The Chieftain is an expansion and continuation of
The Contrabandista (1867), composed early in Sullivan's
career after the success of Cox and Box. Essentially, the
first acts of The Contrabandista and The Chieftain
are identical. The dialogue, however, is completely new, several
new songs have been added, and the act finale extended. The
second act is entirely new. The Chieftain continues the
earlier opera's story, offering a more plausible solution to
Peter Adolphus Grigg's escape from the Spanish brigands.
The Chieftain is of all Sullivan's operas the most
difficult to appreciate. The blame has been placed squarely on
the libretto. Admittedly, the plot is thin, some songs are
without purpose, and many of the lyrics are inane in the xtreme.
Though he had written dozens of burlesques, operettas, and short
plays since The Contrabandista, all of Burnand's
theatrical experience seemed to fail him in creating The
Chieftain. Part of this may be due to the fact that the short
form was Burnand's forte. He apparently was not up to the
challenge of creating a full-length piece -- which may explain
why he turned to a thirty year old operetta for inspiration.
It is not a work without merit, however. Unlike most of
Gilbert's operas, The Chieftain is not a work that is best enjoyed simply by reading. Of all the Savoy operas, it is
probably the most dependent on stage direction, choreography, and competent acting.
The trio "What is the matter, Peter?" in the second act
provides an excellent example of the uniqueness of this opera.
With its multitude of stage directions, including asides,
misunderstandings between characters, and blocking, this number
requires acting of some caliber in order to convey the author's
multiple meanings. Unfortunately, it all comes across as weak on
paper. Other numbers, particularly "La criada," call for the same competence in acting and stage direction and are equally
uninspiring on paper.
The lack of availability of the vocal score or of a
professional recording have helped to relegate The
Chieftain to third-rate work from Sullivan. It will be hard
to convince readers otherwise, but this opera does have its
musical moments. The contemporary press particularly liked the
act two duet for Vasquez and Rita in which they reminisce in
grammar school French about their courtship. Whatever its musical merits, the duet is dramatically weak, however.
Sullivan's reasons for accepting The Chieftain are
not recorded, but money was certainly an issue (as it frequently
was with Sullivan), as was loyalty to producer Carte. In all
probability, the production of Gilbert's His Excellency in
October 1894 at the Lyric Theatre was also a factor.
Waning audience interest prompted Sullivan and Burnand to
attempt revisions. The majority of the alterations occur in the
first act, the second act remaining nearly untouched. As a
result, The Chieftain exists in two versions, the later
one minus the choral Angelus and the ensemble "Wanted a
Chieftain." Two sections were replaced with new material: Inez's
song "Let others seek the peaceful plain" was replaced by her "My
parents were of great gentility"; and the solo dance ("La fiesta
del amor") for Juanita in the act one finale was rewritten as a
dance for Grigg and Juanita. The song "My parents were of great
gentility" has little to do with the plot, but it made it into
the show while an equally pointless song for Rita, meant to
replace "Only the night wind sighs," apparently did not.
The changes were to no avail, however, and The
Chieftain closed after three months.
The only artists from the grand old days of the Savoy
featured in The Chieftain were Rosina Brandram as Inez,
Courtice Pounds as Vasquez, and Richard Temple as Sancho. Walter
Passmore played the principal comic role of Peter Adolphus Grigg,
and Florence Perry played his wife Dolly. Rounding out the major
roles were the familiar names of Florence St. John (Rita), Emmie
Owen (Juanita), Scott Fishe (Ferdinand), and Scott Russell
For a more complete dicussion of the evolution of The
Chieftain, see David Eden's article "The Chieftain:
Background and Text" in A Centenary Review of Sullivan's
Partnership with F.C. Burnand published by the Sir Arthur
Sullivan Society in 1994.
- Clifton Coles