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Review of the First Night from The Times
Monday, April 29, 1901.
 
SAVOY THEATRE

In view of the fact that the death of the able manager of this theatre has followed by no long interval that of the composer in whose honour it was founded, it is a task of no ordinary difficulty to form and to express a carefully-weighted opinion as to The Emerald Isle, the work upon which Sir Arthur Sullivan was engaged at the time of his death, and which was brought out on Saturday night before an audience whose sympathetic admiration was a foregone conclusion.

If the invention of a multitude of humorous details and funny verbal quips, if not precisely witty points of dialogue, could be accepted as a satisfactory substitute for a connected plot, then Captain Basil Hood’s libretto must rank very highly among things of the kind. But the genre of Savoy opera has not yet become assimilated to the type of American variety operetta, and those who recall the finest specimens of the Gilbertian libretto will find it difficult to accept the second act of the new piece as it now stands. To enumerate the expedients here resorted to in order to fill out the evening’s amusement would be far too long. Suffice it to say that at one point the stately wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland suddenly proposes to kiss the soldiers of the guard, whereupon the sergeant, upon whom the first favour is to be conferred, proceeds to recite the well-known West of England song, “Turmut-hoeing,” whether or not as a defensive measure or as an evidence of stupidity is not clear.

Soon afterwards the Viceregal chaplain, a delightful little figure, appropriately called Dr. Fiddle, D.D., delivers a long passage from a sermon; and at the one possible “situation” in the act, where a set of rebels declare themselves and defy the soldiers, they are allowed to dance a jig before the authorities (who walk complacently off at its commencement) order their execution. The whimsical idea of preventing the order from being carried out by the reflection that the blood of the English nobility has so strong an American strain that the Lord Lieutenant is half an American and therefore a friend to Ireland would serve well enough if it were not necessary to put back the action of the piece to a hundred years ago, when such an admixture of blood would not have been possible.

The Viceroy, his wife, daughter, and chaplain disguise their strong resemblance to the family of the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers by always speaking in blank verse, and their insistence on a more than Royal state is an idea that is well worked out. Another funny idea seems to have arisen from practical reasons, in the inability of most of the company to give a passable imitation of an Irish brogue. It is “another injustice to Ireland” that English elocution is taught in the infant schools, so that even the reddest of the rebels speaks without the trace of a brogue.

Many of the most characteristic incidents of the first act will remind the hearer of another Irish comic opera far more faithful to the Irish character than this. The prettiest musical number is a fairy song, with an echo sung behind the scenes, after the manner of the “banshee” song in Shamus O’Brien; and the “leprechaun” incident in that work finds a counterpart in the disguise assumed, not indeed by the hero, but by the chief comic character, in order to keep the authorities away from the rebels’ meeting place. It is true that this incident is a frankly comic one in Captain Hood’s libretto, for the disguise adopted is that of an Irish Rip van Winkle, and the wearer pretends to have been bewitched by the fairies for many years. The one-sided flirtation between a waiting maid and a sentry is of course a commonplace of comic opera, but, in the general disposition of the scenes, the uniform of the soldiers, and many other things, it is impssible not to be reminded of Professor Stanford’s work.

Apart from a very few touches of Irish local colour, the music has nothing in common with the piece just mentioned. A well-devised opening chorus, and a rollicking Irish song for Terence, “I’m descended from Brian Boru,” are the only numbers scored as well as written by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and both are excellent specemens of his work; for the rest, his name is appended to nearly all the numbers of the first act, to the charming first chorus, and a few concerted pieces in the second. These were scored, and very cleverly scored too, by Mr. Edward German, who is responsible for the greater part of Act II and for two agreeable female solos in the first act. The younger composer was severely handicapped, for any departure from the methods and conventions of his predecessor would have seemed out of place, and, though it is easy enough to write in the Sullivanian style, it is not easy to attain spontaneity in it. Among the numbers in which Mr. German has been at his happiest are a little angry chorus, “Och, the spalpeen!” in Act II, in which the rebels threaten now one and now another of the characters, as one after another is suspected of being a spy. The patter-song, “Imitation,” is an admirable setting of some excellently comic words; and a pair of short love songs for two rather subordinate characters are charmingly melodious.

Mr. German is understood to have done a good deal in the way of arranging the slight sketches and notes left by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and such numbers as the pretty trio, the pompous entry of the Lord Lieutenant (to a march of which the bass is the National Anthem in common time), the graceful quintet, and the capital chorus of soldiers and girls, in which the favourite device of making two tunes go together is employed, and the whole of the finale of Act I must be accredited to the two composers jointly.

The fairy song is a charming number, and is admirably used in the finale. The opening chorus of the second act, Terence’s song “Oh, have you met a man in debt,” the delightfully arch duet for Terence and Rosie, and the funny “goblin” duet, as well as the “wooden soldier” song, are the great successes of the second act, but an elaborately prepared and quite ineffective episode, in which a second appearance of a representative of the fairy is arranged for the benefit of the fiddler who is thought to be a spy, could well be spared.

The interpretation of the work is even better than usual at the Savoy, and the whole company seems to be moved with a desire of paying one last tribute to the memory of Sullivan by presenting his last conception as perfectly as possible. Miss Isabel Jay is a charming Rosie, most picturesque to look at, and excellently suited in her music; if Miss Louie Pounds, as Molly, does not quite make the most of some of her chances, it must be remembered that there are not many really good opportunities in the part, but Miss Blanche Gaston Murray fills the small part of a lady’s maid so admirably that it may be hoped a successor has at length been found to Miss Jessie Bond. Miss Rosina Brandram is a splendid Lady Newtown, and it goes without saying that she sings her music in perfectly artistic style. Miss Lulu Evans dances quite acceptably.

Mr. Walter Passmore will no doubt work up the part of Professor Bunn in a short time into a great success; at present it seems to contain fewer opportunities than usual for his special talents, and he does not get much fun out of the Rip van Winkle disguise; in the “goblin” duet he has a wonderful make-up as a millionaire of a type easily recognized. Mr. Robert Evett and Mr. Henry A. Lytton are excellent representatives of Terence O’Brien and Murphy, the two rebels who play parts more or less like their namesakes in the earlier Irish opera; Mr. R. Crompton as the Devonshire sergeant is very funny and his accent is irreproachable. As the Lord Lieutenant Mr. Jones Hewson is the impersonation of dignity, and for his chaplain has been found a most successful new actor, Mr. R. Rous, whose absurd little figure and admirable make-up are but slight attractions in comparison with his relly comic gift.

The mounting is as elaborate as usual, and Mr. Percy Anderson’s dresses are in good taste. Mr. German conducted the first performance, at the close of which he was called with Captain Hood and Mr. R. Barker, the stage director.


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