Richard H. Trame
S.J. Ph.D. Loyola Marymount University
Sir Arthur Sullivan's talent for Comic Opera received its first stimulus in the creation of Cox and Box, or the Long Lost Brothers. By 1866, he successfully collaborated with F.C. Fernand of Punch who produced his libretto from Madison Morgan's play Locks and Box. The next collaboration between these two artists resulted in The Contrabundista produced with slight success in Saint George's Hall, a theatrical venture of Thomas German Reed. Later, at Reed's Royal Gallery of Illustration, Sullivan made his fateful acquaintance with William S. Gilbert.
Their first venture in 1871 produced the moderately successful, though now lost Christmas piece, Thespis. During the next decade, Sullivan gradually changed from a composer of serious substantial work (now largely forgotten) to an accomplished conductor and teacher. These factors, combined with his successful collaboration with W.S. Gilbert in the production of twelve comic operas, really accounts for his enduring reputation as a composer of unique versatility and achievement.
In March 1875, at the Royalty Theater, the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte presented Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial By Jury, a dramatic cantata. As the curtain raiser for his production of the popular Offenbach's frothy La Perichole. The audience, titillated earlier on with the moderately successful delights of Thespis, approached the opening evening with cautious anticipation. Surprised by and delighted with this novelty, they responded, "with uproarious shouts of approbation."
Unlike so many other ephemeral pieces, Trial By Jury has endured to delight later generations. Indeed in this "dramatic cantata" there emerged an art form distinctly English. So English that, with one or two notable exceptions, continental productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas failed to capture foreign imaginations, whereas their popularity has never waned in English speaking lands. Contrary to the baleful predictions of a disastrous decline after the D'Oyly Carte firm lost copyright control over these comic operas in 1966, recent stagings have evidenced a new freshness, improvement in performance standards, and imaginative settings.
D'Oyly Carte presented the idea to Gilbert of a one act trifle which would be set by Sullivan. Gilbert proposed the foundational idea of a breach of promise suit. From this apparently dry subject of a proceeding in a British court of law, he contrived with verbal inventiveness and playful sarcasm a libretto which, complete with Sullivan's spritely music, delightful choruses and dialogue was ready for rehearsal within a month. Trial By Jury stands as the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera without spoken dialogue.
Briefly, the plot: Hailed into the court by his spurned fiance, the defendant Edwin is charged with breach of promise to marry the plaintiff Angelina. He despairs that the all-male jury (chorus) when confronted with the plaintiff's beauty and her bevy of disappointed bridesmaids (chorus), will find in her favor. But the learned judge neatly resolves the case by deciding to wed the plaintiff himself. All express satisfaction at this outcome.
Impelled by the success of Trial By Jury, Richard D'Oyly Carte leased the Opera Comique Theatre and now formed a company devoted to the performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's works. Their next collaboration, The Sorcerer initially ran for an incredible (in those days) 175 performances. It was, however, H.M.S. Pinafore which fixed the pair as a uniquely English institution. Its immense popularity found testimony in numerous pirated productions, especially in the United States where D'Oyly Carte was eventually constrained to bring his production of Pinafore, to insure its authenticity. The genesis of H.M.S. Pinafore came about when Gilbert made use of one of his own earlier works, "Bab Ballads" wherein
"the worthy Captain Reece,
Commanding of the Mantelpiece"
exhibited such devotion to his crew that there was no conceivable luxury he did not provide for their comfort.
"A feather bed had ev'ry man,
Warm slippers and hot water can.
Brown Windsor from the Captain's store;
A valet, too, to ev'ry four."
Captain Reece found himself transformed into the equally kind Captain Corcoran, now of Her Majesty's Ship Pinafore. "Bab Ballads" furnished most of the basic characters and situations which Gilbert adapted into his artful banterings and satire on the staid disciplines and the institution of the august Royal Navy and its solemn "rulers". On May 25, 1878, three days after the closing of The Sorcerer, an expectant audience besieged the Opera Comique Theatre's box office hoping to snatch up at least the standing room only seats for the new show. A contemporary press report of the opening performance records:
"Seldom indeed have we been in the company of a more joyous audience, more confidently anticipating an evening's amusement than that which filled the Opera Comique in every corner. The expectation was fulfilled completely. Those who believe in the power of Mr. Gilbert to tickle the fancy with quaint suggestions and unexpected forms of humour were more than satisfied, and those who appreciate Mr. Arthur Sullivan's inexhaustible gift of melody were equally gratified. The result therefore was 'a hit, a palpable hit' - a success in fact that could be no mistaking, and which, great as it was on Saturday, will be more decided when the work has been played a few times."
Could any review have been more prophetic? The success of H.M.S. Pinafore rested not only in the spectacular combination of Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's music, but perhaps more especially in both their exacting professional standards of stagecraft, execution and staging. Gilbert modeled the Pinafore's quarterdeck after that of Nelson's great ship the Victory. Visiting this historic vessel at Portsmouth, he made minutely detailed sketches to insure authenticity to the last naval detail. Before he ever put the cast into production, he had blocked out with like precision every move they would make. Similarly, Sullivan demanded a strict and precisely accurate rendition of the music. During his compositional career, he had drawn on a great variety of musical resources including the music of Purcell, Handel, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Bizet. These influences he grafted with elements of native English comic opera and aspects of Victorian music making to create his delightfully cunning choral effects, brisk patter songs, tuneful airs and ballads. Since the music was so thoroughly and consciously wedded to the libretto's metered text, Sullivan realized that they could only attain their impact through his untiring demands on his singers for exactitude and precision in diction and rendition.
The consequence of their professionalism and inspiration raised Gilbert and Sullivan to the pinnacle of artistic success. Their immortality was assured as creators and perfectors of an entertainment medium supremely fitted to the foibles of their Victorian era, yet universal enough in appeal to entrance audiences long after the trappings of their age had disappeared.
The plot in brief:
The Pinafore's captain Corcoran proposes to give his daughter, Josephine, in marriage to the lord High Admiral, Sir Joseph Porter K.C.B. She is secretly in love with Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw. Punctilious in demanding expressions of courtesy to noble English seaman rather than a harsh disciplinary command, the Admiral loses his poise momentarily when he learns indirectly through the dastardly tattlings of Dick Deadeye that Josephine does not fancy him. Disaster for Rackstraw is narrowly averted when the Bumboat (service boat) woman Buttercup, enamored of Captain Corcoran, reveals that, in her earlier profession of "baby farming" she had mixed up two baby boys. Ralph Rackstraw was, in reality, the "wellborn babe", while Corcoran was he of "low condition". Then and there they exchange places. Ralph wins Josephine’s hand and Buttercup, Corcoran's. All of this resolution receives the final blessing of that generous monarch of the sea, Sir Joseph.