|Utopia Limited > First Night Review
The resumption of the famous association of Sir Arthur Sullivan with Mr. Gilbert, an association which was so fruitful of mirth in the past, gave a very special interest to the first night of the new opera, Utopia (Limited), on Saturday night. No doubt Mr. Carte would have found it convenient to enlarge his theatre to three times its size, for it is said on good authority that the demand for seats at the production was greater than on any former occasion. The general rejoicing over the renewal of joint work by the author and composer, who have worked so long and successfully together, was so deeply felt that the success of the new piece would have been assured had either words or music, or both, been below the level of the best of the series. Happily, however, the occasion seems to have put each of the two upon his mettle, and the result is that the latest is also one of the best of the set. Since The Mikado, indeed, it is hard to remember any work of the same hands that is worthy to stand beside the new production for pointed dialogue and easily-assimilated music.
As usual, the action occupies two extremely long acts, but it cannot be said that there is a single dull moment from beginning to end, and this in spite of the almost complete absence of anything in the shape of plot, or even of thorough development of the central idea of the piece, which is as whimsical, though by no means as original, as ever. The introduction of English manners and customs into remote or imaginary countries has furnished forth many a piece of satire, whether on the stage or off, and at this very moment an entertainment, still enjoying a successful run, has precisely the same motive as the new Savoy opera, although it need hardly be said that the advantages in respect of wit, refinement, and charm of every kind are on the side of the newer production.
The King of Utopia has sent his eldest daughter to be educated at Girton, for he and his people have the most exalted ideas concerning all things English, ideas which are illustrated in the existence of a scurrilous society paper, the Palace Peeper, devoted to sham revelations of the iniquities of the Court, all of which are written by the King himself. In order to complete the Anglicizing of the land, the Princess brings with her, not only an escort of Life Guards, but six chosen specimens of British civilization, “Flowers of Progress,” consisting of an officer from each service, a Lord Chamberlain, a Judge, a County Councillor, and a company promoter, the last of whom takes immediate steps to run the kingdom as a limited liability concern. The audience, accustomed to the process that has become classical in such pieces, expects the second act to exhibit all manner of weak points in the new order of things, and to land the persons of the drama in inextricable confusion owing to the effort to carry the new doctrines to a logical close.
Here Mr. Gilbert is one too many for his public, for, instead of this, all goes well, and the only objection to the innovation is made on the score that war, crime, and disease have completely disappeared. The two Judges of the Utopian Supreme Court have been making a good thing out of various schemes which are now stultified, and they stir up the people of Utopia to rebellion against the English influence, by “making an affidavit that what they supposed to be happiness was really unspeakable misery,” and peace is only restored when the Princess hits upon the happy idea of introducing the great principle of “government by party,” by means of which the disastrous prosperity of the nation will be put an end to. Mr. Gilbert has not often appeared as the preacher of a political creed, but here he has directed all his satire against the enemies of progress, and in another direction shows a marked approval of a modern type of young ladyhood, describing as the “typical English girl” a creature “of magnificent comeliness … of 11 stone two, and five feet ten in her dancing shoe.” Fortunately no loud-voiced hoyden is presented as the fulfilment of the ideal, but the figure of the Princess Zara is one of great charm and distinction, even apart from the decidedly successful impersonation given by Miss Nancy M’Intosh, (sic) a débutante who won golden opinions on Saturday.
As a rule, it is only too easy to refer to the specially good points of such productions as this, whether in words or music; here it is quite impossible to give even a bare catalogue of the amusing things in the opera, or of the numbers in the score that will catch the public ear. The most hilarious concerted pieces, “patter songs,” topical duets of the approved pattern, succeed one another with bewildering speed, and the dialogue that separates them is so uniformly funny that it scarcely performs its original functions of allowing breathing space between the musical portions.
The overture, it is true, is meagre in extent and poor in quality, consisting of little more than a trivial tune employed afterwards to accompany the ceremonial at the drawing-room held by Princess Zara on the English model (with certain improvements – such as the choice of the evening rather than the afternoon, and the “cheap and effective inspiration” of “a cup of tea and a plate of mixed biscuits”). The King’s song, with its pretty introductory chorus for female voices, and its effective accompaniment, as of “tyrant thunder,” on the big drum, serves to introduce Mr. Barrington in a more or less familiar way, and the scene which immediately follows is one of the best in the piece.
The two younger Princesses, who are twins, have been brought up as model English young ladies by a governess, Lady Sophy who “unconsciously exercises a weird and supernatural fascination over all Crowned Heads.” The perfect deportment of her charges is daily exhibited to the populace, and she delivers a lecture on “the course of maiden courtship,” illustrated in dumb show by the twins, whose demure behaviour suggests that they are less innocent than they look. The waltz tune to which the lecture is set is scarcely among the best of the composer’s inventions in this kind, but the whole scene is admirable and excellently played.
A fairly characteristic song and trio on the subject of life’s grim jests, between the King and the two Judges, is exceedingly funny; and the courtship scene between the monarch and the governess is most diverting and charmingly set. The “dance of repudiation” is one of several jokes concerning the fatuity of descriptive dancing. The song with the choral refrain “The First Life Guards,” which follows the entry of the Princess and her escort, is very taking and one of the sure successes of the piece, although the solo soprano music is neither very prominent nor very grateful.
The introduction of the six representatives of progress brings about a delightful quotation from H.M.S. Pinafore, which was received on Saturday with shouts of applause.
The second act opens with a tenor solo for the Princess’s lover, Captain Fitzbattleaxe, illustrating most amusingly the impossibility of maintaining perfect vocalization in the expression of a veritable emotion. Here, and elsewhere, Mr. Kenningham was excellent, and his thoroughly finished singing enabled him to give point to the musical phrases in which he is supposed to break down. One very old and respectable pantomime device which occurs at the end of each verse, where a note missed by the singer is supplied, a semitone too high, by the clarionet, might well be reconsidered, as it does not do much to enhance the point of the joke.
The Cabinet Council, which is suddenly transformed into a Christy Minstrel performance, is sure to receive the honour of a double encore, conferred upon it on Saturday; and the drawing-room: scene, preceded by the King’s command, “Let the revels commence,” is likely to prove a popular spectacle, though the ladies’ dresses are not particularly successful from a decorative point of view. One of many momentary allusions to English national tunes occurs at its close; and finally a hymn-like chorus, unaccompanied, is sung by all the characters.
The capital trio of the two Judges and the official called the “Public Exploder” leads to a series of love scenes, at the climax of which the King and Lady Sophy are discovered by the younger couples, and all take part in a sufficiently bright tarantella.
The entry of the discontented population and their chorus, “Down with the Flowers of Progress” is a little too closely modelled upon “Stone him to death” in St. Paul, and the finale of the whole is disappointingly slight; still, there is so much that is in the best vein of both author and composer that this may well be pardoned.
Mr. Rutland Barrington, as the King, sings and acts in his usual style and with perfect success, though it could be wished that he danced a little more. Messrs. Denny and Le Hay are admirably funny as the two Judges, and their dresses in the first act, like those of all the Utopians, are pleasantly fantastic. Mr. Scott Fishe, as the company promoter, has one or two good songs to sing, and sings them well; and Mr. W. Passmore is duly energetic as Tarara, the Public Exploder.
Miss Nancy M’Intosh sings and acts in a way that promises excellently for her future career, if she elects to forsake the work of a concert singer, in which she has already made a most successful start. She is a most refined representative of the Princess, and her delivery of her spoken lines, particularly of a speech in which she quotes from “An expurgated Juvenal,” is extremely good. Nervousness impaired her vocal powers on Saturday, so that her charming voice made less than its usual effect; but this will no doubt be soon overcome, and the assumption will then reach a very high point of excellence. Miss Rosina Brandram, as Lady Sophy, adds a new impersonation to the long series of her successful performances in the same kind. She won much applause, not only for her lecture, but for the sentimental song which is almost a foregone conclusion in her parts. Misses Emmie Owen and Florence Perry are suitably demure and sly as the twin Princesses. An irritating habit of pronouncing the word “England” in the German way prevailed in the earlier scenes, but was gradually given up; it may be expected to disappear as the run of the piece goes on.
The performance, directed by the composer, was in all respects excellent, and the collaborators were most enthusiastically cheered at the close of the performance.
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