From The Era, 22 Dec 1867
English Opera appears to be an irrepressible Institution. The results that too often follow well-meant efforts in its behalf are, to say the least, discouraging, but faith is strong, and at the eleventh hour some energetic Manager invariably comes to the rescue, and risks much in what has frequently proved a somewhat precarious undertaking. This time it is Mr. German Reed who determines to uphold the cause of native art, and his resolve in this particular is emphatically proclaimed in the production of a new opera by that exceedingly talented young musician, Mr. Arthur Sullivan. This is certainly a good beginning, and all who make acquaintance with Mr. Sullivan's Contrabandista, or any fresh, original, and charming work, will thank Mr. Reed for the opportunity offered, and wish him every possible success in his undertaking.
The Opera House, as the Hall is now called, has had a more distinctive character imparted to it by the introduction of four private boxes, and on Wednesday night last, the date of the first performance, the audience included many literary, musical, and artistic celebrities. Mr. German Reed himself conducted the orchestra during the first and last pieces, and Mr. Arthur Sullivan presided during the progress of The Contrabandista. Offenbach's Puss in Petticoats, a facetious illustration of the transmigration of soul doctrine, commenced the entertainments, and introduced Middle. Anna as Minette, the human kitten; Mr. Edgar Osborne as Guido, a student; Mrs. Aynsley Cook as Marianne, the nurse (who expresses a very natural surprise when the charming Minette begins to lap milk on the feline principle), and Mr. Neilson as Dig-Dig, an individual in the disguise of an Indian juggler. A piece of absurdity of the Puss in Petticoats order requires the best of acting to render it welcome. It will be remembered that a little piece bearing on the question of the metempsychosis was produced some years ago, at the Princess's Theatre. Miss Louise Keeley played the feline feminine, and it is unnecessary to again enter upon the plot. The music Offenbach has composed on this theme is pretty and melodious enough to find enthusiastic recognition among amateurs.
Mr Arthur Sullivan, on entering the orchestra to conduct his comic opera, The Contrabandista, was greeted most cordially. He has enjoyed the co-operation of Mr. F. C. Burnand as librettist, and this gentleman's talent for invented amusing situations and writing humorous dialogue is once more proved beyond dispute. The plot of the opera is slight indeed, as will be seen from the following sketch: Inez de Roxas (Miss Lucy Franklin), the young widow of a defunct brigand chief, holds in captivity a forlorn Spanish damsel named Rita. The prisoner's rescue is determined upon by her lover, Count Vasquez (Mr. Edgar Hargrave) — wonderfully like the Mr. Edgar Osborne of the first piece. His efforts are for some time foiled, and the persecuted Rita is constantly watched by San Jose and Sancho (Messrs. Aynsley Cook and Neilson.) The two amiable Iberian thieves are nick-named respectively the Wolf and the Lion. They are deadly enemies, and candidates for the hand of Inez de Roxas. Any one fortunate enough to captivate this dusky Queen of banditti immediately becomes captain of the band. "Such is the law of the Ladrones," and the Wolf and the Lion being equally unsuccessful, compel a tourist photographer, one Mr. Grigg (Mr. Shaw) to sue the robber's widow. He is condemned to be married in four days, and is forthwith invested with the "sacred hat" worn by the successive leaders of the Ladrones. The game of cross purposes is still industriously played by the Wolf and the Lion, and they both terrify poor Grigg in the most cruel manner. The Lion at last turns traitor, and leads a party of Spanish soldiers to the rescue of Rita and the photographer, and to the very camp of the Ladrones. Such is the plot, which is elaborated and worked out by the aid of wild absurdities too numerous to recount.
Mr. Arthur Sullivan's music is melodious and captivating to a degree. The orchestration is smooth and varied, besides being technically clever. In the whole treatment of the subject supplied by Mr. Burnand the composer proclaims his true musical instinct. In the concerted music especially Mr. Sullivan displays a light, graceful fancy, and a facility of writing nothing less than admirable, and The Contrabandista, taken on its own merits, is a triumphant vindication of the fact that musical talent is not denied to the English. In every instance the music is in perfect keeping with the spirit of the words, and, while a necessary richness of harmony and orchestral colouring is preserved, that tendency to excessive modulation, which cloys rather than enchants, is most successfully avoided. Mr. Sullivan knows as well as anyone the above failing is common to young composers, though it is a fault after all on the right side. The opening duet, "Hush! Hush!" for Sancho and Jose, with chorus, and the trio in the first act, for the two brigands and Grigg, are models of composition that would lose but little by any comparisons which could be made. A capital buffo song, "From rock to rock" is given by the Photographer, and the melody is worked into the finale of the act the first. There is no overture, and one phrase for brass instruments in the short introduction is heard again when the Queen bids them bring forth the sacred hat, a situation slightly recalling the investiture of Fritz with the "sabre of my sire" in The Grand Duchess. Grigg's song was encored, and the finale was similarly complimented. The serenade sung by Vasquez in the second act had no chance whatever of making an impression. A song interpolated for Rita was unaffectedly sung by Miss Arabella Smyth, and, in the course of this scene, occurs another excellent trio, "Of that man we all require." The finale, formed on a valse-like subject, brought down the curtain with loud applause. The principals were called forward, and a most enthusiastic greeting was very justly awarded to Mr. Sullivan, who led on Mr. F. C. Burnand. Mr. German Reed was afterwards brought before the curtain. Mr. Aynsley Cook worked hard, as usual, as the Wolf, and was fairly seconded by Mr. Neilson. Miss Lucy Franklein bids fair to be an undoubted acquisition to the English lyric stage. Mr. Shaw was irresistibly comic as the timorous Grigg. The opera is well mounted as regards scenery and dresses. Offenbach's operatic extravaganza Ching-Chow-Hi, that was so popular at the Gallery of Illustration, concluded the evening's entertainments. Madame D'Este Finlayson played her original character of Pet-Ping-Sing, Mr. Shaw resumed the part of the Chinese "Emperor of a Province," Mr. Gaynar performed the Mandarin Tee-to-Tum, and Mr. Morrelli, Ba-Ba-Wang.
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