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Musical of the Month: Erminie

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A guest post and edition by Andrew Lamb.

Irene Williams and Warren Proctor as Erminie and Eugène in the 1921 revival (*T PHO B)Irene Williams and Warren Proctor as Erminie and Eugène in the 1921 revival (*T PHO B) The works of Gilbert and Sullivan dominated nineteenth-century British comic opera from the start. Yet in neither London nor New York was a work of theirs the longest-running British comic opera of its time. Indeed, in New York The Mikado wasn't even the most successful British comic opera of its year.

That distinction belongs to a work now virtually forgotten — Erminie, a comic opera with libretto by Claxson Bellamy and Harry Paulton, and music by Edward Jakobowski. It was produced at the Grand Theatre, Birmingham, England, on 26 October 1885, and after a further week in Brighton reached the Royal Comedy Theatre, London, on 9 November 1885 — some eight months after the première of The Mikado. However, it was not designed in the British comic opera format of Gilbert and Sullivan but in that of imported French works by the likes of Charles Lecocq, Edmond Audran and Robert Planquette. Erminie, indeed, was set in France and had French characters, centring on villains developed from the archetypal Robert Macaire and his hapless companion Jacques Strop, as featured in a 1823 French melodrama L'Auberge des Adrets and its 1834 English version by Jacques Selby.

In Erminie the two villains become the classy criminal Ravannes and his clumsy side-kick Cadeaux. Having escaped from jail, they waylay Ernest, Vicomte de Brissac, who is on his way to meet his promised bride, the Marquis de Pontvert's daughter Erminie, whom he has never met. With thoughts of further theft, Ravannes poses as the Vicomte, with Cadeaux as a supposed Baron whose comic turn of phrase provides the major fun of the piece. Their intervention finally derails plans sufficiently to secure Erminie's marriage to her real lover, the Marquis's secretary Eugène.

The part of Cadeaux was written for himself by co-librettist Harry Paulton (1841-1917). Like most of the principals, Paulton had made a name for himself in London productions of French comic operas. Playing his companion Ravannes was Frank Wyatt (1852-1926), who four years later would create the role of the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers. In 1886 Wyatt would marry Erminie's manageress Violet Melnotte (née Emma Solomon; 1855-1935), who created the role of Erminie's companion Cerise, who finally marries Erminie's intended husband. Erminie herself was played by Florence St John (1855-1912), a leading lady of French comic opera in London, with Erminie's true lover Eugène played by Welsh tenor Henry Bracy (1846-1917), who had created the role of Hilarion in the Gilbert and Sullivan Princess Ida. Auguste van Biene (1849-1913), later famous in Britain as composer of 'The Broken Melody,' was the production's musical director, while the chorus master was Otto Langey (1851-1922), who in 1889 would settle in America as composer and arranger associated particularly with Victor Herbert.

Harry Paulton's fellow-book-author on Erminie was George Claxson Bellamy (1856-1914), a small-time lyricist whom Paulton later recalled as "a young fellow in the mercantile business." Paulton had apparently given Bellamy the outline of a comic opera, which composer Edward Jakobowski then set to music. When producer Violet Melnotte sought a work for the Comedy Theatre, Paulton offered her both this latter Bellamy/Jakobowski work and also Erminie, for which music publisher Joseph Williams (1847-1923) had provided music under his nom de plume Florian Pascal. Miss Melnotte's verdict was that she liked the Erminie plot and the Jakobowski music. Paulton rewrote Bellamy's work extensively for Erminie but retained his colleague's book-writing credit even though Bellamy ultimately contributed little, while Joseph Williams was happy enough to obtain the music-publishing rights.

As for Erminie's composer, Edward Jakobowski (1856-1929)[1] was born in Islington, London, with parents who were Viennese of Polish extraction. Taken to Vienna as a boy, young Jakobowski lived there for some fifteen years and studied at the conservatory. Then came two years in Paris, after which he moved back to the country of his birth. His first London productions came in 1883, followed soon by Dick, a comic opera version of the Dick Whittington story. Produced at the Globe Theatre on 17 April 1884, it was inevitably overshadowed by Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida but was a pretty fair success, not least achieving production in Australia.

Francis Wilson (*T PHO C)Francis Wilson (*T PHO C) Then came Erminie, whose initial London run of 154 performances was creditable enough for the time. What confirmed the show's very real success was the way it returned to the Comedy Theatre in June 1886, before touring Britain and its Empire for decades. Yet that popularity in Britain and its Empire was nothing compared with that of the United States production, for which Harry Paulton crossed the Atlantic to stage it at the New York Casino under proprietor Rudolf Aronson (1856-1919). Pauline Hall (1860-1919) was Erminie, with Harry Pepper as Eugène, Carl Irving as the Marquis, Marion Manola as Cerise, Agnes Folsom as Javotte, and Rose Beaudet as young Captain Delaunay (a 'trousers' role). As the two jail-birds were William S. Daboll (1854-92) as Ravannes and, most significantly, Francis Wilson (1854-1935) as Cadeaux.

In his Theatrical and Musical Memoirs (New York, 1913), Rudolf Aronson reports Harry Paulton expressing the view at the final dress rehearsal that, "With all the antics of some of the people on the stage, the many interpolations and its Americanization, so to speak, Erminie will be a fiasco." In fact, when Erminie opened at the Casino on Broadway at West 39th Street on 10 May 1886 it was an immediate success. Aronson ran the piece there for 150 performances and then, because of a pre-arranged six-week Casino engagement, took it to Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. It then returned to the Casino for what in those days was an astonishing further 362 performances. After a four-month break, in January 1888 it began yet a further four-month run. The resultant total of well over 600 performances was more than double the run of The Mikado at the Fifth Avenue Theatre and put other Gilbert and Sullivan works even more in the shade.

In New York Erminie was, indeed, a sensation. In his Variety Music Cavalcade (Englefield Cliffs, N.J., 1952, rev. 1962), Julius Mattfeld lists five of its numbers among ten American song hits from 1886, namely Erminie's 'Dream Song' ('At Midnight on My Pillow Lying') and 'Lullaby' ('Dear Mother, in Dreams I See Her,') the Marquis's 'A Soldier's Life,' Eugène's 'Darkest the Hour,' and Cadeaux's comic song 'What the Dicky-Birds Say.' Yet it was not just the musical numbers that made the work such a success but more particularly Francis Wilson's clowning in the role that came to define his career. Besides Erminie's extensive touring history, Wilson mounted his own Broadway production in 1893 after falling out with Aronson, with Jakobowski sailing over from England with several new numbers. Rudolf Aronson then mounted further New York productions in 1897 and 1898 without Francis Wilson, and in 1899 and 1903 with him.

Though the published US score of Erminie is identical to the British, this hides the changes that were undoubtedly made for the U.S., with Aronson describing a couple of ways in which he felt it necessary to supplement the existing score. Firstly, he states, "I found it necessary in order to strengthen the entrance of the two thieves … in the first act … to introduce something foreign …, which I had discovered in Planquette's Les Voltigeurs du 32me and it fitted the situation like a glove." Then, when Marie Jansen (1856-1914) took over the role of Javotte, she pleaded with Aronson to give her a song. "And I did," he says. "I took a little catchy German song I had heard in Berlin some years before, had words written to fit the situation, with the refrain 'Sundays after three, my sweetheart comes to me'." We know too that, after British tenor Henry Hallam took over as Eugène in August 1886, he interpolated a song 'Golden Moon' from Ivan Caryll's 1886 London comic opera The Lily of Léoville.

The first of Aronson's above claims has led to some controversy, since Francis Wilson picked it up for his own memoirs Francis Wilson's Life of Himself (Boston, 1924) — published five years after Aronson's death — and made it refer to the villains' duet 'Downy Jail-Birds of a Feather' — a reference that was clearly false. The "something foreign" that Aronson claimed to have introduced was undoubtedly for their actual entrance, after which comes considerable dialogue before 'Downy Jail-Birds of a Feather.'

Not least among Aronson's changes was to move Erminie's 'Lullaby' to an earlier position in Act 2, where it became the undoubted hit number. Associated with that change was seemingly also the dropping of the 'Supper Chorus' and the termination of Act 2 after the 'Vocal Gavotte.' What was originally the second scene of Act 2 then became Act 3. There were even changes to the names of the two thieves, who had been Ravannes and Cadeau in London listings (and early New York scripts) but Ravannes and Cadeaux in the vocal score and then Ravennes and Cadeaux in American cast-listings.

The New York Public Library's Francis Wilson Collection has typescripts that were clearly prepared for the first New York production and were possibly typed from handwritten British sources. They show many manuscript amendments, indicating cuts, changes of running order and interpolations that would have been made in rehearsal as well as later. It's impossible to know just how the text would have existed at any particular time, but I have used those scripts to create the libretto given here. My aim has been to produce a text that faithfully enough represents the work as it began its American life and which, above all, corresponds with the printed vocal score. I have retained some cuts in the dialogue, but apart from regularising punctuation and correcting seeming errors I have invented nothing. A later typescript, containing topical references to 'rapid transit' and 'subway,' evidently dates from the early twentieth century and shows how the scene-setting and character-setting were later cut back sharply to bring on Francis Wilson earlier, with his part further enhanced by more elaborately developed business.

After Erminie, Harry Paulton and Edward Jakobowski worked on further comic operas both together and separately, without ever achieving comparable success. Besides works for London, Jakobowski composed for both Vienna and New York, the latter shows including The Devil's Deputy, written expressly for Francis Wilson and first seen at Abbey's Theatre in September 1894. Wilson's popularity helped it to 94 New York performances, after which it toured. However, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 4 December 1894, while praising the humour of J. Cheever Goodwin's "uncommonly good libretto," felt that Jakobowski's music had "nothing noteworthy about it, and he seems to have pumped himself dry in Erminie."

A further Jakobowski romantic opera La Tarantella was produced at the Studebaker Theater, Chicago, on 17 July 1899, and was later announced as Christmas attraction of the Castle Square Opera Company at the American Theater, Manhattan. However, it was "postponed because of the delay in the manufacture of the scenic settings and costumes" and was not heard of again. Jakobowski's final indignity came with a musical comedy originally entitled Miss Walker of Woolloomooloo, written with Harry Paulton's son Edward and played for copyright purposes at London's Globe Theatre in October 1900 with Harry Paulton as Pericles. When something finally came of the show, Woolloomooloo had become Kalamazoo, and the title had become Winsome Winnie. Produced at the Academy of Music, Baltimore, on 28 September 1903, it toured the U.S. successfully, but with the bulk of Jakobowski's score dropped in favour of replacement numbers by Gustav Kerker of Belle of New York fame.

By the time Jakobowski died in 1929 both Erminie and its composer had been largely forgotten in Britain. However, that was by no means the case in America. The 'Lullaby' especially remained a favorite and was recorded several times in the early days of recording. As late as 1921 Francis Wilson played Cadeaux on Broadway one last time, thereby bringing the work into the sphere of a new generation of Broadway practitioners. Irving Caesar revised the lyrics, and in The New York Times journalist and playwright George S. Kaufman contributed a tribute to Erminie's 35 years. As late as 1942 Erminie still had sufficient currency for publisher Carl Fischer to bring out a new version for high school and community performance.

Thus, too, did Erminie survive in America into the post-War era, with a potted version with Gordon MacRae and Nell Tangeman included in NBC's weekly 'Railroad Hour' on 21 April 1952. Indeed Erminie even made it to the era of stereo recording. Around 1957 Nathaniel Shilkret conducted soloists and the Symphonic 'Pops' Orchestra in two tracks for an 'Operetta Favorites' LP produced by the performing right organisation SESAC for distribution to radio stations.

Thanks to the internet, something of Erminie is once more available to us today. Besides the script presented here, the vocal score can be downloaded from either The Internet Archive or The Petrucci Music Library. The whole score can also be heard in computer-generated Midi files at Colin M. Johnson's site. Of early recordings accessible online, one by Elsie Baker from 1913 is of particularly good quality . The 1952 'Railroad Hour' broadcast, too, can be heard at The Internet Archive, while those 1957 tracks (featuring 'Dark is the Hour,' 'What the Dicky-Birds Say,' 'A Soldier's Life' and the 'Lullaby' and in excellent sound) can be purchased from amazon.com.

If ultimately it was Francis Wilson's delivery of Harry Paulton's dialogue that ensured the longevity of Erminie, Jakobowski's tuneful and well-made score was a crucial element in its acclaim. Nobody would suggest that Paulton's lyrics match Gilbert's or that Jakobowski possessed the cultured invention of Sullivan. Yet Erminie contains undeniably attractive elements that make it well worth consideration for revival today by some enterprising comic opera company.

—Andrew Lamb

 

A note from Doug Reside: The following editions were transcribed and edited by Andrew Lamb from two early copies held by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in the Francis Wilson papers. Lamb's original DOCX file is provided below in addition to the usual ebook formats which I produced from it. Any errors in the formatting of the derrivative versions are entirely my fault.

File type What it's for
DOCX Microsoft Word
ePub eBook readers (except Kindle)
Mobi Kindle
PDF Adobe Acrobat
HTML Web browsers
Plain Text Just about anything
TEI Digital Humanities Geeks

[1] Not 1858-1927, as widely stated.

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