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First Night Review from The Times, Thursday, October 4, 1888.

SAVOY THEATRE

In The Yeomen of the Guard, the latest operetta by Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, produced at the Savoy Theatre last night, the author and to some extent the composer have, in familiar phrase, turned over a new leaf. Whether Mr. Gilbert felt that a vein of very original but not very profound humour had been thoroughly worked out – whether the comparatively small success of Ruddigore had been accepted as a warning that the public required a change – certain it is that The Yeomen of the Guard differs from its numerous predecessors in many important respects. The quaint and whimsical medium through which Mr. Gilbert looks upon men and things has been known to his numerous admirers ever since the inimitable “Bab Ballads,” of which these operettas are essentially an amplified and dramatized development, were given to the world. His startling paradoxes, his twists of character, his new versions and perversions of familiar relations of life have given pleasure to thousands, and never more so than when they were accompanied by Sir Arthur Sullivan’s pretty tunes.

Of all this there is comparatively little in the libretto of the new piece. Here we have a serious plot of a romantic kind carried on in lively but rational dialogue of the Elizabethan pattern, the action taking place in the 16th century, and the scene being laid on Tower-green, with the ancient Norman fortress frowning in the background. It is true that Mr. Grossmith varies the proceedings by sundry jeux de mots, “irritating” to one of the characters in the play, and perhaps to some among the audience. He also dances in conjunction with a comic gaoler the orthodox breakdown, and sings a “patter” song in which bishops and doctors of divinity are referred to in the most familiar manner and in language strangely out of keeping with the archaisms of the dialogue. But then Mr. Grossmith enacts the part of Point, a professional jester, and a professional jester in the Gilbertian order of things ought to be the most serious of the dramatis personæ.

The form of art here adopted is in brief essentially that generally described as “English opera,” as developed by Balfe and Wallace, which form consists of spoken dialogue instead of recitative, and of a certain number of lyrics sung by the various characters at odd moments while the action is waiting. Only in the ensembles and finales is there any opportunity for the composer to take an integral part in the dramatic proceedings. It should, in the first instance, be acknowledged that Mr. Gilbert has earnestly endeavoured to leave familiar grooves and rise to higher things on his abandoned self as on stepping stones. Whether the move in the new direction will be altogether a successful one is a different question, which at present it would be premature to decide. The effect on last night’s very friendly audience was an interesting psychological study. When in one of these operettas a grave-looking elder speaks this wise – “No, my lass; but there’s one hope yet. Thy brother Leonard, who, as a reward for his valour in saving his standard and cutting his way through 50 foes who would have hanged him, has been appointed Yeoman of the Guard” – every one expects, and the audience expected last night, that the elder would presently do or say something outrageously comic, and that Leonard would turn out a coward. When neither turned out to be the case the spectators were evidently a little doubtful whether to take everything au sérieux or to titter in advance at some joke which sometimes failed to come.

In the midst of this the downright fun of Mr. Grossmith was almost a relief. Here the audience were on familiar ground, and enjoyed themselves accordingly. The patter song was applauded to the echo, and the duet with Wilfred Shadbolt, the comical gaoler, followed by the breakdown already referred to, was received with a roar of laughter, not perhaps quite agreeable to the author in the circumstances. Let it not, however, be supposed that the new piece lacks brightness and merriment. There are some pretty and well-arranged dances; the costumes, including a splendid array of beefeaters, are tasteful and historically appropriate, and even sensation is represented in the shape of the headsman carrying his axe, and with a black mask on his face.

Moreover, there is the music. Whatever may be thought of the new piece, it has undoubtedly the merit of having given an excellent chance to the composer; the fact of the action taking place in England would be sufficient to establish the point. Sir Arthur Sullivan, as we have frequently said, is among our modern school of musicians the foremost, perhaps the only prominent, composer who is essentially English. The forms of early English music – the madrigal, the part-song, the glee – are as a second nature to him, and he produces their modern counterparts with a freedom and a faithfulness which alone would account for his unrivalled popularity. Even in a Japanese opera these features were appreciated; but here, being eminently suited to the action, they are simply invaluable. It is true that some of the soli partake of the modern drawing-room ballad rather than of the early English song of Purcell and of Henry Lawes, Milton’s friend, which was essentially of a declamatory character. Thus the song, “When our gallant Norman foes,” admirably sung by Miss Rosina Brandram, which is obviously intended to redeem the insignificant part of Dame Carruthers, is not as quaint as might be, and the tenor air in the second act, “Free from his fetters grim,” is downright commonplace; but what, on the other hand, can be more charming than the ditty with which Miss Jessie Bond, a winsome Phœbe, opens the play, or the duet, “I have a song to sing, O!” in which Miss Geraldine Ulmar and Mr. Grossmith join their voices, and finally the unaccompanied four-part song, “Strange adventure,” a perfect gem of its kind, in which the sympathetic soprano of Miss Kate Hervey (sic. Rose Hervey - ed.) as a nondescript niece told admirably?

The general type of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music is a kind of happy mean between the earlier style of his operettas and that here adopted. Sometimes the two appear in close juxtaposition. Thus the recitative passages beginning “Leonard, I beg your pardon?” are cast in the mould of opéra comique, while the trio which ensues belongs unmistakably to opéra bouffe. Inequalities of treatment occur almost of necessity. In Elsie’s ballad the note of mixed sentiment and humour which inspired the charming words is scarcely struck by the music, while in the ballad sung by Phœbe immediately afterwards verse and tune are perfectly blended. Among concerted pieces we may specially mention the song of the Yeomen, forming a kind of canto fermo to the graceful arabesques of the female voices in the first act, and the finale of the same act, which recalls to mind similar ensembles in The Sorcerer, minus of course the mock-heroic element, which would be out of place here. To sum up, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s score is fully equal to previous achievements and the success of the piece will no doubt be largely due to it.

The plot may be summed up in a few words. Colonel Fairfax (Mr. Courtice Pounds) is imprisoned in the Tower and condemned to death on a charge of witchcraft. Fortunately for himself, he has on a previous occasion saved the life of Sergeant Meryll, of the Yeomen of the Guard (Mr. Richard Temple), and that worthy soldier, together with his pretty daughter, Phœbe (Miss Jessie Bond), resolve upon a rescue. The Sergeant’s son is about to return from the wars, and his place as one of the Beefeaters is assumed by Colonel Fairfax, who manages to escape from his cell by the aid of Phœbe, that damsel having by stealth obtained the keys from her admirer, Wilfred Shadbolt, the head gaoler (Mr. W. H. Denny). In the meanwhile, however, a new complication has arisen. To defeat the design on his property of a wicked relative, Colonel Fairfax has asked and obtained permission to contract a marriage just before his execution, and Elsie Maynard (Miss Geraldine Ulmar), a strolling singer, has for the sum of 100 crowns consented to be his wife and widow within an hour. During the ceremony, which is supposed to take place behind the scenes, both are for some occult reason blindfolded, and therefore do not know each other when they meet again on Tower-green after the Colonel has been enrolled among the Yeomen. As a matter of course they fall in love with each other, and when, equally as a matter of course, the Colonel’s pardon arrives and he throws off his disguise, they are only too happy to be man and wife.

The incident of the marriage before execution is generally familiar from the French play in which Frédéric Lemaître acted Don Cæsar de Bazan, and from its operatic offspring, Wallace’s Maritana, where, by the way, the reason for blindfolding the gentleman as well as the lady is fully explained. So obvious, indeed, is the resemblance that one would be inclined to suspect some subtle attempt at parody, did not the serious tone of Mr. Gilbert’s work preclude any such thought.

Of the performance we need not speak in detail, not at least as far as the old members of the Savoy company are concerned. Every one knows that such artists as Miss Jessie Bond, Miss Brandram, Mr. Grossmith, and Mr. Richard Temple have fully entered into Mr. Gilbert’s spirit and act every part, be it Japanese maid from school, or pirate of Penzance, or sorcerer, exactly as he wishes and has taught them to act it. Miss Geraldine Ulmar will have to moderate her powerful voice in the ensembles and tone down her action before she can be said to fit perfectly in the general picture. There were two new-comers in the cast, both of whom must be called decided acquisitions. Mr. C. Pounds, the Colonel Fairfax of the evening, is a better actor and a better tenor than any of his predecessors, and his conception of the part of the 16th century gallant, including a slight exaggeration of gesture, was intelligent throughout. As regards singing, he should practise the voce di peto. To Mr. Denny had fallen the difficult task of creating the part of the gaoler, obviously designed for Mr. Rutland Barrington, who has left the Savoy Theatre. That the new actor was quite equal to his inimitable prototype cannot be said, but he showed considerable humour of the dry kind nevertheless.

The reception of the piece was all that the warmest admirers of author and composer could have desired. Many songs were encored, and of some, as, for example, the duet of Elsie and Point, with its quaint accompaniment of the hurdy-gurdy type, the audience seemed never to tire. Of the weakness of the plot no one seemed to take notice in the excitement of the general success. Upon the whole we can agree with the popular verdict. Mr. Gilbert is in his way a man of genius, and even at his worst is a head and shoulders above the ordinary librettist. In the present instance he has not written a good play, but his lyrics are suave and good to sing, and, wedded to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s melodies, they will no doubt find their way to many a home where English song is appreciated.


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