Après le succès précoce et retentissant de leur opéra en un acte "Trial By Jury" en 1875, Gilbert et Sullivan, et leur producteur Richard D'Oyly Carte, décidèrent de produire une œuvre plus longue. Gilbert a retravaillé et allongé un de ses écrits antérieurs (An Elixir of Love) basé sur un thème d'opéra pour créer une intrigue autour d'un philtre d'amour magique qui ferait tomber tout le monde amoureux, mais du mauvais partenaire.
"The Sorcerer" a été créé à l'Opéra Comique de Londres, un charmant petit théâtre du Strand, le 17 novembre 1877. La série originale de la pièce a duré 175 représentations, un succès suffisant pour encourager Gilbert & Sullivan à continuer à collaborer, ce qui a conduit à leur pièce suivante, le HMS Pinafore.
Le riche mais peu intelligent Alexis a une vision: la joie du mariage fera disparaître tout malheur terrestre. Appliquant à lui-même ce qu’il a prêché, Alexis s'est récemment fiancé à la belle Aline. Mais lors de sa cérémonie de mariage, il veut généraliser à tous sa conviction: apporter la joie du mariage à toute la ville. Pour y parvenir, il invite le patron de J.W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers, à préparer un philtre d'amour. Cela a un effet immédiat: tout le monde dans le village tombe amoureux de la première personne qu'il voit. Mais cela aboutit à créer des couples comiquement dépareillés. En fin de compte, Wells doit sacrifier sa vie pour briser le charme.
In 1871, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had written Thespis, an extravaganza for the Gaiety Theatre's holiday season that did not lead immediately to any further collaboration. Three years later, in 1875, talent agent and producer Richard D'Oyly Carte was managing the Royalty Theatre, and he needed a short opera to be played as an afterpiece to Jacques Offenbach's La Périchole. Carte was able to bring Gilbert and Sullivan together again to write the one-act piece, called Trial by Jury, which became a surprise hit. The piece was witty, tuneful and very "English", in contrast to the bawdy burlesques and adaptations of French operettas that dominated the London musical stage at that time. Trial by Jury proved even more popular than La Périchole, becoming an unexpected hit, touring extensively and enjoying revivals and a world tour.
After the success of Trial by Jury, several producers attempted to reunite Gilbert and Sullivan, but difficulties arose. Plans for a collaboration for Carl Rosa in 1875 fell through because Gilbert was too busy with other projects, and an attempted Christmas 1875 revival of Thespis by Richard D'Oyly Carte failed when the financiers backed out. Gilbert and Sullivan continued their separate careers, though both continued writing light opera. Finally, in 1877, Carte organised a syndicate of four financiers and formed the Comedy Opera Company, capable of producing a full-length work. By July 1877, Gilbert and Sullivan were under contract to produce a two-act opera. Gilbert expanded on his own short story that he had written the previous year for The Graphic, "An Elixir of Love," creating a plot about a magic love potion that – as often occurs in opera – causes everyone to fall in love with the wrong partner.
Now backed by a company dedicated to their work, Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte were able to select their own cast, instead of using the players under contract to the theatre where the work was produced, as had been the case with their earlier works. They chose talented actors, most of whom were not well-known stars; and so did not command high fees, and whom they felt they could mould to their own style. Then, they tailored their work to the particular abilities of these performers. Carte approached Mrs Howard Paul to play the role of Lady Sangazure in the new opera. Mr and Mrs Howard Paul had operated a small touring company booked by Carte's agency for many years, but the couple had recently separated. She conditioned her acceptance of the part on the casting of her 24-year-old protege, Rutland Barrington. When Barrington auditioned before W. S. Gilbert, the young actor questioned his own suitability for comic opera, but Gilbert, who required that his actors play their sometimes-absurd lines in all earnestness, explained the casting choice: "He's a staid, solid swine, and that's what I want." Barrington was given the role of Dr Daly, the vicar, which was his first starring role on the London stage.
For the character role of Mrs. Partlet, they chose Harriett Everard, an actress who had worked with Gilbert before. Carte's agency supplied additional singers, including Alice May (Aline), Giulia Warwick (Constance), and Richard Temple (Sir Marmaduke). Finally, in early November 1877, the last role, that of the title character, John Wellington Wells, was filled by comedian George Grossmith. Grossmith had appeared in charity performances of Trial by Jury, where both Sullivan and Gilbert had seen him (indeed, Gilbert had directed one such performance, in which Grossmith played the judge), and Gilbert had earlier commented favourably on his performance in Tom Robertson's Society at the Gallery of Illustration. After singing for Sullivan, upon meeting Gilbert, Grossmith wondered aloud if the role shouldn't be played by "a fine man with a fine voice". Gilbert replied, "No, that is just what we don't want."
The Sorcerer was not the only piece on which either Gilbert or Sullivan were working at that time. Gilbert was completing Engaged, a "farcical comedy", which opened on 3 October 1877. He also was sorting out the problems with The Ne'er-do-Weel, a piece he wrote for Edward Sothern. Meanwhile, Sullivan was writing the incidental music to Henry VIII; only after its premiere on 28 August did he begin working on The Sorcerer. The opening was originally scheduled for 1 November 1877; however, the first rehearsals took place on 27 October, and the part of J. W. Wells was filled only by that time. The Sorcerer finally opened at Opera Comique on 17 November 1877.
Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre, an Elderly Baronet (bass-baritone)
Alexis, of the Grenadier Guards, his son (tenor)
Dr Daly, Vicar of Ploverleigh (lyric baritone)
John Wellington Wells, of J. W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers (comic baritone)
Lady Sangazure, a Lady of Ancient Lineage (contralto)
Aline, her Daughter, betrothed to Alexis (soprano)
Mrs. Partlet, a Pew Opener (contralto)
Constance, her Daughter (soprano (1877); mezzo-soprano or soprano (1884))
Hercules (speaking role)
Chorus of villagers
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