Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
A History and a Comment
by H. M. Walbrook
THE LAST OF THE OPERAS.
The last of the operas, The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel, was presented at the Savoy on the evening of Saturday, March 7th, 1896. There was the usual brilliant audience, the usual hum of excitement before the curtain rose, and the usual enthusiasm at the end. On the following Monday, too, most of the papers sang the praises of the book and score in the usual way. One of the author's jokes is the compulsory eating of a sausage-roll as a sort of password among the conspirators who are aiming at the dethronement of the Grand Duke of Pfennig-Halbpfennig. Writing of the musical motif with which the composer accompanies this not particularly sparkling pleasantry, the critic of the Pall Mall Gazette launched into the following rapturous but somewhat obscure flight:
The musically described secret sign of the Sausage Roll, an "allegro marziale e misterioso," has broad elements of the most laughable burlesque, combined with so rare a refinement that one's laughter is ever upon the edge of gravity, yet ever rebutting and defeating gravity so victoriously that laughter here attains a responsibility which belongs to it rarely in the range of humour.
No doubt the writer of that knew what he meant, but it must have left its readers a little uneasy as to the sort of humour Gilbert and Sullivan had on this occasion provided. Alas! They soon found out for themselves. The same writer proceeded to say: "The mere appearance of Mr. Rutland Barrington in Greek costume and a Louis XIV. wig should make the fortune of the piece." It did nothing of the kind. The opera was virtually a failure. Its run was the shortest in the annals of Gilbert and z a sorry one hundred and twenty-three performances; and it has never been seen since. It is never mentioned. Even of those who saw it, the majority have forgotten it, or remember it only as a vastly dull affair of which the less said the better.
The failure here must sorrowfully be put down to the librettist. Plot, dialogue, characterization, wit, everything, is mechanical, The book reads like the work of a tired man. Had it been the work of any other author we should have said that it satirized Gilbert. It reads like a dry, clever parody of the librettist's own style. There is his manner but not his wit, his lyrical fluency but not his charm. In a song in the first Act describing a "statutory duel" we find the following:
which is the old manner to a nicety, but how far from the old matter! And when the Grand Duke cries: "I ought to keep cool and think, but you can't think when your veins are full of hot soda water, and your brain's fizzing like a firework, and all your faculties are jumbled in a perfect whirlpool of tumblification " we feel again how like the earlier Gilbert it is, yet at the same time how depressingly unlike. One historian has suggested that perhaps the opera was a failure because it was "the thirteenth (unlucky, number)" of the series; but it happened to be the fourteenth. It failed for a very simple reason. Its libretto was as cold as the snows of the Jungfrau, without a touch of their beauty.
Even Sullivan, with all his joie de vivre, could not breathe life into it. Here and there, of course, he had his moments. The quintet in the first Act, "Strange the views some people hold," with the bassoons droning their "ding-dong," was voted a beautiful number, and the choral processional opening of the second Act, "As before you we defile," with its broad melody and charming orchestral accompaniment, was applauded to the echo; but, for the most part, the lyrics were uninspiring and the melodies uninspired. In short, The Grand Duke must be admitted as making a quite curiously feeble and depressing ending to the long and brilliant collaborative achievement.
The enthusiastic manager, Mr. D'Oyly Carte, had done all that was possible for it. The scenery and the costumes were as rich as ever; each Act was a series of brilliant stage-pictures, and the company was, perhaps, the finest ever seen in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The Hungarian singer, Mlle. Ilka von Palmay, who played the important part of the English heroine, was a brilliant vocalist, a charming actress, and a beautiful woman; three comedians so admirable as Mr. Rutland Barrington, Mr. Walter Passmore, and Mr. C. H. Workman, were in the cast, while voices so beautiful as those of Miss Rosina Brandram and Miss Ruth Vincent were also to be heard. But nothing could save a comic opera burdened with so laboriously mechanical and laboured a book as Gilbert had written in The Grand Duke.
So the series ended but the operas go on! Through the years of the Great War they continued to be on tour through the country, drawing large and grateful audiences everywhere. They helped to sustain the spirits of the people during that stern period, and by so doing they helped to win the victory. In scores of military hospitals a gramophone, with Gilbert and Sullivan "records" was worth a doubled medical staff. A friend of mine on military duty in India during that time had such a gramophone, and his brother-officers were for ever "dropping in," just to hear one or two of the old Savoy songs again. And when the men were home on leave from the reek of Flanders or the blasts of the North Sea, how they crowded into the theatres where these operas were being performed! If only the author and the composer had lived to see those tremendous years, they would indeed have been proud of what may well be regarded as the crowning harvest of their work.