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(This is taken from R. A. Streatfeild's The Opera, originally published in 1907.)
BALFE—WALLACE—BENEDICT—GORING THOMAS—MACKENZIE STANFORD—SULLIVAN—SMYTH
Soon after the death of Purcell, the craze for Italian opera seems to have banished native art completely from the English stage. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the most popular form of entertainment consisted of operas set to a mixture of English and Italian words, but after a time the town, to quote Addison, tired of understanding only half the work, determined for the future to understand none of it, and these hybrid works gave place, after the arrival of Handel, to the splendid series of masterpieces extending from 'Rinaldo' to 'Deidamia.' From time to time attempts were made to gain a footing for English opera in London, and in 1728 'The Beggar's Opera' achieved a triumph so instantaneous and overwhelming as seriously to affect the success of Handel's Italian enterprise at the Haymarket Theatre. It is supposed, that the origin of 'The Beggar's Opera' is due to a remark of Swift's that 'a Newgate pastoral might be made a pretty thing.' Gay borrowed the idea, and constructed 'The Beggar's Opera' round a cut-throat highwayman of the name of Macheath, while Dr. Pepusch arranged the music from old English and Scotch melodies, together with some of the most popular tunes of the day. The success of the work was very remarkable. It was performed sixty-two times during the first season, and even now is still to be heard occasionally. It was the foundation of that exceedingly simple form of art, the English ballad opera, which was so widely popular in London during the closing years of the eighteenth century, and early in the nineteenth. At first composers availed themselves largely of traditional or popular tunes in arranging the music which diversified the dialogue of these works, but as time went on they became more ambitious, and the operas of Storace and his contemporaries are for the most entirely original.
Meanwhile an attempt had been made by Arne to adapt the mannerisms of the Italian stage to English opera. His 'Artaxerxes,' which was produced in 1762, was constructed strictly upon the lines of Italian opera, being made up throughout entirely of airs and recitative. It had a most encouraging reception, but the enterprise seems to have borne little fruit, for after a few years we hear no more of English opera 'after the Italian manner,' and London seems to have been content with Italian opera and ballad operas of the already familiar type. The traditions of the latter were successfully carried on by Storace, a naturalised Italian, Dibdin, Shield, Hook, and many others, many of whose songs are still popular, though the works of which they once formed part have long been forgotten. The ballad operas of these composers were of unimaginable naïveté and depended entirely upon their simple tunefulness for such favour as they won. Sir Henry Bishop (1786-1855) raised the artistic standard of this form of art considerably. There is real musical interest in some of his concerted pieces, and many of his choruses, which are familiar to us under the incorrect name of glees, are capitally written. Had Bishop possessed the necessary energy and enterprise, he might have founded a school of English opera which would have compared favourably even with its continental contemporaries.
To John Barnett (1802-1890) belongs the credit of writing the first English opera, strictly so called, since Arne's 'Artaxerxes.' 'The Mountain Sylph,' which was produced in 1834, fulfils all the requirements of the operatic form. It is besides a work of genuine charm and power, and retained its popularity for many years.
It is unfortunate for the memory of Balfe (1808-1870) that the one opera by which he is now remembered, the perennial 'Bohemian Girl,' should be perhaps the least meritorious of his many works. It lives solely by reason of the insipid tunefulness of one or two airs, regardless of the fact that the plot is transcendentally foolish, and that the words are a shining example of the immortal balderdash of the poet Bunn. In the first act Thaddeus, an exiled Polish rebel, finds refuge among a tribe of gipsies, who disguise him in order to enable him to escape his pursuers. While among them he saves the life of Arline, the six-year-old daughter of Count Arnheim, an Austrian nobleman. Arnheim, in delight at recovering his child, invites Thaddeus and his companion Devilshoof, the leader of the gipsies, to a banquet, at which the Emperor's health is proposed. The two supposed gipsies refuse to drink it, whereupon Devilshoof is seized and imprisoned, while Thaddeus, at the Count's earnest entreaty, is allowed to go in freedom. Devilshoof contrives to make his escape, and in revenge for the treatment he has received steals the little Arline, whom he carries off to the gipsy camp. Twelve years have passed when the second act begins. Arline has grown up to womanhood, but all the other characters remain at precisely the same age as in the first act. Thaddeus loves Arline, and is himself beloved by the gipsy queen, who vows the innocent girl's ruin. By her machinations Arline is accused of theft, and is taken to be tried by her own father. The inevitable recognition ensues, and upon Thaddeus disclosing his true position he is rewarded with Airline's hand. During the betrothal feast the gipsy queen attempts Arline's life, but the shot, in a manner which even Bunn himself might have found difficult to explain, recoils and strikes her who aimed it.
Balfe had to the full his share of that vein of maudlin sentiment which is typical of one side of the Irish character. He appears to have had little ambition, and was content throughout his career to fit his saccharine melodies to whatever words the librettists of the day chose to supply. No one can deny him the possession of fluent and commonplace melody, but there his claim to musicianship ends.
Wallace (1814-1865) was more of a musician than Balfe, but his best-known work, 'Maritana,' is but little superior to 'The Bohemian Girl.' Maritana, a street singer, has attracted the attention of the King of Spain. Don José, one of the courtiers, determines to help the King in his amour, in order that he may afterwards use his infidelity as a means of advancing himself in the favour of the Queen. There is a law against duelling in the streets of Madrid, and a certain spendthrift nobleman, Don Cæsar de Bazan, has rendered himself liable to death for protecting a poor boy named Lazarillo from arrest. Don José promises the condemned man that he shall be shot instead of hanged, if he will consent to marry a veiled lady an hour before the execution, intending thus to give Maritana a position at court as the widow of a nobleman. Don Cæsar consents to the arrangement, but Lazarillo takes the bullets out of the soldiers' rifles, so that the execution does not end fatally, and Maritana is not a widow after all. Don Cæsar finds his way to a villa in the outskirts of Madrid, where he not only has the satisfaction of putting a stop to the King's attentions to Maritana, but performs the same kind office for the Queen, who is being persecuted by Don José. For the latter performance he receives a free pardon, and is made Governor of Valentia. 'Lurline,' an opera constructed upon the Rhenish legend of the Loreley, has perhaps more musical merit than 'Maritana,' but the libretto is more than usually indefinite.
Wallace rivalled Balfe in the facility and shallowness of his melody. Yet with all their weaknesses, his operas contain many tunes which have wound themselves into popular affection, and in the eyes of Bank-Holiday audiences, 'Maritana' stands second only to 'The Bohemian Girl.'
Sir Julius Benedict (1804-1885), though German by birth, may conveniently be classed as an Englishman. Trained in the school of Weber, he was a musician of a very different calibre from Balfe and Wallace. His earlier works, 'The Gipsy's Warning' and 'The Brides of Venice,' are now forgotten, but 'The Lily of Killarney,' which was produced in 1862, is still deservedly popular.
It is founded upon Boucicault's famous drama, 'The Colleen Bawn.' Hardress Cregan, a young Irish landowner, has married Eily O'Connor, a beautiful peasant girl of Killarney. The marriage has been kept secret, and Hardress, finding that an opportunity has arisen of repairing the fallen fortunes of his house by a rich marriage, contemplates repudiating Eily. Eily refuses to part with her 'marriage lines,' whereupon Danny Mann, Hardress's faithful henchman, attempts to drown her in the lake. She is saved by Myles na Coppaleen, a humble lover of her own, who shoots Danny Mann. Eily's narrow escape has the result of bringing Hardress to his senses. He renounces his schemes of ambition, and makes public his marriage with Eily. Benedict's music touches a higher level than had been reached by English opera before. He was, of course, directly inspired by Weber, but there runs through the opera a vein of plaintive melancholy which is all his own. The form in which 'The Lily of Killarney' is cast is now somewhat superannuated, but for tenderness of melody and unaffected pathos, it will compare very favourably with many more pretentious works which have succeeded it. Sir George Macfarren (1813-1887) was a prolific writer for the stage, but of all his works 'Robin Hood' is the only one which is still occasionally performed. It has little of the buoyancy which the theme demands, but there is a great deal of sound writing in the concerted music, and some of the ballads are tuneful enough in a rather commonplace way. Edward James Loder (1813-1865) was a good musician, and under more favourable conditions might have produced work of permanent interest. His best-known work is 'The Night Dancers,' an opera founded upon the legend which has been used by the Italian composer Puccini in his 'Le Villi.'
About the middle of the nineteenth century the destinies of English opera were controlled by a company presided over by Miss Pyne and Mr. Harrison, for which Balfe and Macfarren wrote a good many of their works. In more recent times the place of this institution was taken by the Carl Rosa company, which was founded in 1875 by a German violinist named Carl Rosa. Such opportunities as were presented to English musicians, during the latter part of the last century, of hearing their works sung upon the stage were principally due to his efforts. One of the first works actually written in response to a commission by Carl Rosa was 'Esmeralda,' an opera by Arthur Goring Thomas (1851-1892), which was produced in 1883. It is founded upon Victor Hugo's 'Notre Dame,' and the libretto was written by T. Marzials and A. Randegger.
Esmeralda, a gipsy street singer, is loved by the profligate priest Claude Frollo, who with the assistance of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame, tries to carry her off by night. She is rescued by Phoebus de Châteaupers, the captain of the guard, who speedily falls in love with her. Frollo escapes, but Quasimodo is captured, though, at Esmeralda's entreaty, Phoebus sets him once more at liberty. In gratitude the dwarf vows himself to her service. Frollo is mad with rage at seeing Phoebus preferred to himself; he assassinates the captain and accuses Esmeralda of the crime. She is condemned to death, but is saved by the appearance of Phoebus, who was not killed after all, and opportunely turns up in time to rescue Esmeralda. Frollo attempts once more to murder Phoebus, but the blow is received instead by Quasimodo, who sacrifices himself for Esmeralda's happiness. When the opera was produced in French at Covent Garden in 1890, the composer introduced several alterations into the score. An elaborate air for Esmeralda in the prison was the most important of the additions, and the close of the opera was also materially changed. It was generally thought, however, that the original version was the more successful. Thomas's training and sympathies were thoroughly French, and except for the words 'Esmeralda' has very little claim to be called an English opera. The score is extremely graceful and charming, and it is only at the more dramatic moments that the composer fails to do justice to his theme.
In 'Nadeshda,' an opera written upon a Russian subject, which was produced in 1885, there was much charming music, but the libretto was uninteresting, and the success of the work never equalled that of its predecessor. The most attractive part of the opera was the delightfully quaint and original ballet music, to which local colour was given by clever orchestration and ingenious use of Russian rhythms.
To the initiative of the Carl Rosa company was due the production of Mr. Frederick Corder's 'Nordisa,' a work of undoubted talent though suffering from a fatal lack of homogeneity, and of two operas by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. The first of these, 'Colomba,' was produced in 1883. It achieved a success, but the gloomy character of the libretto prevented it from becoming really popular. It is founded upon Prosper Mérimée's famous Corsican tale. The father of Orso and Colomba della Rebbia has been treacherously murdered by two of the family of Barracini. Colomba is burning for vengeance, but her brother is an officer in the French army, and has been absent from Corsica for many years. When he returns she finds that his love for Lydia, the daughter of the Count de Nevers, has driven thoughts of revenge from his mind. She succeeds, however, in rousing him to action, and one day he kills both the murderers, though wounded himself by a cowardly ambush. He has to take to the mountains for refuge, and there he remains, tended by Lydia and Colomba, until news of his pardon comes. It is too late, however, to save the life of Colomba, who has been mortally wounded in endeavouring to divert the soldiers from Orso's hiding-place. Mackenzie's music is exceedingly clever and effective. He uses guiding themes with judgment and skill, and his employment of some old Corsican melodies is also very happy. 'Colomba' is a work which eminently merits revival, and it will be probably heard of again. 'The Troubadour,' which was produced a few years later, failed completely. The story is thoroughly dull, and completely failed to inspire the musician. Sir Alexander Mackenzie has recently completed the score of an opera on the subject of Dickens's 'Cricket on the Hearth,' the production of which is awaited with much interest.
During the closing years of the nineteenth century the fortunes of English opera, never very brilliant, reached a lower point than at any time in our musical history. The Carl Rosa opera company fell upon evil days, and was compelled to restrict its energies almost entirely to the performance of stock operas, while at Covent Garden the opportunities afforded to native composers were few and far between. In these disheartening circumstances it is not surprising that English musicians were not encouraged to devote their powers to a form of art in which so little prospect of success could be entertained. What they might have achieved under happier conditions the operatic career of Sir Charles Stanford suggests in the most convincing manner. Stanford is a composer whose natural endowment conspicuously fits him for operatic work, and he has grasped such opportunities as have been vouchsafed to him with almost unvarying success. Had he been blessed with a more congenial environment he would have taken rank with the foremost operatic composers of his time.
His first opera, 'The Veiled Prophet,' was originally performed at Hanover in 1881, but was not actually heard in London until it was produced at Covent Garden in 1894. The libretto, an admirable condensation of Moore's well-known poem from the pen of Mr. W. Barclay Squire, gave the composer ample opportunities for picturesque and dramatic effect. Stanford's music is tuneful and vigorous throughout, and such weaknesses as are occasionally perceptible are due rather to inexperience of the stage than to any failure in inspiration.
'The Canterbury Pilgrims,' written to a libretto by Gilbert à Beckett, which was produced in 1884, was happily named by some one at the time an English 'Meistersinger,' and indeed it is not difficult to imagine what model Stanford had in his mind when writing his brilliant and genial opera, Geoffrey, the host of the Tabard Inn, has a pretty daughter named Cicely, who is loved by the jovial apprentice, Hubert. Geoffrey finds out their attachment, and determines to sent Cicely upon a visit to an aunt in Kent, in company with a body of pilgrims who are just starting for Canterbury. Sir Christopher Synge, a knight of Kent, has cast sheep's eyes upon the pretty girl, and hearing of her intended trip bids his factotum, Hal o' the Chepe, assemble a company of ragamuffins, and carry her off on her way to Canterbury. Hubert contrives to get enlisted among them, so as to be able to watch over his sweetheart, and Dame Margery, Sir Christopher's wife, also in disguise, joins the pilgrims, in the hope of keeping an eye upon her errant spouse. In the second act the pilgrims arrive at Sidenbourne. Dame Margery helps the lovers to escape, and taking Cicely's place receives the vows and sighs of her husband. In the third act the lovers have been overtaken and caught by the irate Geoffrey, and Hubert is dragged to trial before Sir Christopher. After an amusing trial scene, the knight discovers that Cicely is one of the culprits, and at once pardons them both. Geoffrey is persuaded to forgive the young couple, and all ends happily, Stanford's music is a happy compromise between old and new. In his use of guiding themes, and in his contrapuntal treatment of the orchestra he follows Wagner, but his employment of new devices is tempered by due regard for established tradition. He is happiest in dealing with humorous situations, and in the lighter parts of the opera his music has a bustling gaiety which fits the situation very happily. In the more passionate scenes he is less at home, and the love duet in particular is by no means entirely satisfactory. Stanford's next work, 'Savonarola,' was performed in London for the first time by a German company under Dr. Hans Richter in 1884. Interesting as much of the music is, the performance was not successful, partly owing to the almost unmitigated gloom of the libretto. Far the best part of the work, both musically and dramatically, is the prologue, which tells of the love of Savonarola for Clarice, of her marriage, and of his renouncement of the world. The merit of this scene is so great that it might be worth the composer's while to produce it as a one-act opera, in which form it would be safe to predict for it a genuine success.
Stanford's next work for the stage was 'Shamus O'Brien,' a romantic opera dealing with a typically Irish subject, which was produced in 1896 with great success. The form of the work is that of a genuine comic opera, the dialogue being interspersed throughout with music, but although less ambitious in form than his earlier works, 'Shamus O'Brien' has a deeper artistic importance. With all its cleverness and ingenuity, 'The Canterbury Pilgrims' is German in method and expression, and it is merely by the accident of language that it can be classed as British opera at all. In 'Shamus O'Brien' the composer drew his inspiration from the melodies and rhythms of his native Ireland, and the result is that his work ranks as an original and independent effort, instead of being merely a brilliant exercise.
In 1901 Sir Charles Stanford's 'Much Ado about Nothing' was produced at Covent Garden. The libretto by Julian Sturgis is a clever adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy, in which the action is judiciously compressed into four scenes without any incidents of importance being omitted. First we have the ball at Leonato's house, with some love-making for Claudio and Hero, and a wit-combat between Beatrice and Benedick. Here, too, Don John hatches his plot against Hero's honour, and Don Pedro unfolds his scheme for tricking Beatrice and Benedick into mutual love. The second act takes place in Leonato's garden. Claudio serenades his mistress, who comes down from her balcony and joins him in a duet. Then follows the cozening of Benedick, and the act ends effectively by Don John showing to Claudio the supposed Hero admitting Borachio to her chamber. The third scene is in the church, following Shakespeare very closely, and the last takes place in an open square in Messina with Hero's tomb on one side, where, after a scene with Dogberry, Borachio confesses his crime, and Hero is restored to her lover. Stanford's music is a masterly combination of delicate fancy and brilliant humour, and when serious matters are in hand he is not found wanting. A distinctive feature of the work is the absence of Wagnerian influence. Stanford uses guiding themes, it is true, and often in a most suggestive manner, but they do not form the basis of his score. If foreign influence there be in 'Much Ado about Nothing,' it is that of Verdi in his 'Falstaff' manner. Like Verdi Stanford strikes a true balance between voices and instruments. His orchestra prattles merrily along, underlining each situation in turn with happy emphasis, but it never attempts to dethrone the human voice from its pride of place. Like the blithe Beatrice, 'Much Ado about Nothing' was born under a star that danced. It overflows with delicious melody, and its orchestration is the ne plus ultra of finished musicianship. Since its production in London it has been performed with great success in the provinces by the Moody-Manners opera company, and has lately been produced in Germany.
Dr. Frederic Cowen is another of our English musicians who, in more favourable circumstances, would doubtless have proved himself an operatic composer of distinction. 'Pauline,' a work founded upon 'The Lady of Lyons,' which was played by the Carl Rosa company in 1876, seems to have won little success. 'Thorgrim,' produced by the same company in 1889, was more fortunate. The plot is founded upon an Icelandic saga, and has but little dramatic interest. There is much charm in Dr. Cowen's music, and some of the lighter scenes in the opera are gracefully treated, but his talent is essentially delicate rather than powerful, and the fierce passions of the Vikings scarcely come within its scope.
'Signa' (1893), an opera founded upon Ouida's novel of that name, showed traces of Italian influence. It was produced at Milan with considerable success, and was afterwards given in London. In 'Harold' (1895), Dr. Cowen attempted too ambitious a task. The tale of the conquest of England was ill suited to his delicate muse, and the opera achieved little more than a succès d'estime.
Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) was the most successful English composer of opera during the later years of the nineteenth century. His name is of course principally associated with the long series of light operas written in conjunction with Mr. W.S. Gilbert; but it must not be forgotten that he also essayed grand opera with no little success.
The experiment made by the Carl Rosa company in 1899 of playing his early oratorio, 'The Martyr of Antioch,' as an opera had, not unnaturally, very little success, but 'Ivanhoe' (1891) showed that Sullivan could adapt his style to the exigencies of grand opera with singular versatility. 'Ivanhoe' was handicapped by a patchy and unequal libretto, but it contained a great deal of good music, and we have probably not heard the last of it yet. For the present generation, however, Sullivan's fame rests almost entirely upon his comic operas, which indeed have already attained something like the position of classics and may prove, it is sincerely to be hoped, the foundation of that national school of opera which has been so often debated and so ardently desired, but is still, alas! so far from practical realisation.
Sullivan's first essay in comic opera dates from the year 1867, which saw the production of his 'Contrabandista' and 'Cox and Box,' both written to libretti by Sir Frank Burnand, and both showing not merely admirable musicianship and an original vein of melody, but an irresistible sense of humour and a rare faculty for expressing it in music. 'Thespis' (1871) first brought him into partnership with Mr. Gilbert, a partnership which was further cemented by 'Trial by Jury' (1875). It was 'Trial by Jury' that opened the eyes of connoisseurs to the possibilities lying within the grasp of these two young men, whose combined talents had produced a work so entirely without precedent in the history of English or indeed of any music. The promise of 'Trial by Jury' was amply borne out by 'The Sorcerer' (1877), which remains in the opinion of many the best of the whole series of Gilbert and Sullivan operas—but indeed there is hardly one of them that has not at one time or another been preferred above its fellows by expert opinion. 'The Sorcerer' naturally gave Sullivan more scope than 'Trial by Jury.' Here for the first time he showed what he could do in what may be called his old English vein, in reproduction of the graceful dance measures of old time, and in imitations of Elizabethan madrigals so fresh and tuneful that they seem less the resuscitation of a style long dead than the creation of an entirely new art-form. In a different vein was the burlesque incantation, a masterpiece of musical humour, in which the very essence of Mr. Gilbert's strange topsy-turvydom seems transmuted into sound.
In 'H.M.S. Pinafore' (1878) Sullivan scored his first great popular success. 'The Sorcerer' had appealed to the few; 'Pinafore' carried the masses by storm. In humour and in musicianship alike it is less subtle than its predecessor, but it triumphed by sheer dash and high spirits. There is a smack of the sea in music and libretto alike. 'Pinafore' was irresistible, and Sullivan became the most popular composer of the day. 'The Pirates of Penzance' (1880) followed the lines of 'Pinafore,' with humour perhaps less abundant but with an added touch of refinement. There are passages in 'The Pirates' tenderer in tone, one might almost say more pathetic, than anything Sullivan had previously written, passages which gave more than a hint of the triumphs he was later to win in that mingling of tears and laughter of which he had the secret In 'Patience' (1881) musician and librettist mutually agreed to leave the realm of farcical extravagance, and to turn to satire of a peculiarly keen-edged and delicate kind—that satire which caresses while it cuts, and somehow contrives to win sympathy for its object even when it is most mordant. There are people nowadays who have been known to declare that the "æsthetic" movement had no existence outside the imagination of Mr. Gilbert and 'Mr. Punch.' In the eighties, however, everybody believed in it, and believed too that 'Patience' killed it. What is quite certain is that, whoever killed it, 'Patience' embalmed it in odours and spices of the most fragrant and costly description, so that it has remained a thing of beauty even to our own day. In 'Iolanthe' (1882) Mr. Gilbert reached the dizziest height of topsy-turvydom to which he ever climbed, and set Sullivan to solve what was perhaps the most difficult problem of his whole career. To bring the atmosphere of fairyland into the House of Lords was a task which the most accomplished master of musical satire might well have refused, but Sullivan came victoriously through the ordeal. His 'Iolanthe' music, with its blending of things aërial with things terrene, and its contrast between the solid qualities of our hereditary legislators and the irresponsible ecstasy of fairyland is one of the most surprising feats of musical imagination that even his career can furnish. In 'Princess Ida' (1884), which is, so to speak, a burlesque of a burlesque, his task was easier. 'Princess Ida' contains some of his most brilliant excursions into the realm of parody—parodies of grand opera, parodies of the traditional Handelian manner, parodies of sentimental love-making—but it also contains some of the purest and most beautiful music he ever wrote. Some of Sullivan's melodies, indeed, would be more fitting on the lips of Tennyson's romantic princess than on those of Mr. Gilbert's burlesque "suffragette". 'Princess Ida' was not appreciated at its true value and still awaits its revenge, but in 'The Mikado' (1885) the two collaborators scored the greatest success of their career. The freshness and novelty of its surroundings—Japan had not then, so to speak, become the property of the man in the street—counted for something in the triumph of 'The Mikado,' but it is unquestionably one of the very best of the series. Mr. Gilbert never wrote wittier or more brilliant dialogue, and Sullivan never dazzled his admirers by more astonishing feats of musicianship. 'Ruddigore' (1887) was less successful than any of its predecessors. If the satire of 'Princess Ida' was just a shade above the heads of the Savoy audience, the satire of 'Ruddigore' was perhaps a shade below them. 'Ruddigore' is a burlesque of transpontine melodrama, and a very good burlesque too; but the Savoy audience knew next to nothing about transpontine melodrama, and so the satire was missed and the piece fell flat. It was a pity, because Sullivan's music was in his happiest manner. There may yet, however, be a future for 'Ruddigore,' 'The Yeomen of the Guard' (1888) opened fresh ground. For the moment Mr. Gilbert turned his back upon topsy-turvydom and Sullivan approached the frontiers of grand opera.
'The Yeomen of the Guard' has a serious plot, and at times lingers on the threshold of tragedy. Sullivan caught the altered spirit of his collaborator with perfect sympathy, and struck a note of romantic feeling unique in his career. With 'The Gondoliers' (1889) the scene brightened again, and merriment reigned supreme once more. Perhaps at times there was a suspicion of weariness in Mr. Gilbert's wit, and some of Sullivan's melodies had not all the old distinction of manner, but the piece was an incarnation of liveliness and gaiety, and its success rivalled the historic glories of 'The Mikado.' With 'The Gondoliers' came the first solution of continuity in the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Differences arose; Mr. Gilbert retired from the councils of the Savoy Theatre, and Sullivan had to look out for a new collaborator. He found one in Mr. Sydney Grundy, and their 'Haddon Hall' was produced in 1892. In spite of charming music, reflecting very gracefully the old English atmosphere of the story, its success was only moderate, and the world of music was much relieved to hear that the differences between Mr. Gilbert and the Savoy authorities had been adjusted, and that the two famous collaborators were to join forces once more. Unfortunately 'Utopia' (1893) echoed but faintly the magical harmonies of the past. The old enchantment was gone; the spell was shattered. Both collaborators seemed to have lost the clue that had so often led to triumph. Again they drifted apart, and Sullivan turned once more to his old friend, Sir Frank Burnand. Together they produced 'The Chieftain' (1894), a revised and enlarged version of their early indiscretion, 'The Contrabandista.' Success still held aloof, and for the last time Sullivan and Mr. Gilbert joined forces. In 'The Grand Duke' (1896) there were fitful gleams of the old splendour, notably in an amazing sham—Greek chorus, which no one but Sullivan could have written, but the piece could not for a moment be compared to even the weakest of the earlier operas. The fate of 'The Beauty Stone' (1898), written to a libretto by Messrs Pinero and Comyns Carr, was even more deplorable. Fortunately Sullivan's collaboration with Captain Basil Hood brought him an Indian summer of inspiration and success. 'The Rose of Persia' (1900), if not upon the level of his early masterpieces, contained better music than he had written since the days of 'The Gondoliers,' and at least one number—the marvellous Dervish quartet—that for sheer invention and musicianship could hardly be matched even in 'The Mikado' itself. There was a great deal of charming music, too, in 'The Emerald Isle' (1901), which Sullivan left unfinished at his death, and Mr. Edward German completed.
During his lifetime, Sullivan was called the English Auber by people who wanted to flatter him, and the English Offenbach by people who wanted to snub him. Neither was a very happy nickname. He might more justly have been called the English Lortzing, since he undoubtedly learnt more than a little from the composer of 'Czar und Zimmermann,' whose comic operas he heard during his student days at Leipzig. But Sullivan owed very little to anyone. His genius was thoroughly his own and thoroughly English, and in that lies his real value to posterity. For if we are ever to have a national English opera, we shall get it by writing English music, not by producing elaborate exercises in the manner of Wagner, Verdi, Massenet, Strauss, or anybody else. Most great artistic enterprises spring from humble sources, and our young lions need not be ashamed of producing a mere comic opera or two before attacking a full-fledged music-drama. Did not Wagner himself recommend a budding bard to start his musical career with a Singspiel? It is safest as a rule to begin building operations from the foundation, and a better foundation for a school of English opera than Sullivan's series of comic operas could hardly be desired.
In his younger days Sullivan had many disciples. Alfred Cellier, the composer of the world-famous 'Dorothy,' was the best of them. Edward Solomon was hardly more than a clever imitator. The mantle of Sullivan seems now to have fallen on Mr. Edward German, who besides completing Sullivan's unfinished 'Emerald Isle,' won brilliant success with his enchanting 'Merrie England.' His 'Princess of Kensington' was saddled with a dull libretto, but the music was hardly inferior to that of its predecessor, and much the same may be said of his latest work 'Tom Jones.'
The recent performances of English composers in the field of grand opera have not been very encouraging. Few indeed are the opportunities offered to our native musicians of winning distinction on the lyric stage, and of late we have been regaled with the curious spectacle of English composers setting French or German libretti in the hope of finding in foreign theatres the hearing that is denied them in their own. Miss Ethel Smyth is the most prominent and successful of the composers whose reputation has been made abroad. Her 'Fantasio' has not been given in England, but 'Der Wald,' an opera in one act, after having been produced in Germany was given at Covent Garden in 1902 with conspicuous success. The libretto, which is the work of the composer herself, is concise and dramatic. Heinrich the forester loves Röschen, the woodman's daughter, but on the eve of their marriage he has the misfortune to attract the notice of Iolanthe, the mistress of his liege lord the Landgrave Rudolf. He rejects her advances, and in revenge she has him stabbed by her followers. This is the bare outline of the story, but the value of the work lies in the highly poetical and imaginative framework in which it is set. Behind the puny passions of man looms the vast presence of the eternal forest, the mighty background against which the children of earth fret their brief hour and pass into oblivion. The note which echoes through the drama is struck in the opening scene—a tangled brake deep in the heart of the great stillness, peopled by nymphs and fauns whose voices float vaguely through the twilight. Every scene in the drama is tinged with the same mysterious influence, until at the close the spirit-voices chant their primeval hymn over the bodies of the lovers in the gathering night. Miss Smyth's music has the same mastering unity. The voice of the forest is the keynote of her score. Perhaps it can hardly be said that she has altogether succeeded in translating into music the remarkable conception which is the foundation of her libretto. Had she done so, she might at once have taken her place by the side of Wagner, the only composer of modern times who has handled a philosophical idea of this kind in music with any notable success. But her music has an individual strain of romance, which stamps her as a composer of definite personality, while in the more dramatic scenes she shows a fine grip of the principles of stage effect. Her latest work 'Strandrecht,' in English 'The Wreckers' (1906), was produced at Leipzig, and shortly afterwards was given at Prague. It has not yet found its way to London. The scene is laid in Cornwall in the eighteenth century. The inhabitants of that wild coast, though fervent Methodists, live by 'wrecking,' in which they are encouraged by their minister. Thurza, the minister's faithless wife, alone protests against their cruelty and hypocrisy, and persuades her lover, a young fisherman, to light fires in order to warn mariners from the dangerous coast. The treachery, as it seems to the rest of the villagers, of Thurza and her lover is discovered, and after a rough-and-ready trial they are left in a cavern close to the sea to be overwhelmed by the rising tide. Miss Smyth's music is spoken of as strongly dramatic, and marked by a keen sense of characterisation.
The operas of Mr. Isidore de Lara, a composer who, in spite of his name, is said to be of English extraction, may conveniently be mentioned here. It is generally understood that the production of these works at Covent Garden was due to causes other than their musical value, but in any case they do not call for detailed criticism. Mr. de Lara's earlier works, 'The Light of Asia,' 'Amy Robsart,' and 'Moina' failed completely. There is better work in 'Messaline' (1899). The musical ideas are poor in quality, but the score is put together in a workmanlike manner, and the orchestration is often clever. The libretto, which recounts the intrigues of the Empress Messalina with two brothers, Hares and Helion, a singer and a gladiator, is in the highest degree repellent, and it would need far better music than Mr. de Lara's to reconcile a London audience to so outrageous a subject. Mr. de Lara's latest production, 'Sanga' (1906), does not seem to have sustained the promise of 'Messaline.' Another composer whom necessity has driven to ally his music to a foreign libretto is Mr. Herbert Bunning, whose opera 'La Princesse Osra' was produced at Covent Garden in 1902. Mr. Alick Maclean, whose 'Quentin Durward' and 'Petruccio' had already shown remarkable promise, has lately won considerable success in Germany with 'Die Liebesgeige.'
Scanty is the catalogue of noteworthy operas with English words produced in recent years. The most remarkable of them are Mr. Colin MacAlpin's 'The Cross and the Crescent,' which won the prize offered by Mr. Charles Manners in 1903 for an English opera, and Mr. Nicholas Gatty's 'Greysteel,' a very able and musicianly setting of an episode from one of the Norse sagas, which was produced at Sheffield in 1906.
It is difficult to be sanguine as to the prospects of English opera. Circumstances are certainly against the production of original work in this country, though it is legitimate to hope that the recent revival of interest in Sullivan's works may lead our composers to devote their energies to the higher forms of comic opera. Anything is better than the mere imitation of foreign models which has for so long been characteristic of English opera. By turning to the melodies of his native land, Weber founded German opera, and if we are ever to have a school of opera in England we must begin by building upon a similar foundation.
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