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Review from The Times
Monday, May 30, 1898.
The Beauty Stone, produced on Saturday night after a brief revival of The Gondoliers, is in sharp contrast with one and all of the series of comic operas that have brought fame to the association of Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. It is true that on certain occasions the term “comic” has seemed a little strained, when the vein of cynicism enjoyed by the original librettist and duly imitated by those who have tried to follow he his steps has engaged too prominent a share of attention. But on no previous occasion has the element of comedy been so conspicuously absent as in the “romantic musical drama” for which Messrs. Comyns Carr and A. W. Pinero are jointly responsible as librettists for Sir Arthur Sullivan. The one comic character in the piece has a kind of apology made for him in the historical introduction prefixed to the book of words, but then he is neither more nor less than the devil in his own person, and the authors seem as anxious to deprecate any suggestion of undue levity on this head as to imply their disapproval of the morals of their central figure, a certain Lord Philip of Mirlemont, who, during the first few scenes of the piece, prefers the pleasures of love to the honours of war.
The talisman from which the drama is named is given by the devil disguised as a friar to Laine, a crippled girl, who forthwith carries off the prize at a beauty show organised by the amorous ruler of the town, much to the chagrin of his chief favourite, a comely Cephalonian whose charms have apparently lost some of their hold upon him. The devil, now in the character of an Italian nobleman, keeps his place in the castle of Mirlemont, but fails to do any very great harm there, except in the way of deterring Philip from the battlefield, to which he is summoned by his martial friends and allies. He cannot even ruin the now beautiful Laine, in spite of her acceptance of his charm, for the love borne her by Philip is honest.
By a very ingenious chain of circumstances the stone passes from one to another of the characters, carrying, with its gift of beauty distress and disappointment. Laine, introduced into the luxurious life of the castle, sees enough of its evils to flee home to her weaver parents, and deliberately to choose her former ill-favoured state, while her father, who picks up the talisman she casts away, is transformed into a handsome young man, just as the susceptible favourite, Saida, comes to his house to seek the stone if she may by its power regain her good looks. When her lord plucks up his courage and sallies forth to the war, she entertains the wearer of the stone, and ultimately wheedles him out of it, upon which the weaver is cast forth from the castle, old and decrepit again, in the gay garments be had worn during his transformation. Saida, the embodiment of youth and beauty, awaits Philip’s return, but when he comes back triumphant he is blind. The change in Saida has no charm for him, and as the cripple still retains her pretty voice, he is faithful, and follows the example of King Cophetua, the evil one retiring from the scene, having actually accomplished no single piece of harm to any of the characters. He is a good imp, but only a moderate devil.
To suit the part of the devil to the peculiar powers of Mr. Walter Passmore, giving him a ballad to sing and a conventional breakdown to dance, must have demanded some courage, and however complete may be the authors’ justification, on the grounds of popular custom in miracle plays of the middle ages, the expedient can hardly fail to seem a little too strong for 19th century audiences. It would not hurt the effect of the production in the least if the part were to be recast, and musically the opera would gain enormously if Sir Arthur Sullivan would treat the character with some of the diablerie exhibited so happily in the Lucifer of The Golden Legend. It is, perhaps, the greatest disappointment in the new production that there should be so little of the supernatural element conveyed in the music, and more particularly so when Sir Arthur Sullivan is the composer.
Apart from this one point, the story is so full of material and so much is made of it that some of its situations seem to demand a higher style of music than a succession of isolated songs for the chief characters, which more than once are introduced for no obvious dramatic reason, and the not infrequent use of leading themes, as they are called, makes musical hearers wish that the composer had chosen once again to cast his work in true operatic shape, with continuous music through each scene. Laine’s prayer, “Dear Mary Mother,” the Oriental song and chorus with which Saida attempts to enchain Philip’s wandering affections, the little trio of warriors who invite him to action, and the scena for Saida in the last scene but one recall in several ways the style adopted Ivanhoe, and all of these seem to require a more dignified setting than they have. There is no lack of numbers in the more familiar style associated with the Savoy Theatre, albeit these have something less than the sparkle and tunefulness of the famous series. The devil, besides his ballad – in which occurs a pretty orchestral effect suggested by the reference to bells – has two duets with a mischievous village girl, Jacqueline, who becomes his page, and finds the place a very hard one; a charming ballad is sung by Laine outside the castle, and Jacqueline sings a remarkably pretty and original song, “Ah! why dost sigh and moan?”
It is only fair to say that no one could be less sensible of the incongruity of the position in which he finds himself than Mr. Passmore, who throws himself into the part of the devil, as understood by the authors, with the utmost zest. He is not required to show reasons why the devil should not dance a pas seul, and he accordingly dances one with a good will; he hardly attempts even the usual scaring process in which even a grotesque demon might surely indulge. Musically, the chief honours of the performance, such as they are, fall to Miss Pauline Joran’s share; she sings the music of Saida with remarkable finish and success, and her acting is really powerful and full of suggestion. Miss Ruth Vincent is a charming representative of the cripple girl, and is so pretty in her ill-favoured guise that the contrast when she is transformed is hardly marked enough. Her singing of the prayer and the ballad is most artistic, and she makes a distinct success. Miss Emmie Owen disports herself effectively as Jacqueline, and sings the pathetic song already mentioned with a good deal of artistic feeling. Miss Brandram in the small part of the weaver’s wife is as conscientious as ever, and the minor parts of the competitors in the beauty show are well filled. Beside Mr. Passmore only Mr. H. A. Lytton remains of the male members of the Savoy company to enact the part of the weaver who gets “translated” to better purpose than was the case with his obvious prototype, Bottom, though with similar results. The principal singing parts fall to two American artists who lately made successful first appearances at the same concert. Mr. Devoll is an effective representative of the self-indulgent Philip, although his voice is not of the agreeable quality possessed by some of his predecessors at this theatre; Mr. Isham as a faithful old knight, Guntran, sings his music extremely well and looks remarkably picturesque in a superb suit of black armour. The display of arms in the later scenes is dazzling, and the quaint 15th century costumes are very pretty and well designed. Some of the scenes are of exceptional beauty, even for the Savoy; one in particular, with a view of the castle on one side and the town lying along the crest of the hill on the other, is a perfect specimen of a theatrical landscape.
On Saturday right the composer conducted, and a great deal of enthusiasm was displayed. But considering the warmth with which the piece was received it is curious that no more encores were demanded. This was fortunate since the opera is too long in its original state, and a judicious use of the pruning knife would be nothing but beneficial. Thus, though Guntran has none too much to sing, the introduction of his ballad-like song, “I’ll tell them what thou wast,” at one of the most critical moments of the play is not only quite unnecessary, but stops the action with a jerk. The opera occupied nearly four hours in performance, yet with no great difficulty and with obvious gain it might be reduced to play under or not more then three hours. At the fall of the curtain the authors and composer and all the performers were enthusiastically greeted, with practically no opposition whatever.
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