You are here: Archive Home > The Gondoliers >
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Title

First Night Review from The Times, Monday, December 9, 1889.


The Gondoliers; or, the King of Barataria, the new opera by Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, was received on Saturday night with such hearty and unanimous approbation as to make it easy to augur that it will be long before the next of the series is required. If a position among the best of the joint authors’ productions be ultimately accorded to the new work, as will probably be the case, it will be due less to any remarkable originality or interest in the plot than to the dialogue, which is in Mr. Gilbert’s very best style, and the bright and sparkling music, some of which is quite irresistible in its melodious gaiety, while all is, as usual, spontaneous, refined, and thoroughly characteristic of the composer. In its combination of extreme complexity with almost complete absence of incident the story rivals that of Il Trovatore, which it resembles in one important point.

The facts appear to be as follows (we undertake their relation with extreme diffidence):– The infant son of the King of Barataria, after being contracted in marriage to the daughter of a Castilian hidalgo, is “changed at nurse” for the son of his foster-mother, who at the time when the action of the piece takes place (1750) has become the wife of “a highly respectable and old-established brigand, who carries on an extensive practice in the mountains around Cordova.” The substituted child is next carried off by the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, in consequence of the addiction of the Baratarian Court to the tenets of Wesleyan Methodism, to Venice, and is there once more mixed up with the son of a gondolier; the boys grow up together and pass as brothers, themselves becoming gondoliers and marrying Venetian contadine. That there has been what may be called a double shuffle is, of course, concealed from the audience until the end. The arrival of Inez, the nurse, who alone can declare which is the true King, is imminent all through the two acts, into which, according to precedent, the opera is divided; as the Inquisitor declares early in the first act that he can find her at any moment, the audience can but hope that something may delay her coming, and the consequent fall of the curtain, until a sufficient number of songs and concerted pieces have been heard. This delay is, of course, effected; and a new set of complications is occasioned by the revelation that neither of the gondoliers is King, but that one of them is her son. As it is absolutely impossible to tell which of the reputed brothers is the Spaniard and which the Italian, the second instalment of what we quite understand Mr. Gilbert calling a “dull enigma” is left untouched, or perhaps kept back for future occasions.

On this not very promising framework the author has constructed a libretto which even he has rarely surpassed in whimsical absurdity. Mr. Gilbert is a privileged person, and none but the most captious of critics will resent his allowing the Spanish Inquisitor, a functionary who rejoices in the name of Don Alhambra del Bolero (Mr. W. H. Denny), to reside, to all appearances permanently, in the Ducal Palace at Venice, and there to receive the state visit of an impoverished nobleman, the Duke of Plaza-Toro (Mr. F. Wyatt), who arrives with his Duchess (Miss Brandram), their daughter Casilda (Miss Decima Moore), who will be recognized as Queen of Barataria as soon as the identity of that Monarch is established, and their suite, consisting exclusively of a private drummer (Mr. Brownlow). The entry of these august personages in their pompons but shabby clothes, and the quartet they sing, start the hilarity of the piece, which never flags from that moment.

The two gondoliers (Messrs. Courtice Pounds and Mr. Rutland Barrington (sic)) are meanwhile being married to their sweethearts (Miss Geraldine Ulmar and Miss Jessie Bond); the ceremony is just accomplished when they are informed by the Inquisitor that one of them is King of Barataria; as it is at present impossible to decide which it is, both sail off in a very picturesque xebecque for the island of Barataria, there (wherever it may be) to reign jointly “as one individual.” Their song sung in alternate syllables, by the two as they stand in an absurd attitude suggestive of the Siamese twins, is one of the great “hits” of the opera.

In the second act .they are found enthroned side by side, after the manner of the two Kings of Brentford in the Duke of Buckingham’s immortal travesty, but surrounded by a Court modelled on Republican principles. All departments rank equally, and everybody is at the head of his “department.” It may be readily imagined that so excellent an opportunity for the exhibition of the characteristic Gilbertian humour is not lost. The Kings are apparently the only hard worked people in the realm, as it appears from Mr. Barrington’s deliciously funny catalogues of the duties of the position, which range from dressing the private valet (“It’s a rather nervous duty; he’s a touchy little man”) to running on little errands for the Minister of State. The courtiers, it should be added, are the chorus of gondoliers of the first act, and on the arrival of all the contadine, including the brides, there is, of course, great merrymaking. Once more the noble Spanish family arrives upon the scene, this time in gorgeous array, to claim the hand of whichever of the two Kings may prove to be Casilda’s husband and the rightful monarch. The change in their circumstances has been effected by sundry means not unheard of outside Spain. The Duke drives a capital trade by getting

“Small titles and orders
“For Mayors and Recorders,”

by floating bubble companies, and allowing ready made tailors to use his name,

“Though Robinson Crusoe
“Would jib at their wearing apparel.”

The Duchess adds to the family income by presenting

  “any lady
“Whose conduct is shady,”

and launching “her in first-rate society,” by vowing her

  “Derives its perfection
“From somebody’s soap – which it doesn’t,”

and the like. Among the companies floated by the Duke, one is nothing less than himself, as appears in the first act; the joke is not carried far, but it gives opportunity for Casilda to prove her relationship to Miss Minnie Symperson and other creations of Mr. Gilbert’s fancy, by asking, “Am I to understand that the Queen of Barataria may be called upon at any time to witness her honoured sire in process of liquidation?” and receiving the answer from her mother, “The speculation is not exempt from that drawback. If your father should stop it will, of course, be necessary to wind him up.”

The situation in which three wives appear to belong to two husbands is finally cleared up by the declaration of the nurse (Miss Bernard) that neither of the two is King, but that the crown belongs to none other than Luiz the drummer, or “suite” of the Duke, to whom Casilda has already given her young affections.

All the qualities by which the music of the former operas has obtained for the series a popularity almost without parallel in musical history are present in the last of the set, and the average level of interest and beauty is in this instance higher than usual. Perhaps for that reason no individual song stands out from the rest as prominently as did “Were I thy bride” and “I have a song to sing, O,” in its predecessor, but it cannot be doubted that nothing since the Mikado has been so good as the new work.

There is an abundance of charming concerted pieces, one of which, it is scarcely too much to say, is the cleverest thing that the composer has accomplished. It is a quartet in the second act, in which the two Kings and their respective wives endeavour to solve the difficulties of their position. Musically it is an elaborate set of variations on a very pretty theme. The subject is first sung through in unison and is then reiterated, always by three of the voices, each singer in turn descanting on it in tones of distraction or objurgation, and returning in succession to the calm and sedate theme. It was with great difficulty that the singers escaped with only one encore.

A quartet sung by the same singers in the first act, “Then one of us will be a queen,” is less interesting from a musical point of view, but is scarcely less hilarious. When an attempt was made by Sir Arthur Sullivan to repeat only the latter portion of the number, shouts of “All of it” obliged him to accept an inevitable fate, and allow the whole to be sung again.

In the course of the Inquisitor’s song, “There lived a King, as I’ve been told,” three exceedingly funny musical allusions occur, which scarcely need to be pointed out, so quickly were they taken up by the audience. The ensemble at the entry of the grandees “from the sunny Spanish shore,” is as lively in music as it is in words, and the interludes on the side drum are very mirth-provoking.

One of the happiest touches of Mr. Gilbert’s own humour immediately succeeds this, when the Duke observes that he would have paid his state visit to the ducal palace in Venice on horseback, “but, owing, I presume, to an unusually wet season, the streets are in such a condition that equestrian exercise is impracticable.”

The quintet in the second act, which takes the form of a lesson in deportment, given to the two Kings by the ducal family is an extremely pretty gavotte, with the quartette already mentioned and a very brilliant cachucha (not to mention another quintette strongly recalling the well-known ensemble in Carmen), it constitutes one of the chief musical attractions of that act, which, apart from these three, is less interesting than the first.

To mention all the successful numbers would be to make an exhaustive catalogue of the music. The Duke’s song with a very skilful drum obbligato, the duet for his daughter and the “suite,” the Inquisitor’s song, the charming bridal chorus, are thoroughly effective and bright. The songs for the two brides are less remarkable, for they conform to various types that have become a little too well worn in previous operas of the series. Ample compensation is given, however, in that part of the finale in which they entreat their husbands to behave with exemplary propriety in their new sphere. The whole is most skilfully orchestrated as usual.

A special interest attached to the present production altogether apart from its own qualities, in consequence of Mr. Barrington’s return to the Savoy Theatre and Mr. Grossmith’s absence for the first time, since the series began, from the first performance of a new opera. The former artist was greeted with a burst of hearty applause, the purpose of which was quite unmistakable; he acted and sang with all his usual unction, and his dancing was as excellent as ever. Mr. Grossmith must accidentally have entered his own name on a certain “list” about which he used to sing in The Mikado, for although the company would unquestionably be stronger than it is, were he present, yet it cannot be said that any very terrible blank is caused by his absence, and no trace is to be found of a part such as he alone could create, and such as was a principal attraction is one and all of the former operas.

Mr. Denny as the Grand Inquisitor is quite first-rate, and his demeanour, as he remarks, concerning the nurse who is waiting in the torture chamber to be “interviewed,” “There’s no hurry – she’s all right. She has all the illustrated papers,” reaches a very high standard of comic acting. Mr. F. Wyatt, a new acquisition to the company, is a legitimate successor to Mr. Temple; his singing and acting are very good, and he has the excellent support of Miss Brandram, who has a part that suits her to perfection. Miss Decima Moore, another new-comer, has a delightfully fresh voice, which it is to be hoped will not be materially injured by the wear and tear involved in singing elaborate music night after night; she sings with very good taste and gives distinct promise of becoming a very acceptable actress; her appearance is extremely taking, and on the whole, a more successful début has not recently taken place, at least in comic opera.

Miss Ulmar uses her powerful voice with considerable taste, and has made decided improvement since her first appearance. Miss Bond is of course the life and soul of the scenes in which the married couples take part; her singing, acting, and dancing are, as usual, superlatively good. Mr. Courtice Pounds is thoroughly satisfactory, though he is rather overshadowed by the constant companionship of Mr. Barrington. Mr. Brownlow in the small part of the real King, who is first seen as the “suite” of the Duke, has a voice which might prove agreeable if it could be heard without a constant tremolo.

The two scenes are a marvel of stage adaptation, the first representing no less a space than the Piazetta at Venice, with the columns of the Ducal palace and the lagoons beyond. The second, a very pretty scene of Moorish character, does not commit itself to any rash statements concerning the position of Barataria on the map. It is needless to say that with Sir Arthur Sullivan directing affairs the performance went without a hitch of any kind, and that the reception of the work could not possibly have been more cordial.

Archive Home | The Gondoliers

   Page modified 14 January, 2010 Copyright © 2010 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.