THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. The Monthly Musical Record 1880 May 1 10: 59-60 [unsigned review]

THERE is a certain amount of originality even in inventing a description for a stage piece, and for this, if not for anything else the joint authors of The Pirates of Penzance are to be complimented. The last work which these continuous caterers to the select audiences of the Opera Comique have put before their intelligent patrons is represented to be a "melodramatic opera," and we congratulate them on the novelty of the idea. But nobody has ever been able to define the melodrama in its modern and very variable sense, and if any one is able to define the melodramatic opera on the basis of this first specimen he is more fortunate than we are. On the whole, we are inclined to think that the description, whatever freshness it may display, was an afterthought of that most delightful humorist Mr. W. S. Gilbert to justify a tout ensemble which, conceived with a single purpose, has resulted in many.
    The book is not bad, except by comparison with other books form the same hand. On the whole, the mere literary work is better than we are accustomed to from translators of grand opera or librettists of opera in English. There is a quaint eccentricity of idea in several of the incidents which amuses sufficiently in most cases to justify the sublime anxiety not to speak too fast displayed by the ladies and gentlemen who have to interpret them. But those who ask for action in fun and dialogue will be dissatisfied, and the admirers of the Gilbertonian manner themselves will think some of the details attenuated to the point of satiety. There are not enough plot and dramatic complication to excite interest, much less to sustain it; there are too much “very clever”-ness and too little feeling in the spoken matter leading up to the musical situations to allow the composer the chance of an effect without leaving the situations a good deal behind him. That Dr. Sullivan has left Mr. Gilbert behind him wherever the setting is most striking will hardly be denied, for the setting is striking in passages although somewhat difficult to reconcile with the unities. Here a graceful love passage, here a lively patter song, here an impressive chant, here a pathetic prayer, present the varied charms of melody, energy, or religious sentiment. If at times we are bewildered as to whether we are at the Oxford or at Exeter Hall, if we are in doubt as to whether the next number will be in the style of negro minstrelsy or an oratorio, still the music is generally good of its kind. We do not exactly see the connection with the tone and obvious idea of the story. But in the same manner as we are amused by Mr. Gilbert’s play, which is hardly a play, so we cannot help being on the whole entertained by Dr. Sullivans’s music, which is rather more than a setting.
    There is generally nothing particularly exceptionable on the ground of taste in the joint productions of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan. But here once or twice there seems to be a hint at satirising Church forms which might have been gracefully avoided.  The ensemble sung kneeling in the first act, and the Sergeant’s song with responses by the police in the second, are cases in point. We may have formed a wrong impression on these heads, but the very possibility of such an impression appears to have been a mistake.
    In the story – what story there is – a youth, Frederick, [sic] has been apprenticed until twenty-one to a band of desperadoes – the Pirates of Penzance. The last day of his servitude has come, and although he has been conscientiously faithful hitherto, he feels it equally imperative to betray and hunt down his present masters as soon as the clock striking twelve relieves him of his obligations to them. He tells them so in one of those scenes of frank simplicity which Mr. Gilbert has utilised under variations in many pieces. This strictly scrupulous young gentleman – Frederick, not Mr. Gilbert – has seen but one lady in his life. She occupies a position of credit among his comrades, is called Ruth, and is in love with their apprentice. There is another naïve episode between them, in which he puts this elderly female upon her honour to declare whether she is as handsome as she has always endeavoured to persuade him that she is. The apparition of a bevy of girls, the daughters of a General Stanley, settles the doubt. Ruth vanishes, and Frederick hides, in order not to frighten the lovely visitors. But – was the incident suggested by "Diplomacy"? – when they are about to paddle in the water, and after they have taken off one shoe each, Frederick’s honesty or modesty compels him to reveal himself, and they make a somewhat ridiculous attempt at flight upon one foot. In the end, however, they change their minds, and stay to be wooed in a body as follows:–

  Oh! is there not one maiden breast
     Which seems to feel the moral beauty
  Of making worldly interest
      Subordinate to sense of duty?
  Who would not give up willingly
      All matrimonial ambition
  To rescue such a one as I
      From his unfortunate position?
The appeal is for some while a vain one, but ultimately Mabel, who appears to be the eldest of twenty young ladies of eighteen, offers herself as a sacrifice, and mutual love at first sight is the immediate consequence. While the lovers exchange confidences the sisters employ themselves in discussing the weather in couples on their knees, with details of "business" which make the audience laugh, but almost border upon silliness. The Pirates arrive and seize each a girl, whom they are about to marry, when the General in turn appears, and for the moment they are awed. Still it is only when the uphappy father proclaims himself an orphan, a species which the Pirates have never allowed themselves to injure, that the departure of the captives is allowed. Frederick goes with them, the episode, with the despair of the forsaken Ruth, affording an effective tableau for the close of the act.
    In the second act which opens with the grief of the General for having described himself as an orphan when he is "not one, and has never been one," Frederick, now a military officer, despatches a body of police to exterminate the Pirates. The Pirate King and Ruth surprise him during their absence, and explain that he having been born on the 29th of February in leap-year, and his birthday coming but once in four years, he is is not twenty-one as supposed, but five years and a fraction.   Although the idea is not very new, Frederick feels in honour bound to return to his old masters, and there is a dissension on the point with Mabel, and a parting. One remembers little else except a ladies’ night-cap episode, followed by discomfiture of the Pirates, the discovery that they are noblemen who have gone wrong, forgiveness all round, and a general marriage. When we add that now and then there is a touch in which an American audience might see "something funny" at the expense of John Bull’s pride or weakness, we may leave the plot.
    It is only where the situations are thoroughly ludicrous that the music is in obvious sympathy with the book. We have such conformity in two or three songs of the negro type. There is no necessity to particularise them; but it may be mentioned that without originality of treatment amounting to a surprise, they are marked with that briskness and fluency of  "musical business" which Dr. Sullivan has before utilised to good effect. It is a pity that they lose something by the frivolity of the "stage business" devolving upon the chorus; the dog quiver with which the young ladies support the General’s song and the bâton trumpeting of the policemen to the Sergeant’s song would probably have been called feeble or silly had any other than Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan been concerned. Those restrained and lengthy scenes of the author in which the characters exchange gentlemanly jocularity or mixed society irony are not reflected in the work of the composer. Indeed, it would be no easy task to give musical expression to this phase of the Gilbertonian philosophy. The love scenes might have been less difficult to deal with, but the satirical or humorous undertone of the book does not seem, at least to our sense, to enter into this portion of the setting. Here, it is true, Dr. Sullivan has written some pleasing and some tender melody, but we have failed to catch the comic by-play which, however slightly, might have linked the music to the words. Apart from the songs above mentioned, Mr.Gilbert’s successes and Dr. Sullivan’s successes in The Pirates of Penzance are separate events, and while you smile with the former and almost cry or pray with the latter you feel a little tired of both. The piece as a whole drags, and the cause is a want of thoroughness and unison in its intention.
    Except in the cases of Messrs. Temple and Barrington, who act and sing, the performance of the characters is only moderately good. But for Miss Cross, the ladies one and all seem to be affected with the tremolo manner. The mounting is good, and the orchestra well chosen. The orchestration is unequal; in some parts it is excellent, in others marked by carelessness or indifference, so as to be scarcely worthy of the composing director.


transcription provided by Jackie Flowers, March 2001