Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
A History and a Comment
by H. M. Walbrook
During the long run of The Gondoliers a regrettable difference broke up for a time the fellowship of Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte, and it was nearly four years before the next of the wonderful series was produced, Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress. This opera was first performed at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday night, October 7th, 1893. There was the usual crowd, the usual excitement, the usual enthusiasm. At the end of the performance the author and composer appeared on the stage and shook hands together while the very walls trembled to the cheering of the audience.
Utopia is perhaps less known than most of the operas, yet its book is as witty as any and its score as charming. Spectacularly, the production was the richest ever seen at the Savoy. The scene of the first Act, a palm grove in the gardens of the palace of King Paramount in Utopia, an island in the Tropic Seas, was as beautiful as Mr. Hawes Craven (lent from the Lyceum by Henry Irving) could make it; that of the second, the throne-room, with its perspective arches, lit with innumerable lights that studded the jewelled walls and hung suspended in the air from what looked like shaking strings of diamonds, and with a view through the open doors beyond of the moon and its pale light on the sea, was described by more than one critic as the most gorgeous picture ever seen on the London stage. And when presently it became crowded with people in all sorts of glittering uniforms and the last splendour of Court costume for King Paramount's first "Drawing Room" the coup d'œil became more sumptuous still.
The book of Utopia satirizes practically everything English English prudery, English conversation, English company promoting, the English party system, the English War Office and Admiralty, the County Council, and the English Cabinet. Indeed, one historian has gone so far as to add that it even satirized the ceremonial of the English Court, and that by so doing it gravely offended the Prince of Wales (afterwards Edward VII.); but he gives no very acceptable evidence in support of this, and the idea may be dismissed. The ceremonial of a Royal "Drawing Room" was reproduced in all its beauty and stateliness to the accompaniment of delightful music in the orchestra. One comic touch, it is true, was introduced the "cheap and effective inspiration" of the handing round, during the ceremony, of tea and a plate of mixed biscuits. But who is going to believe that the Prince of Wales of that day who had helped to persuade Queen Victoria to command a special performance of The Gondoliers, with all its fun at the expense of a Monarchy, at Windsor Castle was so annoyed by the introduction of a plate of mixed biscuits into a Royal "Drawing Room" that he never visited the theatre again?
Of dramatic plot in the ordinary sense of the term there is exceedingly little. The main idea of the opera is the bringing over to the island of Utopia by the King's eldest daughter, Zara, of half a dozen typical and leading Englishmen to reform and anglicize its government and social life. These gentlemen are called "The Flowers of Progress." The representative of the Admiralty is a certain Captain Corcoran, K.C.B., whose self-introductory song ends as follows:
The result of the experiment is that Utopia is brought to a standstill. Its Army and Navy have become so irresistible that all the neighbouring nations have disarmed and war is impossible. The English County Councillor has passed such drastic sanitary laws that the medical profession is dying out. The English Q.C., Sir Bailey Barr, has remodelled the Utopian statute book. so brilliantly that crime and litigation are unknown, the lawyers of the island are starving, and the jails have all been converted into model lodgings for the working classes. In short:
Utopia, swamped by dull Prosperity
The King is puzzled as to what to do. Suddenly, however, his daughter has an inspiration.
And upon this everybody sings a joyous chorus and down comes the curtain! Little wonder, perhaps, that Mr. Bernard Shaw, the Socialist, who was then the musical critic on The World, found the opera the most enjoyable of all the series, or that the dramatic critic of the Pall Mall Gazette which, under the editorship of Mr. Harry Cust, had just become the leading Tory paper in London, found it the most depressing! In such wise do the personal predilections of critics all too often colour their aesthetic or what should be their aesthetic judgments.
The score is Sullivan at his brightest. The song of "The bright and beautiful English Girl" sung in the second Act by the Company Promoter is very nearly as brilliant as "Take a pair of sparkling eyes." The duet "Although of native maids the cream" for the two prim little Princesses in the first is as droll musically as verbally. The music of the Cabinet Council, as they sit singing in a row like the Christy Minstrels (" in accordance with the practice of the Court of St. James's Hall") is of the richest drollery. It was of this that Mr. Shaw wrote:
I confidently recommend those who go into solemn academic raptures over themes "in diminution" to go and hear how prettily the chorus of the Christy Minstrels song (borrowed from the plantation song, "Johnnie, get a gun") is used very much in diminution to make an exquisite mock banjo accompaniment.
Mr. Shaw even said that in this and in other passages he named from the score
The peals of laughter with which the spectacle of the Cabinet, with the King sitting in the middle of the row like an Ethiopian "Chairman," and the witty words and witty music, used to be received nightly, still echo in the ears of the present writer out of the happy past.
The part of Zara was played by Miss Nancy McIntosh, a tall young lady of great beauty, and a charming vocalist, who shortly before had been introduced to the Metropolis by Mr. (afterwards Sir) George Henschel at one of the London Symphony Concerts, where she sang in a selection from Die Meistersinger and in the Choral Symphony. She had no difficulty in being an ideal heroine. The Gilbertian stage, and Gilbert stage-managing it, did not require highly accomplished actors and actresses. An intelligent man or woman could make his or her "first appearance on the stage" in an important part in one of these operas and succeed in fulfilling every requirement. Nobody proved this more charmingly or more completely than Mr. George Grossmith, Miss Decima Moore, and Miss Nancy McIntosh, all of whom made their first appearance in these operas in leading characters and woke next morning to find themselves famous.