The Chieftain
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First Night Review

This review of the opening night of The Chieftain appeared in The Times on Thursday,
December 13, 1894.

Such epithets as "new" and "original" are so loosely applied to theatrical productions that it is less surprising than it should be to find in the "new opera" brought out last night at the Savoy Theatre, Sir Arthur Sullivan's early work, The Contrabandista, provided with a new second act. The first act of the piece produced at St. George's hall in December, 1867, contained so much pretty music that it was wise to incorporate it bodily in the new score, but why should it have been found necessary to minimize the amount of indebtedness from the new work to the old, as has been done in the book of words? Not five numbers, as there stated, but eight, according to the arrangement of the published score of the former opera or ten, if the short overture, and Inez's first song are counted as separate sections are to be found in The Chieftain, with scarcely an alteration, save only that the "Hymn to the Ancient Hat" has some new solo passages, and is no longer the finale of the act.

The old-fashioned convention of making the finale out of the most taking tune in the act, with a comfortable disregard of dramatic appropriateness, has been given up, but to all intents and purposes, the new first act contains the whole of the old. Here and there, besides the new finale, are musical additions, most consisting of "padding" of rather a poor kind. The best of them is a trio "'Tis very hard to choose" with a spirited little dance.

The new second act is a striking proof of Mr. Burnand's skill as a playwright; in the original the piece ended with the arrival of the soldiers, and the release of Mr. Grigg by the brigands; the story is now carried further, Mr. Grigg's wife is brought on the scene in the person of a charming young lady, and the robber chief, whose disappearance, together with the cash-box of the community, was the indirect occasion of Mr. Grigg's election to the supreme government, is now found to be alternately earning money as a courier, and finding it on the golden sands of the river Sil. The Spanish officer and the English girl are rediscovered as a married couple, who are prone to indulge in reminiscences of their courtship, when as boy and girl in Paris they hit upon the happy expedient of conversing in French, in order that the Parisians might not understand them.

The libretto has a few touches such as this, in which the form of humour peculiar to the establishment is successfully adopted; but for the most part showers of puns take the place of the usual quips that the audience has learnt to expect. To say the truth, there are not a few places where the dialogue hangs fire a little, although the situations are always bright and effective, and there are plenty of opportunities for that abundance of concerted pieces which is a distinctive feature of the later Savoy operas.

There is no marked discrepancy of style between the older and the newer portions; the stream of melody may not flow quite as freely as it did 27 years ago, but it is of much the same quality, and the greater skill of its treatment shows at every turn how thoroughly the composer knows his public and their taste.

There is some pretty colouring in the chorus of gold washers, and early in the second act comes the best number in the work, a love-duet in French and English, in which the mannerisms of French light opera are as cleverly parodied in the music as the tricks of its singers are by Miss Florence St. John. A capital song, "There's something in that," with a very original quartet refrain; a "patter" trio of the approved type, ending with a quotation from "The Lancers," quaintly introduced; a really funny quintet, in which Grigg invents a number of stirring adventures; another quintet for the entry of the disguised brigands, and a bright sestet, "Be mum," succeed one another with almost bewildering rapidity. Nearly all of these end with some musical joke or humorous turn, which disguises the absence of any such Mozart-like grace as distinguishes the trio in the first act, "Hullo, what's that?"

The cast of the opera is as good as can be in the absence of a certain group of performers whose fame was intimately connected with that of the earlier operas. Miss Florence St. John, whose long period of servitude to a lower type of entertainment has left little trace on her style, though her voice has naturally lost much of its old freshness, is completely successful as Rita; and Miss Florence Perry, who only appears in the second act, makes the most of the part of Mrs. Grigg. To Miss Rosina Brandram the heaviest part falls that of the brigand Queen and it is as faultlessly given as usual. Miss Emmie Owen sings brightly and dances admirably in a small, but not unimportant part.

Mr. Passmore is better suited in the part of Grigg than in any he has yet undertaken, and his singing of the famous "From Rock to Rock" was deservedly encored. Mr. Courtice Pounds, as the Spanish officer, Mr. Scott Fishe, as the real chieftain, Messrs. Temple, Morand, and Scott Russell, as brigands, are all completely adequate exponents of their parts; and in such matters as ensemble, choral singing, and the general smoothness of performance the good traditions of the house are fully maintained; the admirably-arranged dances of Mr. D'Auban merit a word of special praise. The piece was received with great enthusiasm, of which the greater part was bestowed on the second act. The composer conducted the work in person, and made his bow with Mr. Burnand at the close.

This review was submitted to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive by Cliff Coles of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Baton Rouge (Louisiana)

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