by W. S. GILBERT and ARTHUR SULLIVAN
The School Hall
March 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th
Granted that Sullivan's overture is not very much more than a marshalled selection of things to come; that a communicative audience did not deem the show to have commenced before the curtain rose; that "The sun, whose rays are all ablaze" was beautifully played by the oboe and accompanied by the rest; that rehearsals for the complete orchestra may have been difficult to secure, all these things granted, it cannot be denied that the playing of the overture was noticeably lacking in crispness and incisiveness. Remembering a similar weakness in last year's performance of The Pirates of Penzance, may we suggest that rather more care be devoted to the prelude of any future opera that may be performed?
The opening number of Act I brought us to the second and major weakness of the production: the vocal anaemia of the male chorus. For while as to their movements and gestures the gentlemen of Japan were an amusing and well trained body, throughout the evening they sent into the hall far less than their due quota of tone. Since criticism should be constructive, we would suggest that three possible courses be considered on a future occasion: an increase in their number; more elaborate preparatory vocal training; and the frequent testing of their effectiveness from the body of the Hall.
If we have dealt somewhat solemnly with the main defects of the production, it is because its general excellence and great enjoyableness most definitely entitle it to an attempt at critical assessment.
Without a programme, no one would have suspected that G.E.Lloyd-Jones had taken up the part of Nanki-Poo only four days before the first performance to fill the gap caused by the illness of E.N.Duff. Lloyd-Jones has a clear, firm and sympathetic voice and sang with admirable sureness and unfaltering rightness of pitch in his one solo number ("A wand'ring minstel I"), in the duet with Yum-Yum ("Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted"); and in the various concerted numbers, where his clean-cut vocal line was always noticeable. Thanks to excellent enunciation, his words were clearly audible and, even in the dialogue passages, he was all but independent of the prompter. If his acting was restrained, it may be said, first, that the part will hardly bear extensive individualisation and, second, that the scene with Yum-Yum in Act I, with much delaying behind fans, was as charmingly played as it could have been.
Dressed first in lemon yellow, then in a pale and flowered pink, L.N.Billson was a delightful Yum-Yum. There was a smiling grace and artlessness in his acting and a vernal freshness in his singing that made us sorely regret the relative smallness of the part. The one solo number, "The sun, whose merry rays are all ablaze," with its lovely accompaniment of clarinet and muted strings, was perfectly done and clamorously encored, and in all the concerted numbers, including the finales, this soprano most surely and musically held his own, rising to a sustained but effortless A in the Tra-la-la-la's of "The flowers that bloom in the spring."
Yum-Yum had an excellent foil in Pitti-Sing, to whose character P.E.Colinese gave an admirably definite stamp of self-possession, sophistication and impudence, qualities that were amusingly heightened by his diminutive stature. Musically it is a long and not unintricate part, prominent in both finales and involved in many of the concerted numbers, and it had been most admirably mastered. Any defect in vocal quality was amply compensated for by absolute sureness and by the clearest enunciation. The slight part of Peep-Bo, the third sister, was played with rather less assurance by R.F.Cresey. A.L.Dallas gallantly attacked the role of Katisha, for which he was neither vocally nor histrionically suited. For he has little of the vocal power necessary for the thwarted and seething Katisha of the first finale and for the big numbers of Act II, while here was our most graceful female impersonator cast for a part where angularity had been a virtue.
We return to the men. Beneath layers of paint, a completely unrecognizable W.I.Allen made an excellent job of the Mikado. Splendidly attired in black and gold, with tapering finger-nails and nodding head-gear, gap-toothed and leering, he gave an admirably unctuous and entertaining performance as the bloodthirsty oriental roue. It was an important success, for, even on the particular dramatic plane of comic opera, the characters and fortunes of his subjects appreciably gained in vividness and significance before this forbidding imperial figure.
As the most loyal of those subjects, Pish-Tush, A.C.Green made a distinct hit. Admirable in its gestures, this unsmiling performance had its own oriental callousness. His singing was vigorous, and superbly undisturbed by its own limitations.
As Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, S.T.Southgate gave a capitally humorous impersonation of physical and mental inflation. Admirably did this rogue flop to the earth, struggle aloft, amble, waddle and shuffle across the stage. A well-judged and well-sustained delivery kept this creature constantly alive and even tided over its more tiresome humours. Regarding self-decapitation, "A man might try"; agreeing with Katisha's contention that her face is unattractive, "It is" a repetition of what the Mikado had not quite caught, "Mercy even for Pooh-Bah": these and other observations were made in monumental accents unerringly comic. And the house rewarded them. Vocally, Southgate was adequate for the part, most effective, perhaps, in the toast of Nanki-Pooh in the first finale.
The comicality of Pooh-Bah is essentially grotesque; but the figure of Ko-Ko, however fantastic are the bases of his situation, has a deeper, mellower humour, something allied to, and hinting at, the tragi-comedy of life itself. And to this Ko-Ko D.G.Knappett, with a neatness of gesture and an expressiveness of intonation all his own, did brilliant justice. One thinks of him inspecting the chorus with intermittent bobs in his opening scene; or irritably brushing aside Nanki-Pooh's intended suicide, then seizing on it and inimitably portraying the splendours of Execution Day. But above all one thinks of the Ko-Ko of Act II, deep in the soup, cheerfully extricating himself or desperately accepting the inevitable, and ever and anon flapping possessively down the avenues of his sea-girt garden. One looked forward to his every return to the stage and to the laughter that would follow. His voice was firmly prominent in the texture of the concerted numbers; of uneven power in his solos; at its best in "Tit willow," the epitome of his whole interpretation.
The Mikado is an opera of concerted numbers, and, if the balance of the voices was not always perfect, the buoyant and confident rendering of these duets and trios and quartets, their smooth and firm integration, were eloquent of hard work and unflagging rehearsal.
One constituent of the cast remains to be mentioned, the Chorus of Schoolgirls. With the gayest and prettiest of kimonos, apple-red cheeks and a profusion of jet-black hair, a detachment of the Lower School had again been utterly translated (overheard in the auditorium: "Jolly good show; where do they get all the girls from?") and grouped and tripped and wound their picturesque way through the evening, a delightful element of movement and colour. Their singing was often a good deal thinner than we could have wished, yet in justice to both sections of the Chorus it must be recorded that both the finales were sung with rousing vigour and that the drowning of Katisha's voice with bursts of Japanese at the end of Act I was particularly well done.
Apart from the Overture and a few other movements, Mr. Belchambers, the Musical Director, secured admirably firm and sensitive playing from his orchestra and allowed the beauty and variety of Sullivan's score, with its marked prominence of wood-wind, most satisfyingly to emerge. Mr. Belchambers did much more. In weeks of steady rehearsal his infectious devotion to the job had won from his singers and players that sureness and alertness, that responsive and responsible team work, which constitute for them the crowning value of a production of this kind and for the spectators the basis of their enjoyment.
Mr. Skinner, the Assistant Musical Director, had had charge of the training of the soloists. The music was thoroughly known; a splendid standard of audibility was maintained; and in every respect Mr. Skinner had admirably exploited the material at his command.
The work of the Producer, Mr. Gerald Matthews, was in evidence in a hundred gestures and groupings, and appreciation of it is implicit in much of what has been written above.
Suffice it to add that fans were flicked with flawless precision and that there was never a falter in the movements of the principals or the peregrinations of the chorus; and to recall two outstanding movements: the entrance of the chorus in backward moving phalanx as they heralded the Mikado, and the groupings that accompanied "The flowers that bloom in the spring," with Pooh-Bah on one knee before Pitti-Sing, for all the world an ecstatic bishop of the Middle Age.
Reckless of candle-power Mr. Arthur and his assistants gave us the radiant Nippon of prohibitive cruises, but lacked either the courage or the equipment for an effective spotlight on Katisha in the gloaming of the first finale.
The opera was lavishly mounted. But it played to crowded houses and, notwithstanding the expenses entailed, a substantial profit resulted. For this the credit is largely due to Mr.Watson and Mr.Durrant, the Advertising Managers, and to Mr.Rayner, who, supported by Mr.Emery, pursued the sale of tickets of every price and hue with immense calm and energy. Further valuable services were rendered by Mr. Hyde and F.C.Carpenter, who were accompanists at the rehearsals; by Mr. Brobyn, who helped with the make-up; and by Mrs. Curl and her helpers, who were responsible for the fitting of the costumes.
Co-operating long and loyally under Mr. Belchambers' energetic captaincy, this large and multifarious company gave us performances of high endeavour and solid achievement, most musical, fair and gay.