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First Night Review from The Times
Monday, September 26, 1892.
 
SAVOY THEATRE

When the announcement was first made that Sir Arthur Sullivan’s new opera was to deal with the romantic adventure which is the most picturesque episode is the long history of Haddon-hall, there must have been many misgivings in the minds of those who regarded the Gilbertian operas as the composer’s greatest artistic achievement, and Ivanhoe as a falling-off from the simpler and more hilarious measures of the earlier works. Such critics may be reassured; Haddon-hall is not in the least like Ivanhoe, but belongs, at least as far as its music is concerned, to the famous series connected with the Savoy Theatre.

Mr. Sydney Grundy’s libretto conforms more or less closely to another type than Mr. Gilbert’s, since the main plot has a certain amount of serious interest, presenting the loves of Dorothy Vernon and young Manners in the approved style, the story being mainly carried on in dialogue, interspersed with sentimental lyrics. In pieces of this class the comic element is naturally of very great importance, and here it is procured by the simple device of transferring the action to the period immediately preceding the Restoration, in order to introduce once more the time-honoured jokes against the Puritans.

Rupert Vernon, the cousin and suitor of Dorothy, is represented as a Roundhead of a rather lukewarm kind, with a lurking love for the creature comforts he affects to despise. It need not be said that this part is played in inimitable style by Mr. Rutland Barrington, who is followed about by a group of Puritans admirably made up. Whether from the impression that even thus the comic element needed strengthening, or from the very natural desire to provide a good part for Mr. Denny, the author has introduced, in The M’Crankie, a figure which, though wholly unnecessary to the development of the plot, and in his surprising mixture of Scottish characteristics scarcely credible in any period, will probably have as much to say to the success of the new piece as any of the characters. It is true that the absurdities of the part would be more acceptable in one of the frankly extravagant inventions of the older librettist than in a piece professedly historical, and one which presents, in all other respects, faithful pictures of the place and period chosen. “Verily, we are all anachronisms,” remarks one of Mr. Grundy’s Puritans, with a good deal of truth, for it is not only the Roundheads who indulge is allusions to topics of the present day, but one of the Royalists, when disguised as a pedlar, describes himself as “a premature Whiteley,” and time has little more importance for the more serious characters, who complacently speak of the famous Derbyshire house as smiling “as it smiled even before the Conquest.”

In other ways the book, while meriting praise on the score of clearness and, in some of the patter songs, humour, falls considerably below the standard of Mr. Gilbert’s work, and in more than one passage of the spoken dialogue we recall irresistibly the librettos of the English operas of the last generation, while the description of the evening star as “Sweet orphan of the night” is not unworthy of the immortal Bunn himself. Each hearer will no doubt have his own opinions as the propriety of joking with subjects more or less intimately connected with religion, but some of the Puritans’ speeches and songs sail a good deal nearer the wind in this direction than anything that has been seen before on the Savoy stage. But the inclination to quarrel with some of their utterances is the less since their peculiarities give occasion for some of the most delightful musical numbers in the piece.

Of the music as a whole it is extremely difficult to speak dispassionately. A new work from the composer’s pen is now sure of a double welcome, since the universal anxiety shown during Sir Arthur Sullivan’s late illness testified to the permanence of his popularity, and, with the general public at least, his return to his old style of writing will be no doubt largely appreciated. Still, it would be absurd to blink the fact that, judged by the standards he himself has given us, the latest specimen must rank almost as far below the best of his productions in this kind as it ranks below the finer portions of Ivanhoe in earnestness of intention and sustained power.

In the opening scenes, before the entrance of the comic Puritans, the music scarcely rises above the level of the words; the choral prologue in the overture, sung before the rising of the curtain to stanzas addressed to the “stately homes of England,” the introductory chorus, and a rather pointless little ditty in which a serving-maid relates the position of affairs, under the guise of a parable concerning the loves of a dormouse, are of course gracefully written, but not until the chorus of greeting to the Vernons, with its pretty trio of flutes in the introduction, do we find any trace of the composers wonted charm. A so-called “Madrigal” is cast in the form that has now become conventional, and the specimen is of the same quality as its predecessors; it obtained on Saturday the first of numerous encores.

The pedlar’s song, already referred to, contains some very obvious musical allusions to national airs, suggested by the circumstance that the vendor’s wares are imported; as no attempt has been made to disguise or ornament any of the strains, the joke will possibly be within the powers of appreciation of the average patron of the theatre. A duet between the disguised pedlar and the serving-maid, “The sun’s in the sky,” is remarkable for its pretty rhythm and charmingly fresh orchestration.

The succeeding entrance of Dorothy, and a few lines of recitative, are treated in a passionately dramatic vein that is curiously out of keeping with the light character of the rest of the music, as for instance, with that of the next trio, a sufficiently pretty number. The sentimental tenor song for Manners has not inspired the composer, but a short love duet, “Sweetly the morn doth break” (throughout the opera the characters, one and all, are fond of conversing about the weather), is more pleasing.

With the chorus, or rather semi-chorus, of Puritans, headed by Rupert, the fun of the piece begins, none too soon; their lugubrious chant, with its accompaniment of trombones, is excellently treated whenever it occurs, and the utmost amount of musical humour is extracted from it. That Rupert has a song in which his personal objections to the pessimism of his companions are drolly expressed is a matter of course, and the finale, which culminates in Dorothy’s refusal to wed her cousin, is worked up with the composer’s usual skill. In it occurs one of the very few solo numbers for soprano, “When yestereve I knelt to pray.”

The scene of the elopement, in the second act, is preceded by the entry of the sanctimonious M’Crankie, whose appearance, preceded by a horrible “skirl” upon the bagpipes, will, it is safe to prophesy, be one of the “hits” of the opera, however little it assists its action. His song is accompanied by a wonderfully skilful imitation of the bagpipes in the orchestra, and is shortly followed by a “topical” duet with Rupert, “If we but had our way,” which was of course encored. The characteristics of what may be called the pseudo-Scottish music are most happily hit off in a trio in which Dorcas, the serving maid, takes part. A pretty passage of ensemble accompanies the elopement, which takes place during a thunderstorm; necessarily, the elements have to mind their cues so as not to interrupt the solo singers, but the storm gives occasion for one of the most ingenious changes of scene that has ever been managed in England or elsewhere. The stage is gradually obscured by thick clouds of gauze, upon the opaque surface of which vivid lightnings play for some minutes, during the performance of an orchestral interlude; when at length the veils are gradually withdrawn a brilliantly lighted interior is disclosed by the instantaneous illumination of the electric light, which, at the close of the scene of the revels, is apparently extinguished as gradually as at the close of the opening scene of Ivanhoe,when real torches were employed. No doubt the clever device by which the electric lights are dissimulated will work more smoothly as time goes on than it did on Saturday. The music of the scene contains a very spirited song for Sir George Vernon, “In days of old,” a funny burlesque of the ensemble of the elopement, sung by the Puritans who were in hiding when it took place, and a vigorous finale, as the cavaliers set off in the pursuit of the lovers.

The last act, which has less of action than either of the others, is by far the most effective of the three, musically speaking at least; the first chorus, in which all the peasants and retainers sing lines of a solemn unisonous chant or plain-song, interrupted by rapid asides, such as “Did ever you hear such a chorus as this?” terminates in a very skilful passage in which the two contrasting strains are sung simultaneously. The very graceful song for Lady Vernon, “Queen of the garden,” has not much connexion with the plot, but its charm is undeniable; a still greater success was achieved by the duet for the husband and wife, “Bride of my youth,” a really beautiful and most expressive number, worthy of the best moments of the composer. A sudden and general strike for eight hours only of enforced melancholy introduces a wild “patter song” and dance, in which, of course, Rupert takes a prominent part. This, as well as the Highland fling danced by The M’Crankie, received the tiresome honours of a double encore. The dance is preceded by a delightfully humorous musical parody of a Scottish air, with the “snaps” and other features which are popularly supposed to be characteristic of the type. The opera is wound up with the news of the restoration of Sir George to his estates, which had been transferred to the sanctimonious Rupert; the restitution is, of course, due to Manners, who is thereupon forgiven, together with his runaway bride.

The execution of the opera leaves scarcely anything to desire. Miss Jessie Bond would have got more fun out of the part of Dorcas than Miss Dorothy Vane is able to extract; but better singing of the heroine’s part than Miss Lucille Hill’s could not be desired. Dorothy’s favoured lover is played, over-sentimentally as usual, by Mr. Courtice Pounds, whose intonation on Saturday night was often faulty. Mr. Richard Green and Miss Rosina Brandram are altogether excellent as Dorothy’s parents, Mr. Charles Kenningham does full justice to the small part of Oswald, and of the impersonation of Rupert and M’Crankie by Messrs. Barrington and Denny mention has already been made. It should be remarked that the latter manages to play the bagpipes with no little skill in the single number to which they are happily confined.

The composer was enthusiastically welcomed when, according to custom, he took his place at the conductor’s desk, and at the conclusion of the opera, he, as well as the librettist, the manager, and the principal singers, was called before the curtain. A word of praise is due to the accurate and picturesque costumes, and to the beautiful scenery, for which no fewer than four distinguished masters of the art are responsible.


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