Gilbert and Sullivan Archive




Larry Garvin: I confess that GONDOLIERS is not quite at the top of my list, fond as I am of many parts of it in isolation. One reason, I think, is the rather scattered plot construction -- not nearly as scattered, heaven knows, as UTOPIA or GRAND DUKE, but hardly as tight as many of the earlier shows. As others have noted, the second act has nothing to do with the plot until the very end; though I don't intend to argue for the necessity of a taut book in operetta -- and a good thing, too -- it is helpful to throw in a bit of plot every so often to give the audience the impression that there's a point to all this. Rather a different problem comes in the much tighter first act. After the wonderful opening scene -- to my mind, one of the great sequences in G&S -- on come the Spaniards, who talk, and talk, and talk . . . That has to be one of the longest dialogues in the canon, especially in the canon through GONDOLIERS. Brilliant dialogue might ordinarily keep the audience riveted, but after so long a span of music? Pshaw. And Gilbert was not at his best in that sequence. True, it has to carry a lot of exposition, but breaking up the exposition with a shortish number might ease the transition to speech. Ah, well. Paul McShane: Quite so. When you think about it, the GONDOLIERS plot is just about on a par with that of UTOPIA.

Bill McCann: I have often wondered what on earth a Grand Inquisitor is doing living at the Ducal Palace (is this the same as the Doge's Palace) in Republican Venice. In 1750 the Inquisition was still a powerful voice in Spain - it would be 23 years yet before Carlos III would rein it in and expel the Jesuits. Whilst perhaps not as all-powerful as Torquemada (or as Verdi's Inquisitor in DON CARLOS) this guy would have been in an excellent political position in Madrid. So why kick his heels in Venice waiting for two GONDOLIERS to reach the age of majority. And why independent Venice anyway? Why not the Spanish kingdoms like Milan or Naples? Ken Krantz: This is a good point. I have always assumed that he used it as a temporary residence while pursuing his Venetian political manoeuvres. It is, after all, Spain rather than any of the Italian states of which he is Grand Inquisitor. When the Duke says that Don A "resides" in the palace, I interpret his status as a guest, rather than a permanent domiciliary. The death of the old king has caused both Don A and the ducal party to travel from Spain to Venice to pursue their respective agendas (his to arrange the Baratarian succession, theirs to install Casilda as queen). Being better financed, Don A got there first and, as a visiting VIP, has taken up guest quarters in the palace. I think of him as an 18th century practitioner of shuttle diplomacy.

Bill McCann: Finally, is the character really necessary on stage at all? Apart from hoodwinking the not-so-bright Plaza-Toros with a very specious argument, scaring off the chorus when they need to be exited, tilting at the idea of equality and threatening Inez with all of the illustrated papers and other tortures - what does he actually do to advance the plot or stage action? Ken Krantz: Geez, isn't that enough? What does the poor guy have to do to justify his existence--drop a chandelier on the audience? When I played Don Alhambra I thought that doing everything listed above--plus, for good measure, convincing the other characters to go to Barataria, thereby making all the events of the second act possible--made for a respectable evening's work. That, however, was my view as an actor doing the role. The question is a legitimate one, deserving a serious answer, and here is my attempt to give one: The plot concerns two groups of people (gondoliers/contadine group and the Plaza-Toro party) whose stories are interrelated but who are kept entirely separate until almost the end of the show. Until then there must be a connection between the two groups to move them toward their eventual meeting. I suppose the necessary communication could have been done some other way. For instance, bottles with messages inside could wash up from the canal every few minutes ("Your husband is one of two gondoliers but no one knows which. Send Luiz to fetch his mother, then meet the two of them in Barataria." "One of you is King of an island named Barataria. Go there and rule jointly until further notice. P.S. Leave your new wives behind."). I suppose that, or some other device, might be made to work, but it would be cumbersome. How much simpler and more satisfactory it is to have a single character acting as bridge between the two groups to keep the plot moving forward. Since that character was created by two masters of musical theatre he does more than keep the plot moving forward. He also provides memorable musical and comedic moments. In conclusion, if Don Alhambra did not exist it would have been necessary to invent him.

Barclay Gordon: In its dramatic construction, The GONDOLIERS offers two distinct groups of characters: the ducal party on one hand and the gondoliers and contadine on the other. They are linked by circumstance (a betrothal in infancy), by Don Alhambra who moves between the two groups, and, of course, by the certainty that nothing can be resolved until the two groups are joined on-stage. That Gilbert can keep two parallel stories afloat until near the end of the second act, and do so without losing audience interest in either, seems to me to be a tribute to his skills as a dramatist. Tom Shepard: Why is advancing the plot such a meaningful commodity? A great many Gilbertian characters do not advance the plot; some of them are quite loveable. Others, like Don Alhambra, are more forbidding. Characters do not always appear out of necessity, but rather simply because it is desirable for one reason or another to have them around.

Andrew Crowther: I've been puzzling over the question of why I don't like THE GONDOLIERS very much, this past week. Bruce seems to have hit on something when he says that "words" Savoyards don't like it as much as "music" ones. But why? What is so different about it? I saw a production of it last Saturday at Bradford University - a very pared-down production, with piano accompaniment, no elaborate sets or costumes, and an almost comically small chorus. The actors mugged a bit too much for my taste, but parts of it worked very well. However, the point is that I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of the plot. This is in contrast with some of the other operettas - e.g. RUDDIGORE, the plot of which my mother has always lost by the end of Act 1. That's in GONDOLIERS' favour, of course. But maybe the plot is a little too simple. I miss the layer of irony which we find in most of the other operas - the sense that Gilbert knows he's playing with clichés, and is turning them upside-down and inside-out of our pleasure. But the Venice setting and the good-hearted gondoliers are played pretty straight. The joke against the gondoliers' republican fallacies is very, very mild indeed, and not at all in the same league as the joke against Sir Joseph Porter, for instance. Marco and Giuseppe are probably the most likeable characters in the entire Savoy canon. The joke of their trying out a republican monarchy depends on their good-heartedness - they end up the slaves of their own courtiers. This is very funny in an un-Gilbertian "feelgood" way, but where does that leave a good Gilbertian like me? Someone pointed out that Don Alhambra do much. Almost all the activity comes from the gondoliers and contadine. It's been argued that no one actually cares if such people are integral to the plot, if they only entertain us enough on the way. Fair enough; but that's absolutely against all that Gilbert had been practising for the past 20 years. THE GONDOLIERS is odd because it's looser in structure than its predecessors, more amenable to digressions. Several writers have noticed that it's nudging towards the feel of musical comedy. And that's where the business of personal preference comes in, and it's pointless to argue. Personally I prefer watertight plots stuffed with ideas and irony, and wholesome good heartedness makes me uncomfortable. But that's my problem. Whatever your attitude to these things, it's interesting, I think, to notice that GONDOLIERS is pretty much one of a kind in the Gilbert canon. It's actually more about character than plot.

Ken Chambers: I agree with Andrew that the plot is relatively simple. The Duke, The Duchess, and Casilda are essential to Gilbert's plot, surely, as the arranged marriage to the infant king, C.'s love affair with Luiz, and the prospect she will have to break up the marriage of one of the two Palmieri boys are integral to the story. Furthermore, a point he does not make is that the Ducal pair are the closest thing to high-borns that are available (until the King shows up in the Finale, that is). Therefore it is important to have the give and take between the aristocratic Duke and the clumsily non-aristocratic gondolier pair in Act II, satirising (British spelling) the exaggerated contrast between two extremes. Making fun of class distinctions is such a common theme in Gilbert's works, it's not surprising to see this as a major plot element in GONDOLIERS. (Or, if not a "plot element," then an exploration of difference in the characters, as Andrew says). I started as a "music" person but have gotten more interested in "words" as time goes on.

Bill Snyder: IMHO, the most wonderful thing about the GONDOLIERS libretto is that NOTHING HAPPENS in the second act! The girls arrive and then everybody waits around for Inez to be tortured into submission. G & S brilliantly distract the audience's attention from this number by number! It works! Andrew Crowther: Strange... We've just had lengthy discussions about how the main flaw of UTOPIA was its plotlessness, and now GONDOLIERS is being praised for the same reason.... The obvious difference between them is that the things that happen in UTOPIA while nothing is happening have specific satirical points; in GONDOLIERS the tone is much lighter, and we're being distracted with dancing, fairly broad comedy, etc. As Bruce (I think) said, we're being treated with the unusual spectacle of Gilbert depicting simple human joy. Also, in GONDOLIERS we're kept interested by the use of that fairly obvious plot device about Inez revealing the identity of the true King. In UTOPIA there is no such hook - unless Gilbert means us to be kept on the edge of our seats about how UTOPIA copes with English conventions. I've just given two good reasons why GONDOLIERS is better than UTOPIA. Why, then, do I still prefer UTOPIA of the two? Sheer perversity. Bruce Miller: The "plot" of the second act is: what happens when everyone is somebodee and no one's anybodee. It's like the second half of IOLANTHE: how people deal with the consequences of their actions. The general category for this kind of plot is situation comedy. It is also true that the second act of GONDOLIERS has a succession of musical numbers far superior to the general level in UTOPIA, and Gilbert's dialogue and plot resolutions are both better written and make more sense than what happens in UTOPIA.

Sam Clapp: I hadn't planned to say much about the GONDOLIERS, because I can only take it in small doses, but I really don't think the assertion that Gilbert is "an equal opportunity satirist satirizing democracy" really holds. I think, rather, that Marco & Giuseppe set up a protocommunist society on Barataria (i.e., everyone is made to be equal...and when everyone is somebodee, well, all hell breaks loose.). Furthermore, and of satire of a different type, does anyone else think that Don Alhambra, Marco, Giuseppe, Gianetta, and Tessa are rather like Don Alfonso, Ferrando, Guglielmo, Dorabella, and Fiordiligi from COSI FAN TUTTE? I saw COSI set once as some Victorian English ladies on holiday in Italy (the scenes between the lovers were in English, and the scenes between Don A. and Despina in Italian...brilliant, I thought), and it just 'screamed' GONDOLIERS to me.... the "Xebeque" scene is especially analogous to the scene in which the COSI boys get "sent off to war." Eugenia Horne: I'll just say that I find "Victorian" political thought immensely fascinating as the old aristocratic European systems came into conflict with newer "democratic" ideals and the discussion went back and forth both in serious literature and in satire. After Gilbert satirized his own system (The House of Lords in " IOLANTHE", etc.), he seems to look over to the "other side" and rather reflects something of the British view of "It's not without flaws, but it sure stood the test of time". There are numerous cartoons at this time showing Victoria firmly seated upon her throne, while German, French, Spanish, etc. monarchs succumb to "people's" revolutions (some of which were influenced by "The Great Sea-Serpent of the West" - the United States with it's peculiar government by "mob rule".) The take on "constitutional monarchy" as expressed in "Philosophers may sing of the duties of the king...", I find pretty funny too.


Phillip Nolen: I am sure, given the good reviews so far of the extended opening musical sequence of GONDOLIERS, that I will have my pale behind flamed quite red for writing this, but write it I must: I am absolutely FURIOUS that Gilbert felt it necessary to include an Italian-language section in the opening sequence! In my opinion this use of Italian is a tacit acknowledgment that English-language operas are second-class artistic novelties not worth serious critical consideration. How many times do we find English lyrics popping up in Italian and German works? I would not be so miffed about this if I did not feel that English, an incredibly expressive language capable of sublimely delicate shades and depth of meaning, has been allowed no room at all in the world of opera. Fuming (in English). Tom Shepard: If you're joking, it's very funny. If you're serious, there is no hope for you at all. Bruce Miller: This was my reaction precisely, but as I was genuinely undecided, thought it best not to say anything. Glad to have my opinion corroborated by a competent authority!

Derrick McClure: Och, come on, Philip! Gilbert's use of Italian in the GONDOLIERS an insult to the English language - from one of the most accomplished artists in the English language of his time? He also used French in THE GRAND DUKE, Japanese (real and fake) in THE MIKADO and even Utopian in UTOPIA - why single out that wee bit Italian for special vilification? It's only a bit of scene-setting, to give Sullivan the opportunity, to which he rose splendidly, to write some Italianate music. Furthermore, English IS all you say it is and more; but so is Italian, is it not? The language of the greatest single work of literature in the world? (OK, ONE of the greatest, if anybody thinks I've got it in for the ILIAD or the AENEID or the FAERIE QUEENE or the TALE OF GENJI.) Certainly Gilbert wasn't setting out to challenge Dante on his own ground by writing "Buon giorno, signorine" (on the contrary, I think a case could be made for suggesting that he was parodying the conventions of Italian opera by writing such laughably naive words!), but there's no sense in saying that Gilbert shouldn't have written a song in Italian because English is such a magnificent language! There's also the point that operatic libretti are not really a genre where great literary subtlety and delicacy is called for. You don't need to be a Shakespeare, or to have Shakespeare's language at your disposal, to write a good libretto. There are occasional instances (Hofmannsthal and who else?) of librettists who are known, outwith their operatic work, as major literary figures in their own right; and lots of instances of operas with outstanding libretti, but a libretto doesn't need to be great literature to be suitable for great music. And finally, the fact that English has been much less conspicuous in the history of opera than Italian or German is entirely the fault of the speakers and users of English - there's been no international conspiracy by the wicked Europeans to keep our noble language out of the field, though the present (but soon to be past) government would no doubt like to think there was!

Andrew Crowther: I must quote Gilbert's opinion on this, which I copied down from a letter in the British Library. He wrote it to William Archer on 5 October 1904, and said in part:

"I have always held that English is (next to Italian) the very best of all European languages for singing purposes, provided that the song-writer will take into consideration the requirements of the singer & reject words & phrases that involve a hard collection of consonants & a succession of close vowels. I wrote two of the songs in "The Yeomen of the Guard" ("Were I thy bride" & "Is life a boon") for the express purpose of proving this...."

It's very difficult to find writings by Gilbert dealing with aspects of his craft: I find insights like the above fascinating. All right, he _does_ seem to imply that Italian is a better language to sing in, but his insistence that English can be compared with it in this respect must surely have been unusual in that era.

Ronald Orenstein: How many times do we find English lyrics popping up in Italian and German works? It does happen (I believe Brecht did it now and again). Anyway, have you ever heard the expression "local colour"? Besides, are you as infuriated at the use of Japanese lyrics in the Mikado? Or the Latin words, Greek remarks etc. in IOLANTHE? I cannot imagine how the use of a few words in Italian is Gilbert's giving up on the English language, any more than Miya Sama is a tacit acknowledgment that all comic operettas should really be written in Japanese. Neil Ellenoff: Actually, it happens quite frequently. I can think of three off hand. In the Paul Abraham operetta about Hawaii and two by Emmerich Kalman. The Duchess of Chicago (a slow fox with Mary (( with cocktails and sherry)). The other one I think is BAJADERE. David Craven: It does happen... sort of.... For example, in LA BOHEME, Schaunard does an imitation of an Englishman doing bad Italian.. (although at present it is hard for me to distinguish between my bad Italian and my intentionally bad Italian..). In EUGENE ONEGIN there is a character who sings in French... In FLEDERMAUS there are two characters that speak to each other in "French" although they are full of nonsense... I suspect that the "Italian" section in GONDOLIERS is really just an attempt by Gilbert to set atmosphere....In any event, everyone knows that most, if not all, Italian Opera is really second rate, and that all of the really great Operas are primarily German with a couple of Russian and French Operas thrown in for good measure...Ronald Orenstein: French wasn't specified, but there is an "English" lyric in Ravel/Colette's "L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES": How's your mug?/Rotten./Better had./Come on! (etc.)

Robert Jones: Fuming Philip, surely it's not that bad. While being a satirist, Gilbert was also a patriot and held a high opinion of British theatre (his own productions, at any rate). I have no doubt that he was yet again showing off his (possibly crammed) linguistic skills. This is aside from the fact that Italian (in which every word rhymes with every other word) lends itself well to mellifluous music, casting a rosy glow about (most of) the audience, and reinforcing the Venetian milieu (that word is French). Bill Snyder: LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST: "Hallo, Minnie" Hallo, ragazze!""Do-da, do-da" I certainly hope the Italian section of GONDOLIERS doesn't sound as dopey to an Italian as the above does to an American. (And I like FANCIULLA!) Ian Hollamby: I don't think that Gilbert was admitting, tacitly or otherwise, that English-language operas were second rate. We Brits have an acknowledged propensity for finding foreigners amusing, and Gilbert may have had this in mind when he built Italian words into GONDOLIERS The opera puts, as do most of the works, archetypal British 'types' into an unusual setting thus illuminating their absurdities. Asking these 'types' to sing in Italian could serve only to enhance the amusement of the Victorian audience. Italian Opera was (inter-alia) assumed to be the 'height of art' at the time, and I suspect that Gilbert was spoofing in much the same way as John Frederic Lampe, a century earlier, in his work 'PYRAMUS & THISBE'; a comic opera wherein one of the characters claims that it is necessary to obtain foreign (Italian) performers at exorbitant prices, in order for the work to succeed. I believe that Gilbert's 'Italian words' are a similarly ironic comment on current fashion. Howard Dicus: Re Gilbert's use of Italian in GONDOLIERS and the more general issue of operas which quote languages other than their "native" ones: Maybe it's fitting that it's like this. One of the defining traits of the English tongue is its interest in, and appropriation of, words from other languages. "The Story of English" made the point that it's what makes poetry so good in this language: so many possible words to choose to fit a given meaning. Whatever you want to say, you can make it soft or rough, technical or earthy. You can say, "cut up," or "vivisect" (the Washington Savoyards will be doing PATIENCE in May and I've got that libretto on the brain at the moment). Come to think of it, though, if a lawyerly sort of fellow like Gilbert wanted to be fond of another language it might have been better to make it French, which gave us practically the entire glossary of English legal terms. In any case we can be glad that, resisting all temptations, to speak in tongues of other nations, he mainly stuck to the lingua franca with its je ne sais quoi.

Neil Ellenoff: There's also the point that operatic libretti are not really a genre where great literary subtlety and delicacy is called for. Richard Strauss wrote an aria in Italian in the middle of DER ROSENKAVALIER. Ronald Orenstein: Interestingly enough, this aria, "Di rigori armato il seno", had its words lifted not from an Italian work but from a French one - Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which also served as the vehicle for the original version of the next Strauss-Hoffmansthal opera, ARIADNE AUF NAXOS. It occurs in the "Ballet des nations" at the end of the play, and its original setting (which Strauss's does not resemble in the slightest) was by Lully.


Paul McShane: I hesitate to give this an OOTW subject code, even though it's about the GONDOLIERS: Is there a consensus on the pronunciation of the first consonant in names like Giuseppe, Giulia, Giovanni, Giorgio and Gianetta? Should we use the "dj" sound as in "judge", or the softer "zh" sound as in the French "je"? Jeff DeMarco: I notice with some interest that in The Gilbert & Sullivan Story Robert Morley (as WSG) uses a hard G - as in "Gus"-seppe. Is this the common pronunciation? Marc Shepherd: I don't know how many GONDOLIERS productions I've seen, but I've never heard the Gi sound pronounced with a zh. I don't claim to speak Italian, but I listen to a lot of Italian opera, and 'zh' is not the correct pronunciation. It's not like 'Cachucha', which is traditionally pronounced 'Cachuka', even though it's linguistically incorrect. The 'dj' sound for 'Giuseppe', 'Gianetta', etc., is correct. Dan B: Italian opera would use the "dj" sound as in "judge". What Gilbert might have intended may be different. William Florescu: This really doesn't invite opinion does it? If you're going to do it in Italian pronunciation it is the hard sound. Theodore Rice: As a speaker of Italian, I can't remember any place in the formal language where 'g' before a vowel is given the 'zh' sound. Maybe in some small locales---in the Meridionale?---but not in Venice. It's got to be the 'j'sound... Derrick McClure: Because it's something that makes me bristle almost every time I see a GONDOLIERS, I can't resist giving a definitive answer. Giuseppe, Giulia, Giorgio, Giovanni and Gianetta are pronounced with the J of English JUDGE - NOT, a thousand times NOT, with the J of French JOUR. Furthermore, the I which follows the G in all those names is SOLELY to show that the G has this pronunciation and not as in GET - it is not itself pronounced, i.e. it's JUseppe, JAnetta, JOvanni, etc. - NOT "JEE-useppe, JEE-anetta, JEE-ovanni". Anybody with even the slightest knowledge of Italian will flip his lid at those mispronunciations!

Henry Stephens: Aaaay, whatsa mattah for youse? I gotta agree wit the soulful-eyed Derrick. Aay, Derrick, ya got dat right! Just de oddah day, I had dis very same conversation wit my "boys." We was gonna come down to da next GONDOLIERS performance and do a little performance of our own. Nottin' big, just a few heads. But den we sees dis post from you, an' we figure, hey, here's one non-Italian dat gets it. So maybe da rest of youse can wise up. <KNUCKLE CRACK> And tanks, Derrick, for doin' your part for peace and non-violence! Lucciano "The Shark" Caruso channeling through: Henry A. Stephens. Dan B: Lucciano "The Shark" Caruso's "italian-ate" response was a welcome breath of fresh air. thanks Henry.

Larry Garvin: This may well be in a FAQ by now, or at least it should be. But what of the pronunciation in the Cachucha? For example, take Manzanilla. Should it be pronounced man-zuh-NILL-ah, as in at least one D'Oyly Carte, or mahn-zah-NEE-yah, which seems a little closer to Spanish? And what of Xeres? And, for that matter, Cachucha? Tell us, tell us all about it. (I suppose I prefer non-Anglicized pronunciation, FWIW, if only to avoid corrupting the young. But then, my profession -- law -- does its best to massacre Latin and French, so I have much to atone for.)

David Duffey: Two questions really:

1. A general question: do the libretti published in the US use US spellings?

2. Is it a fact that GONDOLIERS has been adapted more to aid US understanding than the other operas? I am thinking of the Duke's dialogue about floating himself as a limited company. Marc Shepherd: 1. I am aware of no version of the libretti available today that uses US spellings. I have seen some 19th-century libretti that did this, but none that were published in modern times. 2. Occasionally, a director will rewrite isolated lines of dialogue to replace obscure references with contemporary ones. I certainly don't think this happens more in GONDOLIERS than other operas. Indeed, the most commonly-encountered adaptation of this type is rewriting the patter songs from THE MIKADO. David Cantor: I can think of two "Americanizations" in the G. Schirmer scores:

MIKADO, Yum-Yum: "And for THAT I should get toko"

IOLANTHE, LC: "...every fairy shall die who WON'T marry a mortal..."

Page created 30 June 1997