Hacc olim meminisse juvabit, "One day it will be a help to remember these things," a motto of the school that gave Mr. Chips immortality, might well serve as a memorial to the fabulous season of 1921 for those who were lucky enough to be there. And the passing of my friend Derek Oldham, the last of its famous "full members", may be a fitting time to attempt an assessment of this vintage Company; not indeed out of nostalgia for artistes whom only the elderly will remember, but rather to place on record for the present generation what we can recall of its leading players, how and why they were selected by Rupert D'Oyly Carte, and the style of their playing. And, since some of them had been trained by Gilbert himself and the Company's presentations thus presumably expressive of the author's intentions, to draw what may be a useful comparison with those of the present day. Were they as good as we thought they were, and have any of Gilbert's intentions been lost?
Although anyone who saw these performances at the Princes Theatre must, under pressure, admit that, as with the 1921 Australian cricket side, individually each was not the finest performer of all time, he would stoutly maintain that collectively they formed a team that has not been equalled; and would point out that, as the years passed and the great names dropped from the bills one by one, the survivors were always the outstanding players of each generation. He might also admit that, were they active today, not more than a handful would be vocally qualified for appearances at the Wells or Glyndebourne. As will be seen, Carte had other criteria.
Why this excellence? Three survivors from Gilbert's day, and of course a flood of talent released after the First War, with no radio, T.V., or Glyndebourne to compete; but it is likely that much of this flow would have gone to waste had not Rupert D'Oyly Carte been there to sift it. His genius as an impresario derived more from Gilbert than his father. Gilbert was allergic to prima donnas and artistes "off the peg", and preferred cutting them to pattern himself. Carte's problem was different; the Savoy style being established, he had to sort out the pieces to fit. In the early twenties big voices and declamatory manners must have been there for the asking; instead he chose only those who could submit to the highly compressed diction, and the discipline of Sullivan's succulent musical line, who could play straight parts as if they believed in them and comic parts as if they really were funny. It sounds obvious enough, but what a pack of "cards" he collected!
Of the principal tenor, Derek Oldham, it is enough to say of his singing that when The Gramophone Company first recorded "The Yeomen of the Guard", with its early policy of casting on vocal grounds alone, he was the only member included, and that he later had the signal honour of singing solo at one of President Roosevelt's inaugural banquets; and of his all-round stage technique that he was able to break through to the top in musical comedy at Daly's and Drury Lane, a far greater test of versatility in an actor singer than, say, a series of appearances at Sadler's Wells.
But I take Darrell Fancourt as the exemplar of all that was - and still is - best in the playing of Savoy opera. One recalls the urbane, even regal, bearing (an athletic figure then), a relish and pithy gusto of diction and concise emphasis of gesture (that dismissive sweep of the arm which seemed to suit every occasion), an implicit and intuitive appreciation that the only way to convey the humour of the situations was to play them with the seriousness of almost child-like belief.
And what can one write of Sir Henry Lytton that hasn't already been said? I will remind readers only of Ernest Newman's astonishment, when covering a later season, that "without a shred of a voice to hang on to", his Point could hold an opera audience spellbound. He was a comedian first, and had that priceless link with his audience that all such must have; the slightly aristocratic reserve with his colleagues that sat well on the "oldest member" came across the footlights in the form of an unspoken guarantee that this sacred link was in safe keeping, and would never be degraded, as it can be, by the over-familiar wink, the metaphorical dig-in-the-ribs which shatters all illusion.
And though Leo Sheffield was a baritone of Italian flexibility and range he would roar out the high G in "I am so proud" and could take the optional top A at the end of "Fair moon to thee I sing" he would use "the intrusive H" and play the deuce with tempi if it suited his comic purpose. When Sydney Granville began to take over his roles, which for a season they shared, one saw how a finished artiste could play in both styles, besides comparing the interpretations of two ripe comedians. Though Granville had a resonant voice and took fewer liberties with the score, he now always put comedy first.
I leave until last two much-loved figures whom a lesser impresario might have let slip through the net. One thinks of Bertha Lewis first as a ringing contralto, and so she was; but tone-scale was probably the least secure of her many gifts. She had a long and unmanageable "break", so that almost an octave in her middle range, depending on context and vowel, could vary disturbingly. But - unlike any other contralto that I have heard Bertha could sing fast! It seems a built-in handicap of this voice that when obliged to do so the sound falls back and becomes "fat" and unwieldy; hers came right to the front, and out came the words with an incisive verve matched only by Darrell. Add that she was as strikingly handsome in face as in figure and had as deeply humour ous an understanding of her parts as he, and you'll know why she was so much loved.
To ensure the success of the first revival of "Princess Ida", Carte went outside the Company to choose for the dramatic name-role -- a big voice and Junoesque figure? Nothing of the kind. On the strength of a single Old Vic performance of Figaro he picked a slight young woman with a light voice. Who but he could have divined that Winifred Lawson was later to play herself into the parts of Patience and Phyllis as the daintiest of animated figurines, and give conviction to Elsie Maynard in portrayals that have never been challenged? Or that her success as the Princess could be based on superb elocution, in which - to complete the string of paradoxes -- she had never had a lesson?
It has been said that until Sargent, the band never played from the original parts. I cannot criticise Geoffrey Toye's work, but I suspect embellishments (does anyone else remember the horn tracing an Apocryphal counterpoint through the seventh to tenth lines of Lady Psyche's stanzas in "Princess Ida"?).
And finally: has the mode of playing changed, and have we lost or gained? To the extent that "straight" and "comic" have been telescoped and the distinction between them become less well defined, we must have lost something of the author's intentions. I think the straight players have sometimes forgotten that the only way to make a Gilbertian - that is, a preposterous situation preposterous, is to play it in deadly earnest; it must be revealed, not underlined; while the funny men nowadays often don't even pretend to be funny. This was not the author's idea. He chose a professional humourist, Grossmith, and a heavy comedian, Rutland Barrington, with no ear for music, and moulded them both. Purists who would deny the comedian all licence (and who frown especially on Wilfred's response to having his nose tickled in "Were I thy bride") miss the point that the composer's aim was to illumine and soften Gilbert's lines, not to subdue them; the jailer's sneeze never loses us more than a fraction of the delicious score, and if there's an encore, not even that. And if Sullivan's genius was fulfilled only in subordinating itself to the libretti, in which, besides softening harshness and revealing lyricism, he set out to punctuate their humour and wit, is it likely he would have disagreed with comedians who worked to the same end, at the expense of a note or two of his score?
And if you still have any doubts about all this, reflect that the ripe trio, Lytton, Sheffield, and Granville, who between them played all except the tenor roles, were trained by the great man himself. But these things go in cycles, and perhaps by 2021 ... ?
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