You are here: Archive Home > Sullivan > Major Works > Ivanhoe > First Notice from The Times
 
   
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Title
 
Review from The Times
Monday, February 2, 1891.
 
THE ROYAL ENGLISH OPERA-HOUSE
“IVANHOE”
(FIRST NOTICE)

The new Opera-house in Shaftesbury-avenue, which it is, perhaps, not a great compliment to describe as he most beautiful theatre in London, was opened on Saturday night with all possible pomp and circumstance. Mr. D’Oyly Carte, Mr. Collcutt, the architect, and the decorators who have been employed are to be congratulated on nothing so much as on the good taste which has ordered the liberal display of all manner of costly materials, and has avoided nearly all trace of garishness and vulgarity. The marble incrustations of the proscenium arch do not form the best conceivable frame for the picture on the stage, but the use of the various marbles on the staircase, in the foyer, and in other parts of the building is extremely good. Only in a few details can there be any question as to the good result of the decorations; the general design of the ceiling is not very effective, and the painting of the columns between the boxes is not very harmonious.

A curious reversal of the ordinary conventions of theatrical architecture is in the slight convergence of the walls, not towards, but away from the stage, so that the side walls of the auditorium are 14ft. nearer to each other at the back of the pit than they are at the proscenium. It is difficult to believe that any acoustic advantage will result from this. Another structural novelty, as far as England is concerned – namely, the upward incline of the ceiling from the stage to the gallery – is less open to criticism.

Structural innovations and decorative beauties will not, we may be sure, intrude themselves unduly upon public attention as long as the run of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s new opera continues. The duration of the run will depend far more upon the strength of the singers than upon the patience of the public, for there can be no doubt that Ivanhoe is destined to immediate and lasting popularity. It may be well at once to reassure those who may have viewed with some anxiety the composer’s desertion of a realm where he so easily bore sway, and have apprehended that he was about to write music far above the general understanding. Such lovers of his lighter works may take courage; they will find in the new opera plenty to “carry away” –– to use their favourite phrase – and there are melodies which even the least retentive of musical memories will find great difficulty in eradicating.

Scott’s immortal romance has always had special attractions for opera composers, and the reason is very easily found; the picturesque costumes, the atmosphere of chivalry and of free forest life and certain eminent dramatic situations more than make up for the obvious want of unity and central interest in the story itself. Besides various English adaptations, none of which can justly be entitled an opera, there are at least four settings in existence, one of which, Marschner’s Templer und Jüdin, is still in some sense a classic of the German stage. It is fairly certain that the opera which Scott saw in Paris in 1826 was the work of Pacini. According to his Journal, he found “the story greatly mangled and the dialogue in great part nonsense.” These faults have been completely avoided by the librettist of the new opera, Mr. Julian Sturgis, who has constructed an admirable book, adhering with remarkable fidelity and skill to the course of events in the novel, and even to its diction throughout entire sections.

Each of the three acts is divided into three scenes, and it is only fair to say that little of importance is left out, and little alteration is made in deference to stage convention.
There is no overture, but after a short introductory passage the curtain rises upon the extremely picturesque scene of the supper in Rotherwood, in which the principal personages are rapidly introduced to music that is always bright and generally appropriate. We should be justified in regarding two strains in march rhythm as indicative of the Saxon and Norman elements respectively were not Rowena’s entry accompanied by that which was associated with the arrival of the Norman knights. The general character and feeling of the passage is curiously Wagnerian in conception. From his first address to Cedric’s ward onwards the Templar sings music of a deeper and more emotional character than is allotted to any of the other persons; his figure, at least, is “individualized” with a power which few votaries of the modern developments of musical drama could surpass.

A spirited drinking song, with chorus, for Cedric, leads to the discussion concerning the knights who bore themselves most bravely in Palestine, and Ivanhoe’s catalogue of distinguished names, set to music of no great interest. This, again, leads to the challenge and exchange of pledges between the Palmer and the Templar, in which a theme first occurs that is destined to accompany each phase of the combat, whether at Ashby or at Templestowe. A graceful “good night” episode closes the scene amid the dispersion of guests and servants, Ivanhoe being summoned at its close by one of Rowena’s ladies.

The musical interest of the opera increases with the ensuing scene between the lovers; Rowena’s opening address to the moon, a very graceful song, with richly orchestrated accompaniment, in which the muted strings and harp are prominent, will be one of the most popular numbers in the score. The duet which succeeds it is, however, more to be admired on account of its perfect form and great melodic beauty. As in so many of the composer’s happiest inspirations, the coda is particularly skilful and appropriate. The words of these two numbers are among the few additions made to Scott for the purpose of obtaining the necessary lyrical element.

The act closes with the brilliant, if somewhat too gaudy, spectacle of the tournament. The chief musical factor in this scene is a march tune accompanying the entrance of Rowena with her daintily-clad attendants. Its curious and, happily, most uncharacteristic lack of refinement is not greatly diminished by the device of working it in combination with another and far better melody, but its recurrence at the end of the scene suggests that a contrast after the manner of the close of Carmen may be intended between its jocund and careless strains and the dismay of those who surround the victorious Ivanhoe as he falls, overcome by his wound, at the feet of Rowena, supported by Rebecca, who has rushed from her lowly place among the spectators to succour him.

This single tribute paid to the ears of the groundlings, the composer gives us in the second act a series of numbers of very great beauty and refinement. The very air of the forest is in the opening strains, which seem to reflect the King’s joy in the free life he is tasting; his dialogue with Friar Tuck soon brings about the production of the venison pasty, and the music accompanying this episode is among the most delightful things Sir Arthur Sullivan has ever done. The water from St. Dunstan’s well and the hermit’s fare of pulse are symbolized by a passage in pure harmony, in strong contrast with the merry strain that has gone before; this latter is treated in a short fugato, the single specimen of contrapuntal skill that occurs in the opera, and one of the most agreeable passages in the score; the Friar’s wry faces over his meagre fare give opportunity for a comic phrase on the double bass, treated with such simplicity as to bring the joke home to the least acute hearer.

The contest in song which follows the meal begins with a ditty in six-eight time of no very striking originality, and not obviously appropriate to the character of the lion-hearted King; its theme serves throughout as Richard’s leading “motive.” The Friar’s contribution is not the first of the songs given in the novel, “The Bare-footed Friar,” which plays an important part in Marschner’s opera, but an expansion of the fragment containing the refrain, “Ho, jolly Jenkin.” The little symphony which introduces it and the song itself are quite irresistible, and it is not too much to say that this number will be the chief attraction to many hearers for some time to come, until, in fact, its incessant performance by street musicians shall have made it a thing of dread. Its burden is borne by a chorus of foresters, who, as in the German work just mentioned, enter at this point for no other purpose. Once on the stage, they serve as witnesses of the buffets interchanged between the King and his merry host, and the scene closes with Locksley’s summons to Torquilstone, whither Cedric and Rowena been carried off.

A very short trio, dramatic rather than melodic in character, in which the captives vainly beg for release, is the most salient feature of the next scene, until we come to the very beautiful love song of the Templar, with which it concludes most effectively. This and the same character’s great duet with Rebecca in the subsequent scene are the only numbers in the opera which receive what musicians will accept as adequate development, and their effect is, of course, immense, from the mere circumstance that, in each, beautiful and dignified themes are carried through to a logical climax. The passionate warmth and dramatic truth of both numbers are not less remarkable than the skill with which they are written for the voice; the duet, which, of course, includes the Jewess’s threat to throw herself from the battlements, is preceded by an extremely picturesque song for Ulrica, the value of which in this place is only slightly lessened by its unmistakable suggestion of Azucena. Rebeccas’s prayer, uttered after the departure of the crone down the turret stair, it deeply expressive; it is suffused with national colouring, a characteristic phrase used in the synagogue being introduced; the song is richly accompanied, its first part containing an effectively-managed tremolo in the violas (on repetition for the second stanza the cor anglais is used with the best results); the final phrase, a slow ascending scale, is introduced at the close of the act, and again in the last scene. The duet now follows, and the manner in which a most expressive theme is carried through many changes of key and tempo must command unreserved admiration. The whole is a masterpiece of dramatic art, and is a sufficient refutation of a criticism that used to be more frequently heard before the production of The Golden Legend than it is at present, that Sir Arthur Sullivan is not at his best in movements of sustained interest.

This scene is undoubtedly the musical climax of the work, and after it much of the third act seems comparatively tame, in spite of the wonderfully elaborate spectacle with which its first scene concludes, the conflagration and Ulrica’s death song before she falls into the burning mass – an effect managed with entire success. A charming tenor song, in the form of an invocation to Sleep, is sung by Ivanhoe at the opening, and a solo, in which Rebecca confesses her love for the wounded knight as he lies asleep, only fails of making a great effect because of the more beautiful prayer in the previous act. Her description of the siege as she stands at the window protected by Ivanhoe’s shield – an improvement upon the “ancient buckler” of the novel – and the war cries and fanfares heard outside lead most effectively up to the final tableau. A beautiful episode, forming a welcome relief to the growing excitement, is a passage, superbly orchestrated, in which Rebecca reflects on the ancient glories of her nation and the devout attitude of heart with which the Jewish heroes set forth to battle. Ivanhoe’s loyal shout of “Long live the King,” as the Black Knight wins his way through the ruins, is an admirable touch that is likely to escape notice on a first hearing; the resumption of Ulrica’s song, declaimed from the top of the tower, is, of course, devised by Scott himself.

The middle section of the act, the single interpolation into the story, made in order to gather up the threads of the action, opens with a rustic dance, of graceful character, but not altogether free from reminiscences of the “Italian” symphony; the King enters, and obliges the audience with a repetition of his song in the former forest scene; De Bracy is generously forgiven, and Cedric and his son are reconciled. The little quartet, “Forgive thy son,” is extremely pretty, but it shares with many other parts of the work the grave fault of being far too short. Of course, there are reasons for this conciseness of style, for it is sufficiently clear that the nine scenes could not be got through in one evening if every number were developed to its full extent; still, it is difficult to resist a feeling of incompleteness in many of the most attractive portions. When the King has taken himself off – again with a “tag” of his inevitable tune – the lovers sing a duet of undeniable charm but no great originality, and a close parallel to the end of the other forest woodland scene is afforded by Isaac’s rushing in to entreat Ivanhoe’s assistance on behalf of his daughter.

The condemnation of Rebecca occupies the final scene of the opera, which takes place in the preceptory of Templestowe. The members of the order chant the hymn “Fremuere principes” to an unisonous melody of considerable beauty, accompanied very effectively. The delay in the arrival of a champion for Rebecca, even apart from almost inevitable comparisons which it were well to keep out of sight, is not one of the strongest passages in the score; and, indeed, this whole scene falls considerably below the general level of the rest of the work. The whispered temptation of the Jewess by Sir Brian, and her reiterated prayer for help from above, give occasion for the repetition of passages from the baritone solo and the prayer of the second act, but beyond this there is little to notice until the end is reached, when the only large ensemble is introduced. It is broad in effect, but beside the fact that it is extremely short, the treatment of the two female solo parts in unison is not very happy, and the reason for repeating the final cadence of the quartet is not clear. The death of Sir Brian, who, it will be remembered, expires from natural causes during the encounter (his fall, accompanied by a single stroke on the big drum, provoked something like a titter on Saturday night), is followed by a short chorus, in which four bars of five-part harmony strike the hearer with a sense of relief after the almost constant unison in which the composer has chosen to write most of the choral numbers.

Two questions will inevitably be asked, and will receive, no doubt, different answers from different authorities; will Ivanhoe enhance the composer’s reputation and that of English art, and will the work take a place among the classics of dramatic music, and attain a real immortality? To the first an unqualified affirmative may surely be given, for even if it be held to lack the poetic charm and distinction of The Golden Legend, its best portions rise so far above anything else that Sir Arthur Sullivan has given to the world, and have such force and dignity, that it is not difficult to forget the drawbacks which may be found in the want of interest of much of the choral writing, and the brevity of the concerted solo parts. On the second question an opinion can only be formed with difficulty and offered with diffidence. The general structure of the work is a curious example of transition between two opposing systems, each of which in its own day has produced masterpieces of undoubted supremacy. The finest scenes, as, for instance, that in which the great duet occurs, suggest by their continuous and sustained treatment that the composer has adopted the modern methods, and that each scene, if not each act, is regarded as a complete entity; the interest given to his recitatives, and the unmistakable influence of Berlioz and, in lesser degree, Wagner, upon the orchestration and treatment of the themes encourage this view. On the other hand, in many of the scenes, we meet a series of numbers, which only require slightly more conventional development to rank with the set pieces of old-fashioned opera, and this impression is confirmed by the perpetual full closes, most of which are preceded by a pause on an effective note for the voice, and, of course, followed by a break in the continuity of the action. It is curious, too, that no two of the scenes are joined together by music; in one case there is no connexion, even of key, between two adjacent sections of the same act. If, as at present seems most probable, the modern theories of dramatic music should obtain universal acceptance, Ivanhoe will have a struggle for permanent existence, and will stand on the merits of its second act, the, portion which unites grace and strength with continuity of design; of course, if a strong reaction should set in against these theories, the work, as a whole, will be generally considered as a masterpiece of design, as well as a collection of individual beauties.

We shall return to the interpretation of the work when all the singers who are engaged have appeared in it; for the present it must suffice to place on record that at the first performance the cast was as follows:– Rebecca, Miss Macintyre; Rowena, Miss Esther Palliser; Ulrica, Miss Marie Groebel; Ivanhoe, Mr. Ben Davies; De Bracy, Mr. C. Kenningham; Brian, Mr. Eugene Oudin; Cedric, Mr. Ffrangcon Davies; Cœur de Lion, Mr. Norman Salmond and Friar Tuck, Mr. Avon Saxon. Subordinate parts were in the hands of Messrs. R. Green, Adams Owen, C. Copeland, W. H. Stephens, and F. Bovill. The composer conducted in person, the National Anthem preceded the performance, and the work was received with the greatest enthusiasm by an audience which filled the theatre to its utmost capacity. The composer and librettist, as well as Mr. D’Oyly Carte, and the excellent stage-manager, Mr. H. Moss, were repeatedly called before the curtain.


Archive Home | Sullivan | Major Works | Ivanhoe

   Page modified 7 January, 2010 Copyright © 2010 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.