love potion and the heroic self-sacrifice of the sorcerer at the end of the piece with much complacency.

The incidents of the story, if story it can be called, the amusing concetti of the dialogue, the graceful turns of some of the lyrics are well remembered by those who witnessed the production of The Sorcerer at the Opéra Comique. A few changes have been made, but these are fortunately not of a material kind, for the piece could not well have been improved. A certain continuity of the action is, however, established by means of the villagers, who, having sunk into magic slumber when the curtain falls after the first act, are still lying on the stage when it rises upon the second. A characteristic song and dance which they perform on awakening and finding themselves entangled in the meshes of love appeared also new. A ballad for the tenor, “Thou hast the power,” must be called a less welcome addition, if addition it was, for we have not the original libretto before us. In any case it should be cut out, although it was very well sung by Mr. Lely.

That gentleman (Alexis) shared with Miss Leonora Braham the vocal honours of the evening. Miss Braham as Aline fully deserved the favour shown her by the audience. Her air, “Oh, happy young heart,” was the first signal for a burst of genuine enthusiasm, and throughout her acting and singing were graceful and appropriate. Another excellent thing excellently done in the first act was the duet in which Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre (Mr. R. Temple) and the Lady Sangazure express their mutual feelings. The stately gavotte interrupted by the passionate aside of these dignified and elderly lovers is an instance of the rare skill with which Sir Arthur Sullivan adapts his music to the humour of the situation. Of such instances, indeed, the present score shows abundant measure, from the exquisitely comic effect with which the bassoon emphasizes the words “for a nativity” in the sorcerer’s song to the entire incantation scene, which is designed in the genuine mock-heroic spirit.

The part writing in the finale of the first act also shows the hand of the skilled musician, who only refrains from the serious display of his art because he chooses for reasons of his own to write operettas instead of grand operas. Mr. Grossmith and Mr. Barrington “created” and are identified with the parts of John Wellington Wells and Dr. Daly, the amorous vicar. Both impersonations are examples of irresistible vis comica, as extravagant in conception as they are free from vulgarity, Both artists also solve the difficult problem of singing, and singing effectively, without the shadow of a voice, in the proper sense of the term. Miss Ada Dorée (Mrs. Partlet) and Miss Jessie Bond, a very charming Constance, deserve a final word of praise. Chorus and orchestra were satisfactory, and the piece is well mounted, and prettily, although somewhat incongruously, dressed. For the village girls wear the short-waisted dresses of the time of the battle of Waterloo, while Aline appears in a bridal robe of the most recent fashion.

The Sorcerer was followed by a revival of that clever and amusing extravaganza, Trial by Jury, in which Mr. Barrington performed the learned judge with due aplomb, Mr. Lely appearing to advantage in the part of the ill-fated defendant. The fair plaintiff was represented by Miss Dysart, who has an agreeable voice, but as yet lacks experience as an actress. An elaborate transformation scene, supported by fairies in barrister’s wigs, concludes the piece.

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