Friday, March 30, 2007

G and S and G and S

To the Abingdon Operatic Society last night for what the Boy (who stayed at home) charmingly calls 'old people's music' and we call an evening of Gershwin and Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan. First half a collection of songs from across the pond, second half the songs with linking narration of HMS Pinafore. Who could ask better?

I'm not that familiar with the works of Stephen Sondheim and it must be said he is not ... light. I suppose if you're trying to write an opera about a murderous cannibal barber, lightness is a positive disadvantage. Apparently he had to write 'Comedy Tonight' as an intro to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum after test audiences failed to twig it was meant to be funny. But lack of lightness can be a good thing, and 'Send in the clowns' can bring me close to tears, so replete is it with self-loathing and self-knowledge that has been acquired at great cost and far too late.

And then Pinafore! I amaze myself that after 30 years of loving G&S I have still never seen an actual stage performance of this, all the way through. Many years ago there was a TV version with Frankie Howerd as the First Lord, and the role didn't quite play to his talents. But I've never seen the whole stage show.

And I suppose, technically, I still haven't, this being a recital more than a performance. But what the heck, it had all the songs.

There is something about Sullivan's songs that makes them old friends. You just hear a few bars, and you smile because you know you're back in good company. And Gilbert's lyrics I could listen to over and over again. The way different singers intercut to finish off each other's lines and rhymes (which are frequently effortlessly convoluted); the reductio ad absurdam logic; the sheer mastery of language make them priceless. I love any clever wordsmith - Tom Lehrer, Flanders & Swann - but Gilbert is top of the roost.

And I was astonished that there was a song I didn't know. Honestly. I could swear I've not heard this song before. And it's not one of the soulful solos, it's a key duet. Maybe I was out of the room when the Frankie Howerd version did it. So, courtesy of the world wide web and the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive, here are the lyrics. It's classic Gilbert. Little Buttercup knows something she wishes to communicate obliquely to Captain Corcoran, and she speaks so elliptically that he hasn't the faintest idea what she's on about.

BUT. Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers.

CAPT. (puzzled). Very true,
So they do.

BUT. Black sheep dwell in every fold;
All that glitters is not gold;
Storks turn out to be but logs;
Bulls are but inflated frogs.

CAPT. (puzzled). So they be,

BUT. Drops the wind and stops the mill;
Turbot is ambitious brill;
Gild the farthing if you will,
Yet it is a farthing still.

CAPT. (puzzled). Yes, I know.
That is so.
Though to catch your drift I'm striving,
It is shady -- it is shady;
I don't see at what you're driving,
Mystic lady -- mystic lady.
(Aside.) Stern conviction's o'er me stealing,
That the mystic lady's dealing
In oracular revealing.

BUT. (aside). Stern conviction's o'er him stealing,
That the mystic lady's dealing
In oracular revealing.
Yes, I know--
That is so!

CAPT. Though I'm anything but clever,
I could talk like that for ever:
Once a cat was killed by care;
Only brave deserve the fair.

BUT. Very true,
So they do.

CAPT. Wink is often good as nod;
Spoils the child who spares the rod;
Thirsty lambs run foxy dangers;
Dogs are found in many mangers.

BUT. Frequentlee,
I agree.

CAPT. Paw of cat the chestnut snatches;
Worn-out garments show new patches;
Only count the chick that hatches;
Men are grown-up catchy-catchies.

BUT. Yes, I know,
That is so.
(Aside.) Though to catch my drift he's striving,
I'll dissemble -- I'll dissemble;
When he sees at what I'm driving,
Let him tremble -- let him tremble!


Though a mystic tone I/you borrow,
You will/I shall learn the truth with sorrow,
Here to-day and gone to-morrow;
Yes, I know--
That is so!


  1. ChrisH8:20 pm

    I've been in a production of HMS Pinafore, but it's not a particularly pleasant memory. Not the fault of the show, I hasten to add, but a mixture of a very lack-lustre production and being under a lot of stress at the time.

    In fact, I virtually have no memory of it at all...

  2. And we have the Frankie Howerd version on video, including the "mystic lady" song...


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