|Sullivan > Major Works > Victoria and Merrie England > Review from The Times
That our most distinguished composers should turn their attention to the ballet is highly desirable, seeing that this form of art presents unique opportunities for a certain style of composition, and Sir Arthur Sullivan is evidently the right person to lead the way, as he has done in the new ballet, Victoria and Merrie England, produced last night with much success. Signor Carlo Coppi has made a scenario in which his experience in that craft is of decided use, and his eight scenes, though they follow no chronological plan, are well contrasted with each other, and give plenty of opportunity to the composer not only for dances, graceful or fantastic, but for the introduction of well-known tunes.
From this introductory scene in a forest of ancient oaks, in which Britannia is aroused by the genius of Britain, and a picturesque group of Druids, we are suddenly transported to the time of Queen Elizabeth, with a “coming of age” festivity; from this we go back several centuries to the merry company of Robin Hood, and the May-day revelries include a quadrille by Britons, Romans, Saxons, and Normans, a Morris dance, a hobby-horse dance, and a Maypole dance.
The legend of Herne the Hunter occupies the next two scenes, in the second of which he and his followers interrupt a Yule-log procession. A Christmas revel in the period of Charles II introduces another elaborate ballet scene, with a boar’s head procession, a jester’s dance, &c.
What may be called the final apotheosis consists of two scenes, one a tableau vivant of the Queen’s coronation, and the other a “march past” of soldiers and sailors, with groups representing the colonies.
Sir Arthur Sullivan is one of those who hold that whatever is worth saying at all is worth saying well, and in this case, as in all his work, the mode of expression is uniformly skilful and well adapted to its purpose. He has been careful not to present the Alhambra audience with orchestration so refined as to be ineffective or unintelligible. He has scored his work with a bold touch worthy of M. Jacobi himself, and if he has not yet conquered the secret of obtaining a refined effect from a noisy score, as has been done by such masters of ballet-writing as Tschaikowsky in Casse-noisette, or Delibes in Sylvia and Coppélia, there is every reason to hope that his next ballet will be inferior to none of these excellent models.
There is one essential quality in good ballet music, for the sake of which any want of refinement can be readily forgiven, and without which real success cannot be attained; that quality is swing, or entrain, and to say the truth, it is one which appears all too rarely in the present instance. One of the prettiest themes is that of the Morris dance, the time of which has been changed to six-eight; a mazurka following it is very graceful, but the waltz-rhythm which succeeds Robin Hood and Maid Marian’s dance is so elaborately disguised that its effect is considerably reduced.
The nymphs in the scene with Herne the Hunter have a very elegant waltz tune, which, with the rustic tune accompanying the procession of the Yule log, will be the most popular part of the work.
“Rule, Britannia,” is brought in in the opening scene, but the quotations begin in good earnest in the Christmas scene; they include “The fine old English Gentleman,” used as a representative theme for the host; the famous “Boar’s head Carol” (“Caput apri defero”) “The Roast Beef of Old England,” and, in the Mistletoe dance, a tune that hovers between “Norah Creina” and “Scots wha hae.” In the course of this scene there is a fugue, to which a dance by four performers is executed – not very skilfully, by the way. It is sufficiently erudite to make its effect on the audience, without being hampered by any such overpowering degree of musical value as would make its neglect a matter of regret when the present production has run its course.
The coronation scene is accompanied by the composer’s “Imperial March.” The entry of the English, Irish, and Scottish regiments suggests a quodlibet on “The British Grenadiers,” “St. Patrick’s Day,” and “Scots wha hae,” combined with much skill and effect, and the whole ends, of course, with the National Anthem. The treatment of these and other popular themes, among which one, heartily welcomed by the audience, is a famous tune from H.M.S. Pinafore, is hardly as witty as the similar devices in the “Britannia” overture of Mackenzie, or the original finale to the first act of the same composer’s His Majesty; but it is only fair to remember that Sir Arthur Sullivan is here appealing to a very much less cultivated audience than those for which the works mentioned were intended.
Signorina Legnani dances the parts of the Genius of Britain, the May Queen, and the Snow Fairy with great skill and grace, and Miss Julie Seale is excellent as Robin Hood and a jester, and her dance in the latter character earned a well-deserved encore. In this a bassoon cadenza is introduced to illustrate the effects of liquor on the susceptible jester. M. Vanara is an energetic Herne, and Mr. Lytton Grey a sufficiently humorous Friar Tuck.
The scenery and dresses are in excellent taste, and the spectacle is altogether finely mounted. The dresses in the final tableau, many of them splendidly embroidered with coats of arms, are gorgeous. At the close of the ballet, which was conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, he and the principal performers, besides a number of gentlemen more or less closely concerned in the production, appeared before the curtain in acknowledgment of the enthusiastic applause with which the work was greeted.
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