Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
A History and a Comment
by H. M. Walbrook



The next opera of the series came to light in December, 1889. A few days before, Gilbert said to a newspaper reporter: "I thought The Yeomen of the Guard the best thing we had done, but I am told that the public like the topsy-turvy best, so this time they are going to get it." He kept his word. The new opera was the ever-delightful Gondoliers.

For weeks before, Gilbert had been at work five hours a day drilling the actors and the chorus. In the first Act a game of blindman's-buff is played, at the end of which the two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, catch their brides-to-be, Gianetta and Tessa. That little passage of "business" alone took him three days to get into working order. With a less eager and faithful chorus it would probably have taken three weeks, and even then gone all wrong; but the Savoy "crowd" were simply devoted to the theatre and to their work in it, and realised to the full the dignity of their association with an art-form so famous as Savoy Opera. Perhaps they were not all quite so young as they looked on the stage. Many of them by this time had been twelve years in the company, getting a modest salary of £85 a year, and working for themselves in other ways during the daytime; but all were as proud as possible of their share in these memorable productions.

Gilbert had been at work for five months on the libretto of the new opera, and Sullivan as long on the score. "I daresay I could write an opera in a week," said the author once, "but it would be a precious bad one. I have always put all I knew into my work, for I think if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well." A fairly familiar platitude, of course — but how many comic opera librettists have taken the trouble to act upon it?

The Gondoliers, or the King of Barataria, was produced for the first time on Saturday night, December 7th, 1889. Once more a successor had had to be found to a departed favourite in the company. Mr. Grossmith had retired from the stage to follow the career of a public entertainer, à la Corney Grain. He was neither so accomplished a pianist nor so rich a humorist as that famous gentleman, but he had the initial advantage of being exceptionally well known and popular, and his experiment prospered. In fact, he had no difficulty in making a far larger income in the concert hall than he had ever made in the theatre. At Brighton, for example, it used to be said of him in playful envy: "He comes into the town at 2 p.m. with an empty bag, and leaves at 5.30 p.m. with £200 in it!" His place in the Savoy company was taken by Mr. Frank Wyatt, a tall, handsome, nimble and very polished comedian, who immediately acted, sang and danced the part of the Duke of Plaza Toro as it has never been rendered since. Another newcomer to the company was Miss Decima Moore, a young Brightonian, a pupil of Mine. Rose Hersee, who had never appeared upon the stage until she made her entry to the drumming of the "suite" as the Princess Casilda in this opera, and who instantly captivated the audience by her dainty prettiness and then proceeded to complete the conquest by her charming vocalisation. With these two fresh faces, moreover, came back the warmly welcomed and genial countenance of the audience's old friend, Rutland Barrington, who made his return to a stage he should never have left in the character of Giuseppe Palmieri.

This opera satirizes snobbery in all classes, from the "working man" upwards — or downwards, as you care to put it. It reminds us that a gondolier in the shade of the Ducal Palace can be just as complete a snob as a Doge. "As we abhor oppression, we abhor kings," remarks Giuseppe early in the story; but, when be learns that he may himself have been born heir to a throne, he promptly alters his tune. "Of course there are kings and kings," he says. "When I say I detest kings, I mean bad kings." And one of the pretty contadini standing by not only backs him up by declaring that she has "a very poor opinion of a politician who isn't open to conviction," but proceeds to paint the delights of being a Queen — to

. . . sit on a golden throne
With a crown instead
Of a hat on her head
And diamonds all her own!

The first song of the Grand Inquisitor, with its refrain —

No probable possible shadow of doubt,
No possible doubt whatever,

is still sung to a growing glory of laughter; and the same personage's ditty in the second Act is packed with lines that have become familiar, such as —

"Dukes were three a penny."

"And Party leaders you might meet
By twos and threes in every street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions."

"When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy!"

and —

—When every one is somebodee
Then no-one's anybody,"

while the scene in the first Act, in which the Duke of Plaza Toro describes his conversion into a limited liability company, with the song, "In enterprise of martial kind," which follows, are among the drollest Gilbert ever wrote.

The music of the first Act has here and there an Italian "atmosphere," that of the second a Spanish. Antonio's song, "For the merriest fellows are we," in the opening scene, strikes the whole opera's prevailing note of gaiety and vivacity. The two duets for Luiz and Casilda in the first Act are exquisite, conspicuously the second, with its persistent figure of two notes for the flute and oboe a particularly charming and pathetic touch. The quartette, "Then one of us will be a Queen," was hailed with a general roar on the first night, and when Sullivan proceeded to give the last verse as an encore, shouts of "The whole of it!" came from all parts of the house, with the result that the entire number was repeated, not only on that occasion but nightly during the whole run of the opera. Giuseppe's song, detailing the duties of a Baratarian King, is another of the collaborators' masterpieces of witty words and witty music. Marco's song, "Take a pair of sparkling eyes," has been thought by many the finest air Sullivan ever wrote; the choral cachuca is another joy and evoked on the first night another thunder, and the quintette, "I am a courtier grave and serious," has the Handelian touch which our composer could reproduce so happily. These are but a few of the opera's melodic treasures.

I do not know what the "record" is in the matter of the largest number of visits to any particular opera by one individual. I have heard of a distinguished member of Cambridge University who has witnessed over eighty performances of Iolanthe. Personally I cannot approach that — at least, not up to the present; but I remember seeing The Gondoliers seven times in one week — that is, six times in the evening and once at the Saturday matinée. If that, and perhaps some thirty other visits to it scattered over the years (to say nothing of countless other visits to most of the rest of the series) entitles me to membership of the elect company of true and proven Gilbert-and-Sullivanites, then I beg to put in my claim.

Some small changes have been made in the presentation of the opera as the years have rolled by. The costumes, for example, are no longer those which Gilbert designed. I think they have been improved upon. The original uniforms of the two Kings, for instance, in the second Act, were curious rather than beautiful. The original costumes of the Plaza Toro family in their prosperity have also, I think, been greatly improved upon. Several of the operas have been similarly redressed, always with taste, and always with loyalty to the spirit of the works and to the ideals of the author and the composer.

Robert Schumann once wrote in his diary on the night of the successful first performance of one of his symphonies: "With the help of God I will follow this road further. I feel so cheerful now that I hope to bring to the light of day many a thing which will make men's hearts rejoice." The music of The Gondoliers is not classic like the great German Romantic's "Symphony of Spring," but it has made the hearts of countless thousands of men and women rejoice; so here too may the composer be said not to have laboured in vain.


Page created 14 March 1999