Savoy Opera Reviews: The Mikado
||1885 April 1
|| New series 5
A Japanese Opera in Two Acts, written by W. S. GILBERT ; composed by ARTHUR SULLIVAN.
Produced at the Savoy Theatre, on Saturday evening, March 14, 1885.
|Mikado of Japan||MR. R. TEMPLE.||Yum-Yum||MISS LEONORA BRAHAM.|
|Nanki-Poo||MR.DURWARD LELY.||Pitti-Sing||MISS JESSIE BOND.|
|Ko-Ko||MR. GEORGE GROSSMITH.||Peep-Bo||MISS SYBIL GREY.|
|Pooh-Bah||MR. RUTLAND BARRINGTON.||Katisha||MISS ROSINA BRANDRAM.|
|Pish-Tush||MR. FREDERICK BOVILL.|
WHEN Mr. Gilbert, some months ago,
at that time called upon to produce an operatic novelty with the aid of
his faithful collaborateur, Sir Arthur Sullivan, harked back to
an old libretto of his own, polished and ornamented it "up to date,"
brought it out on the scene of his former triumphs, a general
prevailed to the effect that either his vein of topsyturvydom was
exhausted, or that he had taken cognizance of an abatement in the
relish for plots, situations and dialogues derived from the "Bab
– creations quite inimitable in their way, but depending perhaps a
too exclusively for their interest upon mere grotesqueness to exercise
a more than transitory influence upon English votaries of the lyric
"Princess Ida," beautifully as it was set and admirably as it was
– containing, moreover, some of the most careful and elaborate jokes
concocted by Mr. Gilbert, as well as several of Sir Arthur Sullivan's
inspirations – failed to satisfy expectations based upon such brilliant
precedents as "Patience" and "The Pirates of Penzance." It achieved a
in many respects well deserved, but not of so convincing a character as
to justify the belief that the public craving for ingenious paradoxes
painstaking absurdities was altogether as keen as it had most
been, let us say, up to the time at which "Iolanthe" was taken off the
Savoy bills. Not long after the revival of "The Sorcerer," en
the production of a brand-new Gilbertian and Sullivanesque opera, it
to be understood in musical and dramatic circles – how
events have lately proved – that Mr. Gilbert had recognized the fact
the Bab Ballad "method" of compiling operatic libretti was
"played out," and had consequently resolved to supply his fellow-worker
with a "book" built upon natural lines of incident, and comparatively
from the incongruities in which he had hitherto unstintedly revelled. A
wider scope was to be allotted to Sullivan's genius, theretofore
by the tortuous limits of the unnatural; he was to be allowed to deal
with the passions and adventures of possible human beings, instead of
weird whims of comical monsters, the creations of Mr. Gilbert's
imagination. The touches of true tenderness – even of pathos – made
if at rare intervals, in the lyrics of "The Pirates" and "Iolanthe"
the admirers of this eminent humorist, myself among the number, to
that he could, if he would, emerge from his favourite upside-down realm
of fancy into the domain of reality, not disdained by other gifted
who have written for the stage, and originate a libretto not
overcharged with sentimentality, but supremely sympathetic.
The première of the 14th ult. promptly dispelled this illusory belief, and with it the hope entertained by many of those present on that occasion, that they were about to witness the musical and dramatic results of an entirely new departure on the part of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan. "The Mikado" proved to be an extravaganza of the old Savoy type – a fabric in which familiar material has been cleverly worked up into a dainty Japanese pattern. Anachronisms, surprises, incongruities – unsparing exposure of human weaknesses and follies – things grave and even horrible invested with a ridiculous aspect – all the motives prompting our actions traced back to inexhaustible sources of selfishness and cowardice – a strange, uncanny frivolity indicated in each individual delineation of character, as though the author were bent upon subtly hinting to the audience that every one of his dramatis personae is more or less intellectually deranged; these are the leading characteristics exhibited by Mr. Gilbert's latest operatic libretto in common with its predecessors. The whole action of the piece is generated by a penal code of the poet's invention, and consists in the strenuous and unremitting endeavour of all those persons immediately pledged to that code's enforcement to evade and stultify it. That their efforts to achieve this end are crowned with success, it is scarcely needful to say, nor that the contrivances by which they effect their purpose are always ingenious and frequently funny. Mr. Gilbert is a past-master in the craft of getting his puppets into and out of scrapes with an agreeable recklessness as to the ethics of their modus operandi. He makes them lie with a frank sprightliness irresistibly provocative of laughter; and perjury, as they perpetrate it, recommends itself to society at large as the most natural and obvious of expedients for extricating oneself from a tight place. The executioner, commanded to do the duties of his office, which he has fraudulently suffered to fall into abeyance, instantly looks about him for some innocent victim, and bribes such an one with his own betrothed bride to perish in his stead. The cumulative official, a very nonpareil of infamy, expresses his pride in his ancestry by the basest venality. The heroine, when united to the lover of her heart's choice, displays a hysterical eagerness to renounce him as soon as she understands that her marriage entails the sacrifice of her own life as well as his. Upon hearing that his son and heir has been deliberately murdered, the Mikado points out with bland geniality that such a trifling accident is really not worth making a fuss about, and turns the assassin's consternation into mirth by one or two curiously ghastly pleasantries. All these people, and the other "principals" to boot, are carefully shown to be unsusceptible of a single kindly feeling or wholesome impulse; were they not manifestly maniacal they would be demoniacal. This view of them is rendered imperative by the circumstance that their dearest personal interests are, throughout the plot, made dependent upon the infliction of a violent death upon one or other of them. Decapitation, disembowelment, immersion in boiling oil or molten lead are the eventualities upon which their attention (and that of the audience) is kept fixed with gruesome persistence; what wonder that their brains should be unsettled by such appalling prospects, or that their hearts should be turned to stone by the petrifying instinct of self-preservation?
Having resolved to deal with the grimmest subject ever yet selected for treatment from the comic point of view by any dramatic author, and to exhibit his fellow-men to their contemporaries in the most disadvantageous light imaginable, Mr. Gilbert has done his self-appointed work with surpassing ability and inimitable verve. The text of "The Mikado" sparkles with countless gems of wit – brilliants of the finest water – and its author's rhyming and rhythmic gifts have never been more splendidly displayed than in some of the verses assigned to Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, Yum-Yum, and the Mikado himself. As for the dialogue, it is positivly so full of points and hits as to keep the wits of the audience constantly on the strain, scarcely ever affording to it an instant's repose or even respite from a rapid succession of smart and pungent incitements to mirth. The bitter flavour of Mr. Gilbert's jests, and the cynical temper that makes his witticisms sting rather than tickle, certainly intensify the zest with which they are appreciated by a public which cares little at what it laughs so that it laughs. It would be easy to furbish up several fine old crusted platitudes à propos of our chief English humorist, as, for instance, that "demand creates supply," that "poets are the children of their epoch," and so forth; but I confess that I regard Mr. Gilbert as a convincing confutation of these time-worn axioms. In his case, supply has created demand; and it is he who has formed public taste in a particular direction, as it is only given to geniuses to do. Whether or not that direction be a salutary one is perhaps not very much to the purpose. He has unquestionably succeeded in imbuing society with his own quaint, scornful, inverted philosophy; and has thereby established a solid claim to rank amongst the foremost of those Latter-Day Englishmen who have exercised a distinct psychical influence upon their contemporaries. Space considerations preclude me from quoting even a few of the admirable verses and excellent jokes that abound in Mr. Gilbert's latest work, a careful study of which cannot fail to furnish infinite entertainment to the readers of THE THEATRE, who, I doubt not, will one and all take an early opportunity of witnessing a performance of "The Mikado" at the Savoy Theatre. I cannot too earnestly recommend them to do so.
Of that performance everybody who was present at the production of the new opera will assuredly speak in terms of unqualified approbation. Before attempting, however, to do it justice, I must deal far more briefly than I could desire with Sir Arthur Sullivan's share in the work that was hailed with such demonstrative enthusiasm on the occasion in question. Sullivan is every whit as genuine a humorist as Gilbert, with his difference, that the amari aliquid never crops up in his compositions. They are always genial, graceful, and, above all, beautiful; never more so than in the score of "The Mikado." They twinkle with kindly, sly fun; nothing in them ever grates harshly upon the ear; they are exquisitely congruous to the sentiments or situations which they profess to musically depict or reflect. What a graphic and fertile melodist is Sullivan! What an accomplished orchestrator! How complete are his knowledge and mastery of instrumental resources! Of what other composer of our time can it wit htruth be said that he is inexhaustible alike in invention and contrivance? This is the ninth of his operas, written in conjunction with Gilbert; and I, for my part, should be greatly embarrassed to award the palm to any one of them in particular, so excellent are they all. The best proof, indeed, of the equality of their merits is the fact that no two musicians are agreed as towhich is really the best of them. Beyond a doubt "The Mikado" is as good as any of its forerunners. It contains half a dozen numbers, each of which is sufficiently attractive to ensure the opera's popularity; musical jewels of great price, all aglow with the lustre of a pure and luminous genius. Amongst these is a madrigal of extraordinary beauty, written in the fine old scholarly English fashion that comes to Sullivan as easily nowadays as it came of yore to Wilbye and Battishill. "Hearts do not break," a contralto song, which elicited a storm of applause from as critical an audience as could well be assembled within the walls of a London theatre, is Handelian in its breadth, and Schumannesque in its passionate force. The duet between Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo, "Were I not to Ko-Ko plighted" (act i.) is simply charming. There is no prettier number in the opera than this; but the great success of the evening, as far as reiterate and rapturous recalls were concerned, at least, was the trio and chorus, “Three little maids from school” (act i.), which the first-nighters insisted upon hearing three times, and would gladly have listened to a fourth, had not their request been steadfastly declined. Nothing fresher, gayer, or more captivating has ever bid for public favour than this delightful composition.
The stars of the Savoy company sustained their well-merited reputations magnificently in the more than usually difficult parts assigned to them, and two new recruits proved themselves worthy of association with artists whose names are permanently identified with the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Miss Braham, as Yum-Yum, sang and acted to perfection. Although heavily handicapped, with respect to her appearance, by costumes singularly adverse to the display of feminine charms (as, indeed, were all the ladies engaged in the piece), she was more fascinating than ever, and more than once saved the action from dragging by her unaffected vivacity and winsome playfulness. Cast for the ungrateful rôlr of an ugly cantankerous old maid (Katisha), Miss Rosina Brandram succeeded in investing her part with a strong dramatic interest; her singing, too, was of such excellent quality, that it constituted the most striking executant feature of the evening's performance. There are so few English contralti who combine the capacities, musical and dramatic, united in Miss Brandram's person that Mr. Carte is to be sincerely congratulated upon having secured the services of so thorough an artist. As Pitti-Sing, Miss Jessie Bond exhibited her customary archness and capacity for making the most of the opportunities afforded by a subordinate part. Her singing, in solo and concerted music alike, was quite irreproachable. Miss Sybil Grey is one of the valuable recruits above alluded to. She has a pretty voice, her intonation is correct and her appearance attractive. Turning to the artists of the male persuasion, all of whom (supers included) looked like singular unprepossessing old women, with the solitary exception of Mr. Durward Lely in his first dress, I am bound to say that their performances, one and all, left nothing to be desired.Mr. Grossmith's part is a heavy one, but he plays it with unflagging spirit and all the humorous grotesqueness that is his speciality as actor and vocalist. The Pooh-Bah of Mr. Barrington is a masterpiece of pompous stolidity – nothing could possibly be better of its kind – and this popular comedian provided his many admirers with an agreeable surprise by singing every note of the music allotted to him perfectly in tune. Mr. Temple's impersonation of the easy-going Mikado is charmingly genial and quaint. One of the funniest songs in the opera is confided to him, and he does it ample justice. Mr. Bovill (the other recruit) proved an excellent representative of the "general utility" noble Lord, Pish-Tush. This gentleman possesses a fine mellow voice, which he produces very agreeably, and is in all respects an acquisition to the Savoy company. The chorus singers of both sexes deserve unqualified praise. It is only in London that one hears such tuneful and intelligent part-singing in connection with comic opera. It is perhaps supererogatory to add that the orchestra, under Sir Arthur Sullivan's unequalled conducting, discharged its difficult functions – for "The Mikado" score is an unusually intricate one – to the perfect satisfaction of every musician in the house.
With respect to the scenery, I can only say that the two sets by Hawes Craven will linger long in my memory as the prettiest pictures my eyes have beheld for many a day. Japanese towns must be delightful places ti live in if they resemble their counterfeit presentments at the Savoy. The dresses are gorgeous, correct, and so far picturesque that they glow with rich colours, harmoniously combined. But they are unbecoming to men and women alike – especially to the latter, whom they convert for the nonce into shapeless nondescripts. In fact, they obliterate the natural distinctions between the sexes, imparting to the prettiest girl's figure the seeming of a bolster loosely wrapped up in a dressing-gown. Love or hate in connection with an object so ungraceful as any one of these imitation Japanese, appear to be uncalled for and out of place. A word of hearty recognition, however, is due to Mr. D'Oyly Carte for the liberality and good taste he has displayed in mounting "The Mikado," as well as for the perfection of his stage-management. The Savoy is entitled to inscribe another "great go" on its long list of brilliant successes.