THE importance of literary merit and dramatic consistency in an opera libretto, though by no means so fully recognised as it should be, is not so completely ignored at the present time as it was a generation since. The puerilities of the post Bunn furnish food for sarcasm at the hands of modern critics, some of whom are not ashamed even to denounce the absurdity of introducing drawing-room ballads into a dramatic piece. It was, therefore, with something like complacency that the more intellectual portion of the public received the announcement that Mr. W. S. Gilbert, one of the most poetical of English playwrights, and Mr. Arthur Sullivan, the most popular of English composers, were engaged together upon an opera. The result of their combined labours is now before the world in the shape of “The Sorcerer, an entirely new and original modern Comic Opera, in Two Acts.” As there is no particular connexion between the words and the music of this production, it may be as well to consider each separately. The plot of The Sorcerer runs as follows, the action being laid at the village of Ploverleigh, and the time that of the present day. Alexis, a young officer in the Guards (Mr. George Bentham), and son of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre (Mr. Richard Temple), is about to be betrothed to Aline (Miss Alice May), daughter of Lady Sangazure (Mrs. Howard Paul). To celebrate this event the village rustics have assembled on the baronet’s lawn, where they sing the praises of the pair, and then retire into the mansion. Constance (Miss Giulia Warwick), daughter of Mrs. Partlett, a pew-opener (Miss H. Everard), explains her abstention from the general joy, by an avowal of her unrequited love for the vicar, Doctor Daly (Mr. R. Barrington). That worthy now appears, and sings of the time when he was “a pale-faced curate,” and the adored of the ladies. But he refuses altogether the proffered love of Constance, who for some reason is attired as a charity-girl. Amid a blaze of limelight the bride-elect enters, and the contract is signed in the presence of a deaf old notary (Mr. Clifton), the parents of the lovers meanwhile indulging in a minuet on the lawn. Left alone with his betrothed, Alexis expounds his principles on the subject of love, declaring that indiscriminate marriage is the only remedy for all the ills of life. With a view to benefiting his fellow-creatures he has engaged the services of Mr. Wells (Mr. G. Grossmith, jun.), head of a firm of family sorcerers in St Mary Axe, to supply a quantity of the patent-oxy-hydrogen-love-at-first-sight Philtre. Mr. Wells arrives, gets through a terrific incantation, and the drink is brewed in a teapot. The whole village partakes of it when feasting in honour of the event of the day, and as its effects begin to manifest themselves the curtain falls. In the next act we see the dire consequences of Alexis’ hasty action. Sir Marmaduke is in love with Mrs. Partlett; Constance insists upon having the old notary; and Lady Sangazure hotly pursues Mr. Wells (the sorcerer), offering to go and serve in the shop if he will take her as his bride. Alexis now insists upon Aline taking a dose of the philtre, in order to bind her to him for ever. She obeys him with reluctance, and immediately afterwards comes across the Vicar, who is strolling about the village playing the flageolet. Of course she at once becomes enamoured of him, and the game of cross-purposes is thus complete. The youthful guardsman sees his error, and would undo it, but is informed by the sorcerer that some one must be a victim in order to dissolve the charm. Before a general assembly the choice falls upon Mr. Wells himself as the author of the mischief. This highly respectable tradesman declares it to be very awkward for him to die just then, as the firm take stock next week; but eventually he submits, takes poison, and, after carefully brushing his hat, descends through a trap amid red fire. The spell is immediately broken, there is a general change of partners, and the piece comes to an end. If the reader has had patience to follow these remarks thus far, he will probably be disposed to ask whether it be meet that the English opera of the future should be founded upon such a farrago of nonsense as this. Burlesque and opera are not synonymous terms, and if it be conceded that the former has a legitimate place in art, it should not come before us sailing under false colours. The truth would seem to be that the authors of The Sorcerer have been misled by the unanimous verdict of approval that greeted their former efforts in Trial by Jury. A new vein was struck in that inimitable production, but it is one which cannot be worked very far, to judge from the present sample. The placement of familiar things in the midst of the most incongruous surroundings was highly diverting at the outset, but the expansion of the idea is inducive to weariness and disgust. There are some points in the literary portion of the Sorcerer quite worthy of Mr. Gilbert’s genius. The best of his muse has ever been to lash with unsparing severity the ordinary weaknesses and imperfections of poor human nature, and this characteristic is still prominent, though less offensively so than in some of his pieces. But Mr. Gilbert is nothing if not a cynic, and when he lays aside the scourge he is dull. Hence in certain scenes in the new “opera” we seem to be assisting at a children’s pantomime rather than at an entertainment intended for those of riper years. With regard to the music, it must be understood that the few observations which it is necessary to make are the result of but one hearing of the work, the score being at present inaccessible for reference. Mr. Sullivan has not thought it necessary to write an overture, the introduction which stands in place thereof being, although pretty enough, totally devoid of the form generally accepted among musicians. In the first act the earliest number which claims attention is the Vicar’s song, “Time was when love and I,” in which the mock sentiment of the words is happily reproduced. So in the duet between the baronet and the dowager in the contract scene. The stately measure of the minuet, and the set phrases uttered by the dignified pair – interspersed as these are by sudden outbreaks of genuine feeling – are in Mr. Sullivan’s best vein. The patter song of the sorcerer, “O my name is John Wellington Wells,” though clever, savours of the music-hall, and we pass on to the finale of the first act, a remarkably well-written number, melodious as to the themes, piquant as an excerpt from Auber. Early in the second act occurs a quintett for the principal voices partly unaccompanied, containing some smooth facile part-writing; but of greater originality is the Vicar’s song, “O my voice is sad and low,” wherein the singer plays his own interlude on the flageolet. The second finale is of much less importance than the first, and the work, musically speaking, seems to arrive at a premature conclusion. The orchestration is almost invariably effective, and in many places suggestive of quaint humour. The contrast to the noise and vulgarity of the opéra-bouffe school is as marked as it is welcome. In short, although there are many weak numbers in The Sorcerer, enough of merit remains to cause regret that so much talent should have been expended in a worthless cause. With regard to the performance it is impossible to speak otherwise than in terms of praise. There is no star of the first magnitude among the principals, but each artist seems singularly well suited to the part assigned to him or her. Miss Giulia Warwick, Mr. Temple, Mr. Barrington and Mr. Grossmith may be singled out as being slightly the best where all are good. Great pains have evidently been taken to secure an efficient orchestra and chorus, and the result in both cases is excellent. The Sorcerer may suit the popular palate, and thus prove of benefit to its authors; but as a step towards the dawn of a brighter era for English opera it is worse than valueless.
transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 9 November 2000