OPERA COMIQUE. The Musical Times 1880 May 1 21(447): 230-231 [unsigned review]

    THE "Pirates of Penzance," produced at this establishment on the 3rd ult., adds one more to the many successes already achieved by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan. Unlike most operatic works, in which the composer is presumed to be the primary object of consideration, and a few laudatory remarks are therefore usually accorded to the author of the libretto, these "Comic Operas" are always regarded as the well-matured result of an artistic partnership which has been so firmly cemented by the public voice as to insure a ready response to its periodical appeals for support and encouragement. Without attempting to detract from the merits of either of the partners in this firm, there can be little doubt that their union is their strength. Mr. Gilbert, overflowing with a subtle wit and humour peculiarly his own, still rests for popular favour upon the musical colouring which no composer but Mr. Sullivan can so sympathetically convey; and Mr. Sullivan, with a command of the resources of his art, and more especially with a power of making his instruments almost laugh with his text, is ready at his hand to illustrate in sound the refined and clever burlesque of his colleague. Whatever then may be said of the future place of these works in the temple of Fame, there can be no question that there is a public ready and willing to receive them in the present day; and, with every recollection of their predecessors, we unhesitatingly declare "The Pirates of Penzance" to be a higher class of opera than any yet written by these authors. The plot has already been described in this journal,¹  on the production of the work at the small theatre of Paignton. It is true that the idea of apprenticing the hero to a Pirate, instead of a Pilot, is excessively extravagant; but then the Opera itself is an Extravaganza, and we are therefore not justified in questioning probabilities. The story, indeed, is trifling enough; but the excessive cleverness of the dialogue keeps the attention alive throughout. The scene with the pirates in the first act, the appearance of the pretty daughters of Major-General Stanley, who are discovered by the ex-pirate Frederick [sic] as they have each taken off a shoe to paddle in the water; the entrance of the stately Major-General himself, and his escape from the clutches of the sea-rovers by the fiction of declaring himself "an orphan"; the second act in the ruined chapel, bought by the Major-General, where, declaring he is a "descendant by purchase," he weeps over the tombs of his "ancestors," as a penance for the falsehood he has told to the pirates; the appearance of the policemen, the clever ruse by which Frederick is made to return to the pirates, and the final battle, in which the policemen are worsted, but remain masters of the situation when the pirates are commanded to surrender in the name of the Queen, are all incidents which, when thus circumstantially related, scarcely perhaps provoke a smile: but Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan know how to use these materials with so consummate a mastery of their art that even the most severely critical must fully acknowledge their power; and the laughter and applause which accompanied the entire performance amply proved that the efforts of both author and composer were fully appreciated. Mr. Sullivan's share of the work has been accomplished in his very best style. With some reminiscences of other composers especially of Auber there are occasional snatches of melody superior to anything in his former operas, and the concerted pieces are most cleverly constructed throughout. The chattering chorus of the girls in the first act, whilst the lovers are breathing their vows in the foreground, is one of the best pieces Mr. Sullivan has written; and mention must also be made of the whole of the music of the policemen, the excellent delivery of the solo parts by the Sergeant (Mr. Barrington) being one of the greatest successes of the piece. A melodious, but not very original, love-duet (termed a "Madrigal"), and some of the solos of Frederick likewise claim the warmest praise. It need scarecely be said that the delicate and sympathetic instrumentation accompanying the vocal pieces throughout charmed all musical ears, the effect no doubt being heightened by the skilful conducting of the composer, who has certainly the art of enforcing obedience to his bâton. The Opera was excellently cast, and the perfect manner in which it was given evidenced how careful had been its preparation under the personal superintendence of the authors. Unfortunately Miss Everard was ill, but her part was taken at short notice by Miss Emily Cross, who was received with applause, thoroughly earned by her clever acting and singing in the somewhat thankless part of the nurse, Ruth. Miss Marian Hood as Mabel (the General's daughter), although a novice, evinced both vocally and histrionically the possession of an exceptional talent. In several of her florid solos, and especially in the duet already alluded to, her very clever singing elicited warm and well-deserved plaudits. She has certainly much to learn; but so many vocalists take their "finishing lessons" before an audience that she need scarcely fear receiving kindly encouragement during her progress, which, with her intelligence, will no doubt be rapid. Mr. G. Grossmith has little to do, but he did that little well, his make-up as the Major-General being quite equal to that on former occasions in similar parts. Mr. G. Power has a somewhat weak voice, but he sang the music of Frederick with good effect; Mr. R. Temple, as the Chief of the Pirates, gave us as fine a specimen of true and unexaggerated burlesque singing and acting as can be imagined; his song "I am a Pirate King" being delivered with a mock declamatory energy which fairly convulsed his hearers; and Mr. G. Temple, as his Lieutenant, was thoroughly satisfactory. Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan were called forward both at the end of the first act and at the conclusion of the work; and the delighted auditors, who had encored nearly every piece in the Opera, seemed loth to allow them to retire.

¹ The Musical Times 1880 February 1 21: 70 (return to text)



transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 21 November 2000
updated 28 November 2000 and 8 May 2001