The Gondoliers


Review transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 1  February 2001
The Musical Times 1890 January 1 31(563): 22-23 [unsigned review]

    THE new opera of Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan was produced at the Savoy on the 7th ult. with enormous success, and at once bade fair to occupy the stage for a very long time. At the premières of "Ruddigore" and the "Yeomen of the Guard" the audience were not wholly free from misgiving as to the abiding popularity of those works. It was felt that author and composer had turned over a new leaf, and, in the act, passed from a page stamoed wit htheir own individuality to one in which they could only hope for divided possession. The question was whether, in the new work, they would persevere or retrace their steps. Of the two courses the second obtained preference, and, amid general approval, "The Gondoliers" made itself known as a comic opera of the old type, full of Mr. Gilbert's strange conceits and curious inversions; full, also of Sir Arthur Sullivan's most humorous music. For ourselves, we share the general satisfaction. Our admiration for the "Yeomen of the Guard" as a musical melodrama was strongly expressed, but the world must have its laugh, and it is a good thing when men who can provoke mirth in harmless fashion exercise their vocation.
    It would be superfluous to give details of the story of "The Gondoliers" on the present occasion. They are familiar to every reader, and we shall only advert with brevity to those features from which the libretto acquires its distinctiveness. The plot is simple enough, and may claim to be one of Mr. Gilbert's best, inasmuch as it is strong where his "arguments" are generally weak namely, in the last act. The imbroglio smooths out naturally and at the right moment. There is, of course, abundant love interest, though the author has not chosen to make love his principal motive. Three pairs of lovers, yet the tender passion is, as a moulding force, subordinate! This is unusual, and has the inevitable effect of throwing the lovers, as such, into the background; the girls, especially, though amusing on the stage, having very little significance with regard to the plot. We find the motive of the opera in the circumstances attending the high politics of Barataria, out of which spring the confusion as to which of the two gondoliers is the rightful sovereign; the curious arrangement of a joint kingship till the mystery is cleared up, and all the chain of grotesque incidents following thereupon. From the same source arise, moreover, the opportunities for Mr. Gilbert's inevitable sarcasm. In every one of his operas he has a favourite butt which he assails with the slings and arrows of humour, not always good humour. The absurdities that cling like barnacles to thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers are the butt in this case. Mr. Gilbert's Spanish grandee, impecunious and proud, yet quite willing to be exploited by a limited liability company, is funnily "shown up," but so, in order to be quite fair, is the Republican gondolier, who expresses the greatest contempt for kings till he hears of his own chance in that line, and then he declares, "I've a very poor opinion of the politician who is not open to conviction." The flatterers who surround thrones have their turn:

And noble lords will scrape and bow,
     And double them into two,
             And open their eyes
              In blank surprise
At whatever she likes to do.
     And everybody will roundly vow
     She's fair as flowers in May,
             And say "How clever!"
             At whatsoever
             She condescends to say.
Mr. Gilbert is funniest when he gets his two men (but only one king) on the throne of Barataria a state which combines strict despotism with absolute equality, in which, therefore, the joint monarchs have to polish their one crown and furbish their solitary sceptre for themselves. The ex-gondoliers make themselves useful about the palace in truly Gilbertian fashion:
           Then we go and stand as sentry
           At the Palace (private entry)
Marching hither, marching thither, up and down, and to and fro,
          While the warrior on duty
           Goes in search of beer and beauty
(And it generally happens that he hasn't far to go).
Then there is the picture of an easy-going king who promoted everybody:
Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats,
And Bishops in their shovel hats
Were plentiful as tabby cats
In point of fact, too many.
Ambassadors cropped up like hay,
Prime ministers, and such as they,
Grew like asparagus in May,
And Dukes were three a penny.
So does the author's lively humour play with the grave and solemn personages of State, to the great delight of popular feeling, at a time when reverence for pomps and dignities is a diminishing quantity. How in every scene and situation, political, amorous, or festive, the Gilbert conceits abound, and the most respectable and venerated notions are presented standing on their heads, everybody can imagine, and will take for granted the fact that the book is thoroughly amusing.
    "The Gondoliers" contains some of Sir Arthur Sullivan's very best contributions to light music. In certain respects it is not up to the more serious effort made in the "Yeomen of the Guard," but as music for a comic opera we must pronounce it simply perfection. The melodies flow on as though unpremeditated, their spontaneity being no less delightful than their tunefulness and propriety of expression. They are, moreover, equally humorous with the words, and in some occult way, which, perhaps, the composer could not explain, seem to blend with the verbal expression till the two are one to the minutest shade. This is a merit all can feel, and goes far to make the songs and concerted pieces irresistible. Sir Arthur has scored his music simply, but with a dainty touch. He humours the quality of each instrument till it becomes completely individualised, and the orchestra appears as a merry company, not less full of fun than the occupants of the stage. At the same time there is a graceful and pleasing musical effect, gained by the exercise of consummate skill. Almost every number in the work might be put before a student of orchestration as an example not only of what to follow, but, much more, of what to avoid. We refrain now from mention of particular pieces. The music will, in a little while, be published, and then we may with more ease and advantage discuss the composer's method and its results. Enough now that whoever hears the music in "The Gondoliers," hears a good thing, full of life, vivacity, and point, but always refined and artistic.
    The first performance was, as always at the Savoy, very complete and equally successful. All went well; the scenery and appointments gave delight to the eye; the orchestra and chorus, conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan in person, were excellent, and the principal artists, if not uniform in merit, were all more or less equal to the task assigned them. We may mention, with special approval, Mr. Wyatt, Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Denny (whose clear enunciation was a pattern for all to follow), Mr. Courtice Pounds, Mr. Barrington, Miss Ulmar, Miss Jessie Bond, and Miss Decima Moore, a young and engaging débutante who, to all appearance, has an excellent future. The reception of the opera was uproariously cordial.

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