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Pall Mall Gazette 3 January 1872

“THESPIS; or, The Gods Grown Old,” is more in the style of what used to be called a “burletta” than of an opera or operetta, properly so termed.  “Opéra bouffe,” however, is its official designation; and, apart from a marked superiority in the libretto and music, it bears a typical resemblance to the works, sometimes comic, sometimes profoundly serious, which, under the name of “opéra bouffe,” are so often presented at the Gaiety, and which, in fact, form the one regular and characteristic entertainment in the (in other respects) ever-varying programmes of that theatre.  “Opéra bouffe” means in France comic or burlesque opera, as distinguished from “opéra comique,” in which it is by no means essential that the subject be serious, and from “grand opéra,” in which it is above all necessary that the dialogue be in recitative, and that the work include in one or more of its acts a divertissement or ballet.  A ballet forms no part of the opéra bouffe as accepted in France.  But in introducing the style into England, managers have developed, or at least have added to it, so that now opéra bouffe as played in London is adorned with many of the features belonging, in France more particularly, to grand opera — such as much dancing and magnificent scenery and costumes.  The costumes of the dancers are sometimes too short, but the dances, in pieces of this kind, are always too long, and invariably have the effect of weakening the dramatic interest, and, what is even worse, destroying the character of the work into which they are forcibly dragged.  In almost all conjunctions of music and words there is a sacrifice of one to the other; but in “Thespis,” Mr. W.S. Gilbert, the author, and Mr. Arthur Sullivan, the composer, have worked harmoniously together.  Sufficient opportunities have been given for the introduction of music; and the music introduced serves not to encumber but only to adorn the piece.  The same, however, cannot not be said of the ballet with pantomimic episodes, which interrupts the action and in the end (whether he be conscious of it or not) fatigues the spectator, who cannot be expected to attend to more than two things at once — the play and the music which belongs to and heightens the effect of its situations.  Grand operas of the French five-act pattern are often so insufferably tedious that the appearance of the corps de ballet, under whatever pretext it may be brought on, is welcomed as a relief.  But in the case of a light and brilliant little piece like “Thespis,” the extraneous dancing has not an enlivening but rather a deadening and certainly a bewildering effect; and as the work is thoroughly good in its essentials, and yet as a whole is found too long, the incidental divertissement ought evidently to be omitted.  The play bill announces it as forming part of the second act; but on the second if not on the first night of the performance it was presented at the end of the first.  The proper place for all such interludes is either before or after a dramatic piece and not in the piece itself.

Were it not for the wanton introduction of mere spectacular and pantomimic matter which only serves to interrupt the development of an ingenious and original idea, the story of “Thespis”would be as intelligible as it is simple.  The drama springs out of a meeting on the slopes of Olympus between Jupiter and a few attendant deities on the one hand, and Thespis and his company of players on the other.  Jupiter, modestly accepting the position Heine would have assigned to him as “impresarioof the universe,” sees in Thespisa member of the same profession — the former, indeed, being manager of the world; the latter, god of a theatrical microcosm.  As Jupiter has grown old and lost all confidence in himself, while Thespis is in full vigour, and is familiar, moreover, with the nature of the gods from having represented them in burlesques, a compact is made, by which, for the usual term of one year, the two shall change places.

The devil, grown old, became a hermit; but Jupiter, in the same predicament, goes into exile, partly in the hope that, by contact with the earth, he may regain his strength, diminished by long residence in too ethereal an atmosphere; principally, however, to see how Thespis will govern in his absence, and to profit, if possible, by the example set him by the enterprising manager.  The rash Thespis, who thinks that because he can manage a company he can govern a world, makes the most grotesque mistakes, so that when, at the end of the appointed twelvemonth, the complaints and petitions of the inhabitants of earth are received by the new deities, the whole system of the universe seems to have been revolutionized.  The gods, after their year’s holiday, resume power, and the divine government of the world is carried on under the old conservative conditions.

In the meanwhile, we see little or nothing of the mode in which Thespis exercises his rule.  But we have met in the first act a feeble Jupiter, an antiquated Mars, a bloated Bacchus, and a used-up Apollo; and in the second and last act the newly arrived deities from earth show that they have behaved in a much more incapable manner than the celestials “to the manner born” whom they have replaced.  Mercury, we should have before mentioned, has preserved through everything youth, agility, and a thoroughly mercurial temperament.  Miss E. Farren plays the part most characteristically, moving about the stage like animated quicksilver.  Two of the best solos of the piece fall justly to her lot, and she delivers both to perfection.  Mr. Arthur Sullivan, besides symphonies, can write comic songs, and though his true vein is that of sentiment, he combines facetiousness with grace in the happiest manner.  The grotesquely humorous ballad given to Thespis is sung by Mr. Toole in the drollest style; and, with both Miss Farren’s songs, a charming air sung with much expression by Mdlle. Clary, and a brilliant waltz (Miss Loseby) which Strauss, for very good reasons, would not have disavowed, are applauded and encored.  The music is full of elegance, and in one piece at least — Mr. Toole’s legend of the railway official — the orchestration is very novel, including, as it does, the employment of a railway bell, a railway whistle and some new instrument of music imitating the agreeable sound of a train in motion.



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