Opera Scotland

Bitter Sweet

Music

Noël Coward (born Teddington, 16 December 1899; died Blue Harbour, Jamaica, 26 March 1973).

Text

The composer.

Source

Original.

 

Premieres

First Performance: Manchester (Palace Theatre), 2 July 1929.

First Performance in Scotland: tbc.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.

 

Background

Noel Coward is renowned as one of the most successful playwrights and songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century. Later in his career he established himself both as a highly reputable actor and as an expert cabaret-style performer. While several of his plays dealt with highly serious subjects, most notably an early success, The Vortex, of 1924, it is for the sophisticated wit of some of his best comedies that he is likely to be remembered. Hay Fever (1925), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1932), Blithe Spirit (1941) and Present Laughter (1942) have all enjoyed a number of successful revivals since his death, the first two, in particular.

Bitter Sweet was an enormous success at its pre-London opening in Manchester. It is an attempt to produce an operetta reminiscent of the Viennese works of Lehár, Kálmán and others. In that respect it also paved the way for the large-scale works of Ivor Novello that ran from the mid-thirties through the war years. Bitter Sweet is full of attractive melody, most famously the waltz song 'I'll see you again', and while the plot has its sentimental element, it has been shown to work in the theatre. One barrier to regular revival must be the requirement to produce sets of costumes illustrating three distinct periods. It also requires a long list of individualised characters.

The theme of Bitter Sweet must have reminded contemporary audiences of a successful Somerset Maugham play, The Circle (1925), in which the eloping couple return many years later, and it is clear that, unlike Coward's optimism, the outcome might be much less positive, and the elderly lady tries to prevent a young couple from making the same mistake.

 

Main Characters

Sarah Millick, later Marchioness of Shayne (soprano)

Carl Linden, an Austrian music teacher (tenor)

Manon 'La Crevette', a café singer (soprano)

Captain Auguste Lutte (baritone)

 

Plot Summary

The action takes place in three different times, the earliest being 1875, in fashionable upper-class London, followed by an episode in Viennese café society a short time later. The London of 1895 features in the last act, while the whole work begins and ends with a party in Grosvenor Square, vintage 1929.

In the opening scene, a lady of mature years, Lady Shayne, is entertaining, and she overhears a young couple quarrel and break off their relationship. She encourages the girl to follow her instincts and take up with a musician. The next scene shows her ladyship half a century earlier, as young Sarah Millick, doing exactly the same - she breaks off with her fiancé and elopes to Vienna with her music teacher, Carl Linden.

In Vienna, they earn a meagre living in a café. Carl plays the piano, while Sarah acts as hostess. An old flame of Carl's, Manon, is the singer. The young couple dream of a better future when they will have their own business. An army officer, Auguste Lutte, takes a fancy to Sarah, as a result of which he and Carl quarrel, and Carl is killed.

Time has passed, and it is 1895. Sarah has earned a living singing around Europe, impersonating a Hungarian. She eventually ends up in London, where Lord Shayne takes a fancy to her. There is a general sense of astonishment when her real identity is revealed, since she had disappeared so long before. Lord Shayne, aware that she will always love the long-dead Carl, still wishes to marry her on those terms, and she accepts him. The final scene returns to 1929, with the dilemma of the opening scene resolved and the elderly Sarah reminiscing about her love affair with Carl.

The Cast

Captain Auguste Lutte
 
Carl Linden
 an Austrian music teacher
Herr Schlick
 café proprietor
Manon 'La Crevette'
 a café singer
Marquis of Shayne
 
Sarah Millick
 later Marchioness of Shayne

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