MUSIC. THE WEEK. SAVOY THEATRE. 'Iolanthe,' a Fairy opera in Two Acts. By W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
The Athenæum 1882 December 2 2875: 743-744 [unsigned review]

    UTTERLY opposed as are the extravagant productions of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan to the music dramas of Richard Wagner in spirit and intent, they are alike in this, that the literary element is of at least equal importance with the musical in their construction; and it is questionable whether criticism of a new work should not rather come under the head of drama than of music. With libretti of the ordinary type Mr. Sullivan might not have sufficient impetus, nor perhaps opportunity, to impart a flavour of high-class musicianship to his scores; but, on the other hand, Mr. Gilbert is fortunate in being associated with a composer whose knowledge and ability enable him to combine the serious with the grotesque the union of which constitutes the most humorous feature of these singular productions. It will be unnecessary in this place to give a minute account of the course of action in 'Iolanthe,' as the piece has been described at length in the daily prints, and its peculiar merits are not such as may give rise to wide divergencies of opinion. Though, as played last Saturday night, it errs on the score of length and needs a little compression in the second act, it is, on the whole, worthy of Mr. Gilbert's reputation; and in the association of scenes and ideas of every-day life with circumstances utterly at variance with the laws of possibility it is the most striking and laughable since 'H.M.S. Pinafore.' Some persons have professed to discern a political significance in the introduction of the House of Peers as a mark for the author's pleasantries; but it is scarcely reasonable to suppose that the satire is to be taken seriously. For the rest Mr. Gilbert's method is unique and inimitable; though one or two foolish attempts in the way of imitation have been made, it will necessarily expire with him, and his pieces, therefore, cannot be accepted as the foundation of a national style of comic opera.
    Of the music of 'Iolanthe' it is only possible to speak from impressions gained at the performance, as the score is not yet published. The overture is more regular in form than those of previous works, but it is weak in substance, and the opening numbers of the opera also afford slight evidence of Mr. Sullivan's ability. A pompous march and chorus of peers is the first piece that arrests the attention; and the lengthy and elaborate finale of the first act includes some extremely effective episodes in which a high degree of musicianship and the spirit of true comedy are displayed side by side. In the second act we note more especially the quaint sentry's song; a pretty duet for female voices, with pizzicato accompaniment, "In vain to us you plead"; an admirable caricature of the sentimental ballad; and, most original of all, a "patter" song descriptive of nightmare. Mr. Sullivan has written few cleverer things than the weird accompaniment to this song. Throughout the orchestra is treated with a masterly hand; and though critics may regret that the composer's distinguished talent is not more frequently employed in connexion with higher forms of art, yet it must be freely acknowledged that the score of 'Iolanthe' is as far superior to those of foreign opéra bouffe composers as is Mendelssohn's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' to ordinary pantomime music. The performance of the new opera is noteworthy for excellence of ensemble and the evidence of first-rate stage management. Of the principals, Mr. Grossmith for humour, and Miss Jessie Bond, Miss Alice Barnett, Miss Leonora Braham, Mr. R. Temple, and Mr. Manners for vocal ability, are worthy of mention. The orchestra and chorus are numerous and of excellent quality, and the mise en scène is clever and artistic.


transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 11 January 2001
updated 29 October 2006