THE THEATRE. 'THE SORCERER.' The World. 1877 November 21 7(177): 10 [unsigned review]

A 'COMEDY Opera Company (Limited),' having Mr. D'Oyly Carte for its manager, has opened the Opera Comique Theatre, in the Strand, with a view to the establishment there of English comic opera. The season has commenced auspiciously enough, with a new work entitled The Sorcerer, the book being provided by Mr. W. S. Gilbert, and the music by Mr. Arthur Sullivan. It must be understood , however, that The Sorcerer is not a comic opera of the school of the Parisian opéra comique, which permits, if it does not absolutely insist upon, the introduction of much matter of a romantic and sentimental complexion, and is oftentimes not more comical than serious. The Sorcerer is in truth a burlesque, the story claiming applause on the score of its absurdity and extravagance, and differing little in kind from other of its author's productions. There is some intention to caricature modern life, the scene is laid in an English village, and the characters wear the costumes of to-day. But as in the old-world farce of The Devil to Pay, and in many fables of later date, magical intervention occurs, and the incidents forthwith terminate their connection with reality and become wholly fantastic. A young guardsman of philanthropic disposition, with a lively faith in matrimony as a panacea, obtains the assistance of a dealer in necromancy, and administers love-potions to all the tenants and peasantry upon his father's estate. The magic draught, like the juice of 'the little western flower on sleeping eyelids laid,' makes 'or man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees;' there is consequently much whimsical pairing off among the characters. When the drollery thus arising has been more than sufficiently exhibited the spell is dissolved, the dramatis personæ resume their ordinary state and habits, and the story ends very much where it began. The eccentricity displayed in such works as The Sorcerer is of a mechanical sort, and apparently Mr. Gilbert is more skilled in tying than in untying dramatic knots; his plays invariably weaken towards their close, and leave the audience not unamused, but certainly unsatisfied. Extravagance is always exhausting, and farcical ideas should not be laboriously harped upon; moreover Mr. Gilbert's fun lacks variety of form, and suffers from an overflavouring of sarcasm. He has a keen sense of the ridiculous, but his mood is too persistently splenetic, and the laughter he excites pertains perhaps rather to contempt than to genuine mirth. His liveliness is without exhilarating qualities, and his writings generally may be likened to those sparkling wines which are very effervescent, but surely deleterious in their results. The Sorcerer, however, contains many really ludicrous passages, and in opera, as the late Examiner of Plays pointed out when, prohibiting La Dame aux Camélias, he licensed La Traviata, 'the story is subsidiary to the music and singing.' Mr. Gilbert's share in the work often won deserved applause from the audience.
    Music may be quaint and vivacious, and can suggest caricature by a system of attaching pompous strains to commonplace incidents or to colloquial language; it may be questioned, however, whether music can ever be really and intrinsically humorous. For instance, the lullaby or 'bacon song' in Cox and Box has a droll effect in the operetta; yet sung with sedate words it obtains general acceptance as a serious berceuse. Mr. Sullivan's music to The Sorcerer rarely savours of burlesque; the majority of the songs, removed from their place in the play, would pass muster among the ordinary effusions of musical sentiment and sobriety. The score contains many graceful and fluent numbers, and is clearly the work of a skilled and facile composer; but that it will enhance Mr. Sullivan's reputation can hardly be said. It is difficult, however, to dissociate the reputation Mr. Sullivan enjoys from the reputation so many were ready to promise him; for it was hoped at one time that he would soar with Mendelssohn, whereas he is content, it seems, to sink with Offenbach. The Sorcerer is, of course, an unambitious work; but a belief prevailed that Mr. Sullivan would devote himself wholly to ambitious efforts. In some respects the composer has been placed at a disadvantage: stories dealing with love-elixirs have been very successfully set to music by Donizetti and by Auber; and it must be confessed that with Le Philtre and L'Elisir d'Amore this new opera of The Sorcerer cannot afford comparison. Mr. Sullivan, indeed, suffers because of the memorable merits of his predecessors. And the unsympathetic scheme of Mr. Gilbert's book has cruelly limited the opportunities of the musician; he has not been allowed to sound one plaintive note, to convey the lightest hint of tenderness. It is, perhaps, surprising, the nature of the subject being considered, that he should have been so frequently dainty and elegant in his themes. His system of orchestration is wanting, perhaps, in richness and colour, but it is well sustained, and presents certain ingenious combinations without undue straining after new effects. Altogether the music assuredly pleases if its originality never startles. The airs usually follow prescription, and sometimes charm again in right of their having charmed before. Mr. Sullivan is laudably considerate of his singers, and avoids overtaxing their resources or intrusting them with ungrateful duties. His concerted pieces are often very adroitly harmonious.
    The opera had the advantage of excellent performance. The chorus and orchestra are of adequate strength and skill, and every part is adequately sustained. Mr. Bentham, known at one time as Signor Bentamo, sings the tenor music of Alexis, the benevolent guardsman, with much spirit; and he is well assisted by Miss Alice May, who owns a resonant soprano voice and employs it energetically. Mr. Barrington appears as a country clergyman, and acts and sings with singular artistic humour; the character of the Sorcerer, Mr. Wells, who is supposed to be the travelling agent of a firm of family conjurers in St. Mary Axe, being sustained with vivid grotesqueness by Mr. G,. Grossmith jun., who is new to the stage. A patter-song descriptive of Mr Wells's trade, with a catalogue of his wares, received a tumultuous encore, in right of its own facetiousness and the aptitude with which it was delivered. Favourable mention should also be made of Miss Everard's impersonation of Mrs. Partlett, a pew-opener; of Mrs. Howard Paul's exertions as Lady Sangazure; and of the performances musical and histrionic of Miss Giulia Warwick and Mr. R. Temple. The fall of the curtain brought with it the usual compliments to the author of the words, the composer of the music, and to all the performers.


transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 31 January 2001
updated 18 March 2007