Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Topsy-Turvy World: Gilbert and Sullivan Blew a Raspberry at Victorian Society's Prized Institutions

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Topsy-Turvy World: Gilbert and Sullivan Blew a Raspberry at Victorian Society's Prized Institutions

Article excerpt

Is anything sadder than a satire that has outlived its usefulness, its bite blunted, its venom turned syrupy? That, for many people, is the problem with the operettas of W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. In mythological travesties such as La Belle Helene, Offenbach exposed the licentiousness of France's Second Empire, and Strauss in Die Fledermaus laid bare the easy-going cynicism of imperial Vienna. One society frenetically can-cans to its doom, the other waltzes around in self-forgetful circles. But, as the musicologist Wilfrid Mellers once complained, "no abyss" gapes beneath the Victorian society whose foibles are teased by G & S. The Penzance pirates may appear to be free-thinking outlaws; in fact they are errant noblemen, pardonable--as they assert-because they love their Queen.

Put off by the tired, smug productions that the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company were in the habit of shunting around the provinces, I used to agree with the dismissal of G & S as apologists for Victorian complacency. That surely accounts for their popularity in backwoods America, which has never outgrown the pious materialism of the 19th century: one amateur G & S troupe, based in Media, Pennsylvania, boasts of its affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist Church. Yet it was in New York during the 1980s that I changed my mind, after seeing The Pirates of Penzance with Kevin Kline as a rampant buccaneer and Linda Ronstadt as the ditsy Mabel. Even the anaemic music sounded good when performed by a rock singer like Rex Smith, who concluded Frederic's aria about duty with a groaning cadenza full of feral mating noises worthy of Elvis. So far, I've seen nothing to equal this production, with the possible exception of Jonathan Miller's Mikado for English National Opera, which rejoiced in the murderous anarchic madness of the piece. But I live in hope, and cross my fingers that ENO's The Gondoliers, which opens this weekend, will be an improvement on the company's recent Pirates, unwisely imported from Chicago.

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Whenever I'm disappointed, I blame Sullivan's music and exonerate Gilbert's words. They were an ill-matched pair, as Mike Leigh made clear in Topsy-Turvy, his film about their fraying relationship. Gilbert's grumpy rancour chafed against Sullivan's sleek self-aggrandisement; one man's sharp, pointed words were muffled by the other's indomitably cheery music. Left to his own devices, Sullivan composed a soundtrack for the pomp and circumstance of Victorian society: a jubilee hymn that was sung in every English church in 1897, a setting of "Onward Christian Soldiers", a "Te Deum" that marked the end of the Boer war. Queen Victoria herself, when knighting Sullivan, urged him to concentrate on grand opera, and he dedicated his lame, officious setting of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe to her. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, Sullivan had been trained by his Mendelssohnian teachers to make Europe yawn; instead, lucratively led astray by Gilbert, he made London and New York laugh and whistle. But he thought operettas were beneath him, and could not forgive his own betrayal of his lofty calling.

Gilbert, celebrating G & S as a global brand in 1897, told Sullivan that they were "as much an institution as Westminster Abbey". Yet they specialised in ridiculing Victorian institutions and their spurious, invented traditions. Trial by Jury assails the venality and partiality of the law, and The Pirates of Penzance jeers at the police as bumbling oafs. HMS Pinafore acknowledges that Britain's imperial spoils were obtained by the threat of force with Little Buttercup hailing the sailors as "men-o'-war's men, safeguards of your nation". Iolanthe mocks the bewigged parades of the House of Lords with braying trumpets, and allows a grumbling sentry to suggest that when MPs vote in the House of Commons they leave their brains at the door. …

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