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From The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Monday, October 11, 1880.


On Saturday, an opportunity was afforded us by the managers to be present at one of the concluding rehearsals of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operatic melodrama of “The Pirates of Penzance.” As most of our readers must be aware, the piece has for the last seven or eight months crowded the auditorium of the Opera Comique and there seems to be little abatement of its popularity, and no probability of the metropolitan troupe being able to go with it into the provinces, Mr. D’Oyly Carte has formed a special and, we are enabled to say, very full and competent company, in order no longer to delay its presentation at the great provincial centres. The enterprise of our local managers has enabled them to secure for their patrons the first opportunity of witnessing it out of the metropolis; and, although it has been for some weeks past rehearsed by the selected company at the Opera Comique, it was deemed advisable, before its presentation to a Bristol audience this (Monday) evening, to have a couple of rehearsals, with full chorus, orchestra, and scenery, upon the stage of our New Theatre.

The story is, of course, an absurdity, but it is an absurdity in the true Gilbert style. There is a quaintness and spontaneity in the humour of that playwright which falls to the lot of very few of his contemporaries. He places little reliance on the sources from which opera bouffe and extravaganza writers as a rule seek inspiration. He rarely resorts to puns or the distortion of words; nor does he aim at the creation of broadly extravagant characters. In those respects his productions transcend most of the productions encountered in the comic drama. Mr. Gilbert relies rather on the drollery of the situations he contrives for his dramatis personæ, on the oddity of his stories, and upon that admixture of the congruous and incongruous which philosophers tell us is an irresistible provocative of laughter.

There is much in “The Pirates of Penzance” which recalls memories of “H.M.S. Pinafore.” The part of Major-General Stanley is obviously shaped on the lines of Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., Ruth’s blunder in apprenticing the boy Frederic to a pirate in mistake for a pilot smacks considerably of Little Buttercup’s “mixing up” of the two children Rackstraw and Corcoran; and the episode of the numerous pendant daughters of the .Major-General is strongly suggestive of “the sisters, the cousins, and the aunts” of the Admiralty First Lord. Despite these little points of similarity, there is quite sufficient novelty in the libretto to justify its claim to originality, whilst the varied incidents of the plot are as entertaining and laughable as could be desired.

The reader must not suppose that the pirates of Penzance are of the “Black Beard” and “Dare-devil Jack” type met with in the story books of the last generation. They are a somewhat courteous and very tender-hearted race, whose pride it is “to spare the weak,” as, when they attack the strong, they are sure to get thrashed; and a chief article in their creed is – the pirate king being himself parentless – “never to capture an orphan.” It is not, perhaps, surprising that they cannot make piracy of the kind we have mentioned pay; and we find them at the opening of the piece confessing that fact, and lamenting that the last three ships they seized were manned entirely by orphans, and that, prompted by their feelings of humanity, they had to let them go.

The curtain rises upon the pirates’ retreat, a passage of bold and very picturesque scenery on the Cornish coast. The sea is viewed rolling in with its silvery foam, and the rock-bound shore (very vigorously painted by Mr. Barraud) wears an air of wildness and majestic grandeur well in keeping with the story. The pirates, who are seen lying about amongst the cliffs in picturesque groups, are celebrating the birthday of Frederic, an apprentice of the band, who is within a few hours of the end of his term. He informs them that he is about to part with them for ever. He loves, he says, admires, reveres them as comrades; but he detests them as pirates, and it is his purpose to devote the remainder of his existence to their extermination. Of this resolve, since it is prompted by “a sense of duty,” the pirates find it unreasonable to complain, and at the end of the act the separation accordingly takes place. Not, however, until there have been some stirring scenes.

A bevy of charming girls come tripping over the rocks and prepare to amuse themselves by paddling in the water. They are caught with one shoe off, and their alarm is piquantly expressed in a hopping chorus to which the pirates contribute, being determined to get married immediately through the instrumentality of

A doctor of divinity
Located in the vicinity.

It is soon made known that the young ladies are all daughters of Major-General Stanley, who inhabits a castle hard by; and scarcely is the discovery made when the gallant warrior himself appears upon the scene.

This character, as we have already hinted, is moulded somewhat after the fashion of Sir Joseph Porter; and he introduces himself in a patter song, studded thickly with scientific words of length and difficulty. It recounts the accomplishments of the distinguished officer, who seems to be thoroughly versed in astronomy, mathematics, nautical history, and nearly all branches of science except, indeed, in military affairs. The rapid delivery of this song is occasionally interrupted in a highly ludicrous manner by the General’s hesitation for a rhyme. We must not anticipate the interest and fun of the opera by following the story too closely, but we may state that Frederic finds his love returned by Mabel, the General’s eldest daughter; that the pirates capture the old man, but that, upon his assuring them that he is only “a lowly orphan,” he is permitted to depart with his daughter Mabel and her newly-gained lover Frederic.

The action of the second act is laid amidst the ruins of an old abbey, the painting and making out of which constitute another triumph for Mr. Barraud’s pencil. General Stanley has bought the abbey, beneath whose aisles lie the remains of many an illustrious ancestor, and he consoles himself with the reflection that although he cannot tell whose ancestors they were, he is very sure – having purchased the entire lot – whose ancestors they are.

Frederic has now been made aware that by the terms of his indenture his apprenticeship will not end till his 21st birthday, and that, he having been burn in leap year, on the 29th of February, some years must elapse before he can be released. The sense of duty by which he professes to be ever swayed then prompts him to inform the pirates of the cheat which the general has practised upon them by representing himself to be an orphan. The band is attacked in a very ludicrous manner by a body of policemen, who are in turn themselves put upon the defensive, and an ingeniously contrived concatenation of situations brings about the necessary happy dénouement.

Of the music to which Mr. Sullivan has wedded this laughable story we can speak in high terms of praise. It is destined, we think, to become quite as popular as “Pinafore,” and we shall expect to hear some of its numbers whistled and sung through the streets. The Chatter chorus in the first act will be sure to win this renown, and so will that of the “Bobbies” in the second. The effect is exceedingly humorous – a sort of tarantula [sic], which the men in blue keep up on their truncheons. There is, too, something intensely comic in the chant in monotone which they sing as a sort of commentary on the sayings of the General’s daughter. Besides the lighter music there are passages which boast high art quality. The concerted music towards the end of the first act would only require to be sung with solemnity to be worthy of grand opera, and the concerted music in the second act and the finale are fine examples of dramatic composition. The opening song of Ruth is very beautiful, and especially so is the duo, “O leave me not,” between Frederic and Mabel, in the Abbey scene; in fact, the music throughout (although here and there the practised ear may detect bits which bear some resemblance to passages in other operas) is bright, tuneful, and well harmonised.

The performance tonight, we can promise the reader, will be a very perfect one. The principal artistes engaged are all excellent; there is a chorus of between thirty and forty practised dramatic singers, which, with an augmented orchestra (of which Mr. George Chapman is leader), will be directed by Mr. F. Stanislaus whose name as a musical conductor cannot fail to be known to most musical persons.

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