Monday, May 02, 2005

Were I Thy Bride

To follow up my Gilbert and Sullivan post: Jessie Bond, one of the members of the original D'Oyly Carte company -- she created a part in every G&S opera from H.M.S. Pinafore through The Gondoliers wrote her memoirs in 1930, and in Chapter 14 she writes disparagingly about the style of G&S performance that had sprung up after Gilbert's death, and in particular the tendency to ham it up and add overly broad gags. To a certain extent, of course, it's just another example of an actress telling the world that acting was better in her day, but it does go to suggest that G&S performance in the original productions was much more restrained than we would nowadays expect, and what's more, more thought went into the behaviour of the characters -- having them dress and act according in a realistic way, despite the wackiness of the plots -- than we would expect. (She goes into a surprising amount of detail about which characters would curtsey and which would not, or what Mad Margaret should wear in Ruddigore.) One passage that should be heeded by most would-be directors of G&S is:

Then there is the case of Phoebe in "The Yeomen of the Guard." What I hate is that senseless "business" in "Were I thy bride." You know what I mean, the scratching of the jailer's chin, the ruffling of his hair, the ogling of the eyes, and all those other "comic" antics which, goodness knows why, are supposed to be "funny."

I think it is wicked that there should be this vulgarity in one of the loveliest of all the songs in the operas. Sir William Gilbert would not have endured it for a moment. He intended that the audience should hear his most beautiful lyric-and they never hear it to-day. Sir Arthur Sullivan would not have stood it either. The air he had written was far too sweet to be drowned beneath silly laughter .

During the rehearsals I remember that Gilbert asked me - he was only a man, and perhaps didn't know !- how I would wheedle Wilfred Shadbolt. "Well, Mr. Gilbert," I answered, "I might just gently stroke his chin, and I might. .. " He stopped me. "That will do!" he exclaimed, "that will be splendid!" You see what he meant! He wanted the wheedling suggested, but he did not want a lot of low comedy introduced, and still less did he want the action to mar the effect of the song.

I remember something else. W. H. Denny was too good an artist to take any licence, but as he was seated on the floor, he once looked up slightly in a rather humorous way. "Mr. Denny," I said sharply, "I won't have any movement while I'm singing my song." And Shadbolt never did sway about or do any of that dreadful ogling-at the Savoy. Why should he? We knew well enough in those days that this so-called broad humour added nothing to a really beautiful song.

The movie Topsy-Turvy did a good job of capturing the relatively restrained, careful style of the original G&S productions, though whether audiences today would sit still for so little action during musical numbers is another question (even grand opera directors feel the need to have something going on during the numbers).

Jessie Bond herself must have been a very charming performer. She started in very small parts -- the part of Cousin Hebe in Pinafore was cut way down because she felt she couldn't handle the dialogue, having been trained as a singer and not an actress. But as time went on, Gilbert, who was fond of her (and comes off in some accounts as having had a bit of a crush on her), started writing bigger roles for her, and she became a key member of the company for acting and singing alike. Most of Gilbert's characters tend to be "stick figures," characters without much personality; there are exceptions, though, and many of them are roles that were written for Jessie Bond: Iolanthe, Mad Margaret, Phoebe. And Bond would often be given the touching, melancholy songs: "He Loves" in Iolanthe, "Only Roses" in Ruddigore, the happy-yet-wistful "When a Merry Maiden Marries" in The Gondoliers. Her parts are definitely more fun and interesting than the nominal heroines of these works.

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