Sullivan's ballet “L'Ile Enchantée”

by Selwyn Tillett and Roderick Spencer

(Published with kind permission of the authors; the article was published in “The Ballets of Arthur Sullivan – A survey written and compiled by Selwyn Tillett”, published by The Sir Arthur Sullivan Society at 71 Hockley Lane, Eastern Green, Coventry CV5 7FS, 1997)

Recording: Sullivan: L'Ile Enchantée (& Thespis), RTE Concert Orchestra, Dublin; Andrew Penny, Marco Polo 8.223460.

Sullivan's ballet L'Ile Enchantée was only the second major work of this rising young composer. It dates from the time of his appointment as organist and general musical troubleshooter behind the scenes at Covent Garden, and was first produced there on Whit Monday 16 May 1864 - three days after his twenty-second birthday - as a divertissement at the end of Bellini's La Sonnambula. Adelina Patti had played the heroine, and the house, as it always was when she appeared, was crowded to the ceiling.

The Garden's policy was to pad out any opera (Italian, of course, if only in translation) that did not include a ballet of its own with a piece of about half-an-hour's length, written or assembled to order. As a work of this class, sewn together to meet the demands of its star participants, Sullivan's offering was not expected to be very remarkable, nor to last very long in the repertoire; but the scanty reports in the press remarked on its freshness, melody, scoring and general evidences of talent to be encouraged. Typical among them was the detailed first night review in The Orchestra (21 May):

A short instrumental prelude suggestive of the charms of fairyland is followed by an andante to which the curtain rises, disclosing a sea-shore with sleeping nymphs. Satyrs enter, and waking the slumberers join with them in a characteristic dance in 2/4 time. After a languid and beautifully slow movement (in which the playing of Mr Lazarus upon the clarionet calls for the highest praise), this number concludes with a sparkling galop in the key of E. A storm arises which scares away the fairies and washes on shore a shipwrecked mariner (M. Desplaces) who falls exhausted upon a rock. The Queen of the Fairies (Mdlle Salvioni) then appears, and as a matter of course a long love scene ensues. The descriptive force of the music which accompanies this scene is especially remarkable.

Led by his fair enslaver the mariner is conducted to the fairy bower, which has afforded Mr William Beverley an opportunity of which he has not failed to avail himself to the utmost. The result is indeed a masterpiece of scenic art. After being subject to numerous bewilderments at the hands of his supernatural guide, expressed by Mr Sullivan in music unusually picturesque and beautiful, the stranger encounters other nymphs, who test his constancy with all the fascinating allurements of terpsichorean art. A valse, a variation for Mdlle Carmine, and a grand pas de trois conclude this number.

An episode of jealousy (agitato in G minor) is followed by the entrance of the entire corps de ballet. The grouping of figures in this scene has been most artistically devised, and its effect is much enhanced by the charmingly appropriate music (common time in F major) which accompanies it. The story, which we have but imperfectly sketched, draws to a close. The mariner succeeds in rendering his fairy preserver mortal by means of a kiss, and is rewarded for his fidelity by her hand. There remain but two pieces, the first of which, a galop in C major, is so bright and spirited that we may expect to hear it in many ballrooms; and the last takes us back to the love scene by the sea-shore.

We cannot conclude without a word of hearty recommendation to Mr A. Harris, to whom the credit of the superb mis en scène is due. Of the excellent performance of the orchestra it is almost needless to speak. It is sufficient to say that they played the highly elaborated, and in some parts extremely difficult music, which Mr Sullivan has allotted to them with the greatest brilliancy and finish. Choreographer M. Desplaces; Dresses Mr James and Mr Combs; Machinery Mr Sloman; Appointments Mr Bruton; other dancers Mdlle Navarre, Mdlle Assunta, Mr W. H. Payne.

The Daily Telegraph, reviewing the performance on 17 May, enthused only a little less:

After the opera a new ballet was produced, entitled, L'Ile Enchantée, the music to which has been written expressly by Mr S. Arthur Sullivan [!] who, young and inexperienced though he is, has already acquired a singular aptitude for this peculiar style of composition. Without being at all remarkable for originality, the music is full of easy melody, while the instrumentation is remarkably bright, clear, resonant, and effective.

The Sunday Times (22 May) complained that it was unable to supply an analysis of the plot, owing to the lack of programme or description of the ballet on the night, but promised that it would not neglect to discuss the plot, the 'most elaborate and exquisite' scenery, and 'Mr Arthur Sullivan's clever music' as further performances were given throughout the season. This however was a promise it did not keep, although the season did not end until Saturday 30 July.

In the course of that season, L'Ile Enchantée appears to have been danced a total of thirteen times - after La Sonnambula on 16 and 24 May and 2 June; after Flotow's Stradella on 6 June; after Rossini's Otello on 11 and 14 June; after Donizetti's La Figlia del Reggimento on 21, 25 and 28 June and L'Elisir d'Amore on 5, 9 and 21 July; and after Verdi's La Traviata on 12 July. There was then at least one performance of a concert suite at the Crystal Palace (2 December 1865), and in the course of these subsequent performances some slight abridgements were made, particularly to the Scène des Disparitions or Transformation Scene, during which the queen transports the shipwrecked mariner to her magical bower. Then, like many pieces of its type, L'Ile Enchantée disappeared into the dust of backstage libraries; indeed, within about three years of its first appearance, it had been placed so firmly on the shelf that composer, Garden and Palace had between them managed to lose the autograph full score1. Future performances then became unlikely as Sullivan began to dip into it as a source for individual items in later works - though how many these were only recently became clear, in the course of reconstructing the original ballet for performance at the 1990 Sullivan Society Festival. This was probably the first performance of much of the work since 1867.

Sullivan himself left a delightful account of the Garden's somewhat cavalier attitude to the production of L'Ile Enchantée, which has frequently been quoted in part, but which we here reproduce in full2:

On one occasion... I was admiring the 'borders' that had been painted for a woodland scene. "Yes," said the painter, "they are very delicate, and if you could support them by something suggestive in the orchestra, we could get a pretty effect." I at once put into the score some delicate arpeggio work for the flute and clarionets, and Beverley (the artist) was quite happy.

The next day probably some scene such as this would occur. Mr Sloman (the stage machinist): "That iron doesn't run so easily in the slot as I should like, Mr Sullivan. We must have a little more music to carry her across. I should like something for the "'cellers". Could you do it?"

"Certainly, Mr Sloman; you have opened a new path of beauty in orchestration," I replied gravely, and I at once added sixteen bars for the 'cello alone. No sooner was this done than a variation (solo dance) was required for the second danseuse, who had just arrived. "What on earth am I to do?" I said to the stage manager; "I haven't seen her dance yet, and know nothing of her style."

"I'll see," he replied, and took the young lady aside. In less than five minutes he returned. "I've arranged it all," he said. "This is exactly what she wants," giving it to me rhythmically - "Tiddle-iddle-um, tiddle-iddle-um, rum tirum tirum," sixteen bars of that; then "Rum-tum, rum-tum," heavy, you know, sixteen bars; then finish up with the overture to William Tell, last movement, sixteen bars and coda." In ten minutes' time I had composed it and written out a repetiteur's part, and it was at once rehearsed.

Just as delightfully, we can track down all these instances of stage carpentry clearly in the score. The expansive Andante maestoso in F major towards the end bristles with woody arpeggi, though for clarinets only (the flutes are helping out the tune); the Vivace at the beginning of the Scène des Disparitions is interrupted by a lazy descending passage for solo 'cello, unrelated to what comes before or after, though of only eight bars, marked piu lento. Sullivan, writing thirty-five years later, has presumably remembered how the change in tempo was interpreted, one bar of 'cello equal to two of gentle full strings going before.

Most unmistakeable of all is the stage manager's description of his dancer's needs, carried out to the note in the Variation immediately before the mariner is carried off to the fairy bower. There is a brief seven-bar introduction which creates the rapid demisemiquaver idea 'tiddle-iddle-um'; a brief swing at a tempo di valse (rum-tum rather than rum-tum); and a hectic presto whose very impetus skids it abruptly into a musical brick wall. However, Sullivan's memory is again playing tricks. This is a solo for the prima ballerina, Salvioni, not for her number two, Carmine - who has her chance as temptress a little later.

The score consists of thirteen separate numbers, many of which break down into independent melodic sections. Some of these are obvious bridging passages, merely allowing mood, time or key to alter; the majority could be considered genuine thematic units in their own right. There are about thirty of these, and anyone who has kept abreast of the rediscovery of Sullivan over the last twenty years may be not a little astonished, and perhaps not a little disappointed, to encounter more than two thirds of them in later and more familiar guises, either in the Day Dreams for piano (1867) or in the incidental music to The Merchant of Venice (1871), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1874) and even Macbeth (1888). The greater part of these self-borrowings, however, occur (perhaps unsurprisingly) in the course of Victoria and Merrie England (1897).

Further Bibliography

L. Baily: The Gilbert and Sullivan Book (revd. ed.), London 1966

R. Busby: British Music Hall, London 1976

Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians (5th ed.), London 1954

G. Le Roy: Music Hall Stars of the Nineties, London 1952

R. Mander & J. Mitchenson: British Music Hall (revd. ed.), London 1974

H. Pearson: Gilbert & Sullivan (Penguin), London 1950

T. Rees: Thespis - A Gilbert & Sullivan Enigma, London 1964

R. Strong: And When Did You Last See Your Father?

The Victorian Painter and British History, London 1978


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