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2 June 1878

The following appeared in our TOWN EDITION of last week.

Seldom indeed have we been in the company of a more joyous audience, or an audience more confidently anticipating an evening's amusement, than that which filled the Opera Comique in every corner last Saturday. The names of Messrs. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan in combination have on previous occasions been productive of such legitimate amusement, such novel forms of drollery, such original wit, and unexpected whimsicality, that nothing was more natural than for the audience to anticipate an evening of thorough enjoyment. The expectation was fulfilled completely. Those who believed in the power of Mr. Gilbert to tickle the fancy with quaint suggestions and unexpected forms of humour were more than satisfied, and those who appreciate Mr. Arthur Sullivan's inexhaustible gift of melody were equally gratified; while that large class of playgoers who are pleased with brilliant dresses and charming stage effects declared themselves delighted. The result, therefore, was “a hit, a palpable hit” — a success, in fact, there could be no mistaking, and which, great as it was last Saturday, will be even more decided when the work has been played a few nights, as there were some slight drawbacks for which nobody was to blame; such, for example, as the severe cold that affected Mr. Rutland Barrington, and almost prevented his singing. The greatest credit was due to him for struggling as he did against adverse circumstances, and we may compliment him sincerely upon the ability and moral courage which enabled him to triumph over physical weakness.

The new work upon which Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan have so successfully employed their talents is a comic opera, in two acts, entitled H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass that Loved a Sailor. Upon the foundation of a Bab Ballad Mr Gilbert has constructed the most laughable libretto imaginable, the success being all the greater owing to the simplicity of the incidents. Wisely discarding all entangled plot, and trusting rather to a few extremely humorous situations, author and musician have worked with such complete harmony of purpose that we feel we shall not be far wrong in describing their production as the success of the season. Music so tuneful and a story so comical, and free from the reproach but too justly levelled against most works of the opera bouffe class, cannot fail to prove immensely attractive at the present season. There are few so dull of spirit or so sad at heart that they cannot enjoy a hearty laugh, but there are many who, when they hear a thing is funny, have an instinctive dread that it must necessarily be coarse. Let all who have such a notion of the merry piece produced last Saturday at the Opera Comique dismiss that idea from their minds at once. It is as harmless as a nursery tale. In fact, it is a bit of fun for grown-up children of the most innocent kind. They may laugh to their hearts' content, and not be ashamed of what they are laughing at, as we shall now attempt to prove.

The first act opens on board H.M.S. Pinafore at Portsmouth. The stage is fitted up most effectively to represent the quarter-deck of the vessel, but we imagine that the Royal Navy does not often present so picturesque an effect as that seen last Saturday at the Opera Comique; for, in addition to Jolly Jack Tars and Merry Marines, there are pretty young damsels in yachting costumes of all the colours of the rainbow. Mr. Sullivan, we may remark, conducting the orchestra himself, had, previously to the rising of the curtain, treated his admirers to a light and sparkling little overture, and then a jovial chorus of the sailors is heard. The sailors listen to a song from Little Buttercup (Miss Everard), and join in a lively chorus. Little Buttercup is a bumboat woman of Portsmouth, and her song describes the various goods she has to dispose of. The only grumbler amongst the crew is a deformed and most cantankerous seaman named Dick Deadeye (Mr. Richard Temple), who evidently means mischief, especially when the hero, Ralph Rackstraw (Mr. Power), narrates in a ballad how that he is the victim of an unhappy passion for the daughter of the Captain and has little hope that it will be returned. Presently Captain Corcoran (Mr. Rutland Barrington) comes on deck, and amusingly describes his method of ensuring discipline. He is always  gentle, and never, no never, uses any naughty word beginning with a big D–––. He tells the crew with pardonable pride that the hand of his daughter, Josephine (Miss Emma Howson), is sought by Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, but pretty Josephine, when she arrives, tells quite different story. After a little hesitation she confesses to her papa that she loves Ralph. This is a staggerer for the Captain, who is even now expecting the arrival of Sir Joseph Porter, whose appearance is the signal for another tuneful chorus. The Admiral sings a song somewhat after the pattern of the Judge's song in Trial by Jury, and Mr. George Grossmith, junior, who represented the Admiral with infinite humour, was so successful in it that it was obliged to be repeated. The motto of his song is —

Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule —
  Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee.

A discussion between the Admiral and the Captain upon Navy discipline caused hearty laughter, the dialogue being very quaint and amusing. When the Admiral retires he hands to the crew copies of a part song he has composed. This was another very funny incident, and the singing of the part song, followed by a hornpipe, was much applauded. But the scene that followed was one of the drollest in the opera. Ralph is supposed to be merely an able seaman, but the language used by this British tar is high-flown in the extreme. No such nautical lingo as “Shiver my timbers” passes the refined lips of this very genteel sailor. When he declares his passion to the Captain's lovely daughter he doesn't say "Bless your dear eyes" or "Lord love ye, Miss," or any such homely sentences. He has all the fine words in the dictionary at his command, and his protestations of love are to this effect:—"I am poor in the essence of happiness, lady — rich only in never-ending unrest. In me there meet a combination of antithetical elements which are at eternal war with one another. Driven hither by objective influences — thither by subjective emotions — wafted one moment  into blazing day by mocking hope — plunged the next into the Cimmerian darkness of tangible despair, I am but a living ganglion of irreconcilable antagonisms. I hope I make myself clear, lady?” When his ladylove declares that “his simple eloquence” has gone straight to her heart there is a roar of laughter, echoing again when this superfine seaman says:– "Aye, even though Jove's armoury were launched at the head of the audacious mortal whose lips, unhallowed by relationship, dared to breathe that precious word, yet would I breathe it once, and then perchance be silent evermore. Josephine, in one brief breath I will concentrate the hopes, the doubts, the anxious fears of six weary months. Josephine, I am a British sailor, and I love you!" But the young lady cannot quite make up her mind as yet to become the bride of this common, or rather uncommon, sailor — she hesitates, and Ralph, thinking he is rejected, calls all the crew around him, and puts a pistol to his head, when Josephine comes forward and confesses her love, and agrees to go ashore and marry her sailor lover. The first act then closes with a chorus  in praise of the British tar to the following effect:–

  For a British tar is a soaring soul,
    As free as a mountain bird;
  His energetic fist should be ready to resist
    A dictatorial word!
His foot should stamp and his throat shield growl,
His hair should twirl and his face should scowl,
His eyes should flash and his abreast protrude,
And this should he his customary attitude. — (Pose.)

The second act opens with a moonlight scene on the deck of the vessel. The Captain wandering on deck sings a ballad to the moon with a mandolin accompaniment, the whimsicality of which pleased the audience, and will do so to a greater extent when Mr. Barrington has recovered his voice. Little Buttercup, the bumboat woman, has lingered on deck. She has a tenderness for the Captain, and sets her cap at him to an alarming extent. But she hints at a dark mystery in a very funny duet with the Captain. Presently the Admiral comes and admits that his wooing of the fair Josephine does not prosper. The Captain says:– "If your lordship would kindly reason with her, and assure her officially that it is a standing rule at the Admiralty that love levels all ranks, her respect for an official  utterance might induce her to look upon your offer in its proper light." But we soon get a clear view of the young lady's sentiments in a song which Miss Emma sang with charming effect. She thus contrasts the position:–

On the one hand, papa's luxurious home,
  Hung with ancestral armour and old brasses,
Carved oak and tapestry from distant Rome,
  Rare "blue and white" Venetian finger glasses.
Rich oriental rugs, luxurious sofa pillows,
And everything that isn't old, from Gillow's.
And on the other, a dark, dingy, room
  In some back street, with stuffy children crying
Where organs yell, and clacking housewives fume,
  And clothes are hanging out all day a-drying.
With one cracked looking-glass to see your face in,
And dinner served up in a pudding basin!

But a meeting now takes place with the Admiral, who is cleverly beguiled by the young lady into the belief that be is to be the happy man. The trio sung here is one of the prettiest pieces in the opera. It is worthy of Auber in its sparkling buoyancy and flow of melody. But it is evident a climax is approaching. That cantankerous seaman, Dick Deadeye, creeps up to the Captain as the lovers are about to fly, and lets the "cat out of the bag." In this case it is the cat-o'-nine-tails, with which Ralph is threatened, being first handcuffed and taken below. But now is the time for the bumboat woman's mysterious revelation. In her youth she had charge of two infants which somehow got mixed up. One was a patrician, Ralph; the other of lowly birth, the Captain. The pair thereupon change places. Ralph takes the Captain's post and pretty Josephine; while Captain Corcoran becomes an able-bodied — a very able-bodied — seaman, and takes as his partner Little Buttercup, the bumboat woman; the Admiral contenting himself with a pretty cousin, who had followed him most perseveringly.

The curtain fell amidst enthusiastic applause, and Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan and the principal performers were called to the footlights, and greeted most heartily, a compliment most thoroughly deserved, for the success of the comic opera and the genuine enjoyment the audience had derived from it was unquestionable.

The performance was for a first night capital. Miss Emma Howson, who made her first appearance in this country, is one of the brightest, liveliest little ladies imaginable. She has a voice of charming quality, pure, sweet, and admirably in tune. Her singing at once established her in the good graces of the audience, and her acting was full of intelligence and comic talent. Her debut was a complete success. Miss Jessie Bond in the little character of Hebe was agreeable; and the quaint humour of Miss Everard, as Little Buttercup, was frequently rewarded with laughter and applause as cordial as it was deserved. The mysterious duet with the Captain on the moonlit deck was an excellent example of Miss Everard's drollery, which in this scene will be more prominent still when Mr. Barrington is able to render greater assistance. But, as we have said already, great praise was due to him throughout the opera. As Ralph, Mr. Power did himself great credit by his clever tenor singing, his amusing delivery of the high flown speeches we have quoted and his acting generally. Mr Richard Temple made a great deal of Dick Deadeye, the morose mariner who endeavours to prevent the course of true love from running smooth. Mr. Temple's make-up was extremely grotesque, and both in acting and singing the value of his assistance was great, especially in the concerted music. Mr. Clifton deserved much praise for his humour in more than one scene. In one instance a little bit he had to sing in praise of an English Tar was so well rendered that he was compelled to repeat it. The Sir Joseph Porter of Mr. George Grossmith, jun., was a very effective study of a British Admiral. Whether purposely imitated or not, there was a certain resemblance to the portraits of Nelson in Mr. Grossmith's make-up which was noticed by many amongst the audience, and this made the impersonation still more amusing. Mr. Grossmith acted with much dry humour, and sang the Admiral's song so that every word could be heard. The caricature of official routine was very droll indeed, and must be seen to be appreciated as it deserves. The dresses were remarkably bright and attractive, and the opera was in every way well placed upon the stage by Mr. D'Oyly Carte, who had evidently spared no pains to make the representation as complete as possible. The chorus and orchestra, with the composer conducting them, merited hearty commendation.

We feel confident that an entertainment so bright, witty, and amusing will attract large audiences for a long time to come.

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