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The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   HMS Pinafore review 1878

On Saturday night H.M.S. Pinafore, a new “original nautical comic opera,” the joint production of Mr. W. G. Gilbert (sic) and Mr. Arthur Sullivan, saw the light of the stage. Like its predecessor from the same source, The Sorcerer, it bids fair to open a new and successful epoch in the history of the pretty theatre in the Strand, where English opera under the auspices of Mr. D’Oyly Carte has found a congenial home. We apply the words “English opera” by some stretch of courtesy, for as yet the attempt at the establishment of a national musical stage is of a somewhat modest kind. But the fact ought to be acknowledged that here we have a libretto by an English dramatist and music by an English composer; the former witty and amusing, without a shadow of the more or less veiled improprieties characteristic of French importations; and the latter melodious and admirably constructed without the aid of German or Italian models.

Mr. Gilbert’s plot, if such it can be called, is of the simplest description. The scene is laid on board Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore, Captain Corcoran, commander Captain and crew are on cordial terms with each other, and express their mutual goodwill in the most energetic and, at the same time, melodious manner. Readers of the “Bab Ballads” will at once recognize “worthy Captain Reece” as the original of the philanthropic naval officer. In one respect only does the dramatized captain differ from his prototype. He shares the prejudices of his caste on the subject of matrimonial alliances. His daughter Josephine loves a humble sailor, but her father insists upon her giving her hand to the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. The arrival of this worthy, who, it appears, is always accompanied by an admiring crowd of female relatives, is duly announced by a barcarole, and a responsive chorus of sailors.

The mental attitude of Sir Joseph is, if possible, still more remarkable than that of Captain Corcoran. The reticence of office is strange to his soul, and immediately on his arrival he begins to tell the assembled crew of his antecedents, including his humble calling as office boy to an attorney and his gradual rise through the stages of junior clerkship and partnership to his present exalted position. As regards indifference to social prejudices he even exceeds Captain Corcoran, and insists, for example, that to every word of command addressed to the humblest cabin boy a polite “If you please” should be added. We have dwelt upon these whimsicalities of characterization at some length because it is in them that the interest of the libretto entirely centres.

The story may be told in the fewest words. A lady, Little Buttercup by name, and a Portsmouth “bumboat woman” by calling, who in her youth has practised baby farming, unburdens her conscience to the effect that she has exchanged in their cradles Captain Corcoran and Ralph Rackstraw, his daughter’s wooer; whereat Sir Joseph withdraws his suit and Josephine becomes the prize of the lucky sailor, who has found a fortune and a bride at the same moment. Other characters of the play are the precipitately wedded, and the curtain drops. This may seem an easy way of constructing a drama. But with Mr. Gilbert a plot is seldom more than a lay figure which he delights in dressing in the fantastic garb of his wit and imagination. In the present instance, also, his dialogue sparkles with the most curious concetti, and vagaries of expression, and while listening to these we hardly become conscious of the absence of any kind of human interest.

The audience, therefore, have little reason to complain of Mr. Gilbert. But the musician has. His true field of action is after all genuine emotion; witticisms and jeux-de-mots are of little avail to him. The manner in which Mr. Sullivan accepts the difficult position thus prepared for him by his collaborator is worthy of the highest commendation. Whenever he finds that Mr. Gilbert’s humour cannot be aided by musical means he lets well alone and retires to modest recitative. On the other hand, he loses no opportunity of emphasizing comic points or indicating hidden irony by a slight touch of exaggeration. A very unsophisticated audience might accept, for instance, Ralph’s ballad, “A maiden fair to see,” as the real sentiment of which it is an admirable caricature, or mistake that admirable specimen of the “mock-heroic,” “I am an Englishman, behold me” for genuine patriotic bluster. The terrific roulade accompanying the bold announcement of the gallant boatswain deserves especial praise. That the music of so melodious a writer as Mr. Sullivan is full of charming tunes, it is hardly necessary to add. The madrigal in the first act, “The Nightingale,” and Josephine’s ballad, “Sorry her lot who loves too well,” are certain to be hailed with welcome in the drawing-room, where they will, perhaps, be more in their place than in the opera. Much superior to these is the truly pathetic snatch of melody belonging to an “aside” in the love duet between Ralph and Josephine and occurring also in the overture.

The most important ensemble is the finale of the first act, where Mr. Sullivan successfully grapples with the difficult problem of grouping his characters according to the nature of their utterances without disturbing the harmony of the whole. Much less satisfactory is the finale of the second act, largely made up of the tunes previously used, and not sufficiently welded together. This piece and the overture betray unmistakable signs of hurry, which Mr. Sullivan might remove with a little trouble. Among the concerted pieces of the second act a short but admirably written octet and a duet between Captain Corcoran and Dick Deadeye, the villain of the piece, deserve to be mentioned, the latter piece being especially remarkable for a charming orchestral ritornel.

The performance of the work was in many respects excellent. Few theatres can boast such a trio of genuine humorists as are Mr. G. Grossmith (Sir Joseph Porter), Mr. Rutland Barrington (the philanthropic captain), and Miss Everard (Little Buttercup). The vocal achievements of these artists are not of the highest order, but their parlato style does full justice to the humorous sallies of Mr. Gilbert. Mr. Power (Ralph Rackstraw) and Miss Emma Howson (Josephine) were on the other hand a sweet-voiced pair of lovers. The gentleman is in possession of a sympathetic although not very powerful tenor voice, which he uses to good advantage, although on the first night his intonation was a little uncertain. Miss Howson, as far as we are aware a novice on the stage, is a singer of decided promise. Her voice is a light soprano of an agreeable quality, and her singing betrays musical intelligence and dramatic instinct.

Chorus and orchestra acquitted themselves of their by no means easy task in a very creditable manner, and the performance – conducted on the first night by the composer himself – was received by a crowded audience with every sign of satisfaction. While recording this decided success of Mr. Sullivan’s new work we cannot suppress a word of regret that the composer on whom before all others the chances of a national school of music depend should confine himself, or be confined by circumstances, to a class of production which, however attractive, is hardly worthy of the efforts of an accomplished and serious artist.

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