THE GRAND DUKE
from The Musical Times
1. SAVOY THEATRE. The Musical Times 1896 April 1 37(638): 239-240 [unsigned review]
MR. W. S. GILBERT
must be conscious that his enforced bondage to a method has at least one
advantage. We say enforced bondage because the public have shown ere now
that they resent any effort on his part to abandon topsy-turyeydom – to
deal with events and circumstances as with pyramids standing on their base
and not their apex. The structure of a Gilbert libretto must always rest
upon its apex, and the advantage to which we have referred lies in an opportunity
of showing that the dramatist's skill and resourcefulness are equal to
any demands. Mr. Gilbert has applied his topsy-turvey method in a dozen
different directions, with nearly uniform success; in "The Grand Duke"
(produced on the 7th ult.) we see him exercising a familiar art upon still
fresh matter amid peals of approving laughter. In most of his works it
is easy to detect a deeper purpose than that of exciting mirth by verbal
dexterity and quaint conceits. Mr. Gilbert is a satirist, and in his latest
piece he proclaims that real Courts and sham Courts – the histrionic appliances
of the palace and of teh theatre – are pretty much alike and even interchangeable.
All things, in fact, are reduced to mere "play-acting," and the exalted
personage with most opportunities is merely the "star" of a company. Mr.
Gilbert delights to poke fun at the supers and walking gentlemen on the
boards of the Royal Court Theatre he sees so clearly, and here gives his
legitimate Grand Duke a train of seven chamberlains.
The Grand Duke communicates only with the Lord Chamberlain, and a request for snuff-box or handkerchief descends through all the seven grades of flunkeydom, the thing asked for, supplied by the lowest official, passing upward with like ceremony. Again, when the Prince of Monte Carlo comes on a visit to the Grand Duke he brings a "job lot of second-hand nobles" hired of an agent, costumes and all, at eighteenpence a day each. These personages, who strongly suggest Richardson's Show, are inspected by the Prince, and also harangued: "Now, once for all, you Peers – when His Highness arrives, don't stand like sticks, but appear to take an intelligent and sympathetic interest in what is going on. You needn't say anything, but let your gestures be in accordance with the spirit of the conversation." The gestures are then practised. All this is fair fun, but, of course, the same weapon might be directed against anything that in life is picturesque and otherwise useful. Mr. Gilbert gets the true Prince off the throne and substitutes a player by a process quite characteristic of his humour. He invents an amazing statutory duel and then contrives that the reigning Duke should encounter a son of Thespis, lose the fight, and be superseded.
Upon the groundwork thus laid down the author runs amok of imagination. Wild extravagances, odd conceits, strange characters, stranger circumstances are mixed up in the most fantastic way, and one must laugh with the rest, however disposed to be critical. We cannot here tell the story or discuss the incidents and situations, but it should be said that the last act, as often the case in Mr. Gilbert's pieces, is dramatically weak and unduly spun out. We understand, however, that the book has undergone revision since the first performance, and it would now be unsafe to point out specific faults.
The position of Sir Arthur Sullivan in relation to these Savoy operas is even more difficult than that of his colleague. Mr. Gilbert has a boundless field in wich to gather naterials for treatment of a nature not unlimited, but the composer is restricted all round. He has to write for singers who cannot "go anywhere and do anything"; his orchestration must be chiefly in the nature of simple accompaniment, and the contour of his pieces, their rhythms, &c., are all restricted. The wonder, therefore, is that the music of any one opera does not more closely resemble that of any other than is actually the case. Happily, Sir Arthur Sullivan has a keen sense of humour and a deft way of expressing it withal. This is an important advantage, humour being a salt of powerful savour, able to make appetising that which, without it, might be somewhat insipid. The gain from humour in the present case is very considerable, and appears at a score of points in the work. For example, in the solo withchorus, "By the mystic regulation," the music, for all its lilting rhythm, is as droll as the direction, Allegro marziale e misterioso. Of a different character is a quintet, "Strange the views some people hold." A light accompaniment attends this, and there are other modifications of the regulation madrigal. But it is none the less a charming piece on that account – one which the composer, showing signs of haste elsewhere, has treated quite carefully. The two numbers mentioned above may stand each for a numerous class, regarding the other bulk of which particulars are scarcely needed. It would be easy, of course, to write at length upon the musicianship which knows how to be simple and amusing without a touch of vulgarity, but that is a merit long since recognised in the Savoy operas. The great point for a public wishing to be entertained by comic opera is that here they have the best thing going of the kind, and, especially, music so adapted to text and situation that its fitness seems to be intuitive; so light and pretty, yet so varied, that the ear cannot weary, and bearing on every page the impress – which many feel who cannot intellectually perceive – of high artistic gifts so used to a modest end as not to be degraded. The work, splendidly mounted and carefully performed, owes much to the leading artists – Mesdames Ilka von Palmay, Emmie Owen, Rosina Brandram, and Florence Perry; Messrs. Walter Passmore, C. Kenningham, Rutland Barrington, Scott Russell, and Scott Fishe.
2. The Musical Times 1896 July 1 37(641): 463, col. 1, paragraph 3 [unsigned news report]
AND SULLIVAN'S opera "The Grand Duke" is proving
a source of attraction at the Theater Unter Den Linden, in Berlin. The
libretto, it is true, partly on account of its weak German translation,
and partly, no doubt, owing to its subject, is meeting with but qualified
appreciation, but there can be no question as to the latter being accorded
with a full measure to the music, both by the general public and by the
critical voices in the press. "The music," says the Allgemeine Musik
Zeitung, "is of an exceeding gracefulness, full of finesse in
its invention and attractive in its instrumentation." again, in the Neue
Musikalische Presse, we read "After the ever-recurring valse and polka
measure of our own recent operetta productions, it was a refreshing experience
to listen to this music. Sullivan's couplets at once attract attention
by the originality of their rhythm, his choruses by their harmonic beauty.
The work once more contains a finely wrought quintet, which, however, demands
better interpreters than are to be found amongst the general run of operetta
transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 18 December 2000
updated 1 February 2001