The Sorcerer Trivia

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 1.

The part of John Wellington Wells, the Sorcerer in the opera of that name, was originally played by George Grossmith, a music-hall singer and comedian with no operatic experience, who went on to create the comic roles (Sir Joseph, the Lord Chancellor, Ko-Ko, etc.) in many of the later operas.  Initially surprised at being offered the part, he said to Gilbert, “For the part of a magician, I should have thought you required a fine man with a fine voice.”  Gilbert replied, “No, that is just what we don’t want.”

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 2.

The plot of The Sorcerer hinges on a love potion which the characters unknowingly imbibe while carousing at a feast. In the original production (in 1877), the first act ended with the company feeling the effects of the potion but continuing to carouse, and at the opening of the second act the magic had already taken effect, the chorus entering in ill-matched couples. The familiar (and much more effective) version, in which Act I ends with the company falling unconscious and Act II opens with them recovering and falling in love, was an alteration made by Gilbert for a revival in 1884.

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 3.

The part of Lady Sangazure originally included a nostalgic solo about her youthful love for Sir Marmaduke, coming after her recitative in Act I.  On the evening before the opening night, however, Sullivan wrote to Mrs Howard Paul, creator of the part, telling her that he and Gilbert had decided to cut the song as its melancholy tone was out of keeping with the surrounding music.

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 4.

St Mary (pronounced “Simmery”) Axe, where John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer has his business, is an actual street in London: the modern landmark known as the Gherkin is number 30 St Mary Axe.  (Number 70 is an office building.)  The name is derived from those of two buildings which formerly stood on the site: a mediaeval Church of St Mary, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins (St Ursula, according to tradition, being a Romano-British princess who was slain along with 11,000 maidens by the Huns), and an inn called The Axe in reference to the axe supposedly used for their execution.

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 5.

The clever sequence of rhymes “matter – clatter – at her – batter – flatter – latter” in a chorus towards the end of The Sorcerer pales in comparison with a song in The Grand Duke which begins “Well, you’re a pretty kind of fellow, thus my life to shatter O!” and proceeds for three verses, each with six rhyming lines.  The last rhyme-word in each verse is “matter” and the word “chatter” is used twice, giving a total of fifteen rhymes – the longest such sequence in all Gilbert’s works.

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 6.

The device of a love-potion, central to The Sorcerer, is of course familiar: its best-known operatic treatment is Donizetti’s L’Elisire d’Amore, which Gilbert had burlesqued in one of his earliest plays, Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack.  He had also written a short story called An Elixir of Love, on which The Sorcerer is largely based.  In it the village of Ploverleigh is located in Dorsetshire, of which the local accent is suggested in the Act II opening chorus.

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 7.

The bottom E flat sung by the Notary in the second act of The Sorcerer (and also by the Carpenter’s Mate in H.M.S. Pinafore and Old Adam in Ruddigore) is the lowest note that Sullivan ever requires from his singers.  In the original version of the opera the Notary’s line went down only to the low F, but in the 1884 revival the entire scene was transposed down a tone to link it to the new opening of the act.

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 8.

The part of Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer was created by Mrs Howard Paul; and the part of Cousin Hebe in the next opera, H.M.S. Pinafore, was originally written for her.  Her voice, however, was visibly past its best, and before the opening of Pinafore Gilbert and Sullivan decided that the part should be divided between her and Jessie Bond.  Mrs Paul, taking this as an insult, withdrew entirely from the company; and to avoid placing an untried newcomer in what had been planned as a major part, the role was cut down to the few lines of which it now consists.

The Sorcerer Trivia No. 9.

The dénouement of The Sorcerer, with the unportended revelation “Or you or I must yield up his life to Ahrimanes” (a Persian name for the Devil) is often seen as abrupt and dramatically weak; but Gilbert originally wrote a second mock-melodramatic incantation scene, to follow Wells’s Act II duet with Lady Sangazure, in which a comic Ahrimanes figure appears and sets the condition of the sacrifice of Alexis or the Sorcerer as the price of removing the spell.  This scene was never performed.

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