Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Gilbert & Sullivan: The First Performance of The Pirates of Penzance at Paignton in 1879.

Forty years ago, I had just finished ‘starring’ as a ‘pirate’ in the Coatbridge High School performance of The Pirates of Penzance. It is an experience that remains remarkably fresh in my mind. Nowadays, alas, I only manage to keep in touch with a couple of other ‘pirates’, one of General Stanley’s ravishing daughters and the Major General himself. It is a connection that I treasure.
However, looking back on those days, I have come to realise that one of the ‘spin offs’ from singing in the Pirates ( and the following two years so my activity in the chorus line of Iolanthe and The Mikado) was that you learnt a lot about G&S in particular and music in general. For example, a friend of mine (also a pirate) announced that he was off home to hear a Bach organ recital including the Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Dorian). At that time, I wondered what a ‘fugue’ was and mused over the word ‘Dorian.’ Not wishing to seem stupid, I grunted and then looked the terms up in my father’s Encyclopaedia Britannica. There was no Internet in those days.  Another thing I learnt was that The Pirates of Penzance had three ‘premieres’ one in New York, one in London , but before these two there was a single performance in Paignton.  Now to G&S aficionados this is common knowledge. However, I had recently been to that town and had walked past the building where The Bijou Theatre (now demolished) was situated. Therefore, the penny, metaphorically, dropped.
Just in case readers are not sure of this ‘historical drama’ I will quote a short extract from the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive which explains more succinctly that I can why the opera was first heard in that lovely sea-side town:-
‘After the sensational success of H.M.S. Pinafore, many American performing companies presented unauthorized versions of that opera. Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte decided to prevent that from happening again by presenting official versions of their next opera, The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty simultaneously in England and America. The opera premiered on December 31, 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York with Sullivan conducting, but a single performance had been given on the previous day at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, England, to secure the British copyright. Finally, the opera opened on April 3, 1880, at the Opéra Comique in London, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for over three months in New York.’

I recently came across a number of reviews of the Paignton performance in an old copy of the The Gilbert & Sullivan Society Journal (Autumn 1979: Volume X No.17).  I will quote a couple here and the remainder in a subsequent post.

“Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s New Opera”
Our Torquay correspondent telegraphs: A new opera in two acts by Messrs. A. Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert entitled The Pirates of Penzance, or Love and Duty, was produced yesterday afternoon in the presence of a most aristocratic audience at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, one of the prettiest bijou theatres in the country, by Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s company under the joint management of Mr. Ralph Horner and Mr. Herbert Brooke…[an account of the story followed]…Taken as a whole, the representation was a great success. The audience showed their appreciation not only by recalling the performers at the end of each act, but also demanding encores of several of the songs. Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 31st Decemeber 1879.

The reviewer at the Troubadour wrote:-
The Pirates of Penzance, Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s new comic opera, has seen the light of the English stage for the first time, at Paignton, of all places in the world. The bearings of that illustrious town our readers must discover for themselves. The reason for the extra-ordinary choice is simple enough. The first performance of the work at New York was to take place last Tuesday, and in order to secure English Rights the production in this country had to be simultaneous or previous. Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s company happened to be at Torquay and the neighbouring (?) Paignton was chosen as the scene of the important event alluded to. The performance accordingly came off before a small but select audience, amongst whom the imaginative reader may include the Mayor and grandees of Paignton.
The plot of the new opera hinges on a pun, a young man having, by his father’s misinterpreted will, been apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot. The hero’s adventures amongst the pirates and his amorous entanglement with his mature nurse (a pendant to Little Buttercup), whom he does not wish to marry, are the chief components of the plot. Of the merits of the piece, it would be premature to speak. Suffice it to say that the amateurs and critics of Paignton were highly pleased, and from their enlightened verdict few London audiences will venture to differ.
Troubadour 10th January 1880.

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