Sullivan's comic opera The Chieftain is actually a re-make, or to be exact
a re-make and a sequel combined. In 1867 Sullivan and Francis Burnand, who had already
collaborated successfully on Cox and Box, wrote a comic opera called
The Contrabandista, which was produced by German Reed (who also produced several
works by Gilbert around this time, including Ages Ago and A Sensation Novel). In 1894, while Gilbert was collaborating with another composer on His Excellency, Sullivan and Burnand revised The Contrabandista, telescoping the two acts of the original into one act and adding an entirely new second act that picked up where The Contrabandista had left off. The Chieftain, as the "new" opera was called, opened at the Savoy on 12 December 1894; despite an excellent score by Sullivan and a cast that included such familiar Savoyards as Richard Temple and Rosina Brandram, it lasted for fewer than a hundred performances. (A revised version, preserving all of Sullivan's music but with a new book and some new lyrics by David Eden, was staged and recorded in 1978; the synopsis that follows, however, is that of Burnand's version.)
The major characters in The Chieftain are: Peter Adolphus Grigg,
a British tourist; his wife, Dolly; Count Vasquez, Grigg's Spanish friend;
Rita, the Count's fiancée; Inez de Roxas, Chieftainess of the Ladrones
(i.e., brigands); Ferdinand de Roxas, her missing husband; and Sancho and José, the 1st and 2nd Lieutenants of the Ladrones. The opera is set in Spain.
As the first act begins, Sancho and José are threatening each other, but Inez comes
in, firing a pistol, and gets her quarreling band to turn to more important matters--such as
plot exposition. It seems that Inez's husband has been missing for over a year now
(he eloped with the band's cash-box), so, by the Law of the Ladrones,
they must appoint a new chieftain. This chieftain is to be the first stranger who appears;
as an added bonus, this stranger will get to marry Inez. (The stranger will, of course,
have a choice; if he doesn't want to accept the position and Inez, he can choose to be shot
instead.) Sancho and José, each of whom wants to be the new chieftain, try to woo
Inez, but she is a law-abiding woman--at least when it comes to the law of the Ladrones.
Rita, who has been captured by the band and is being held for ransom (Inez explains
that if her friends don't pay up, she will be returned to them "by instalments on
account, a finger at a time"), waits for her beloved Count Vasquez to come and
rescue her. A shepherd arrives and announces that a stranger is approaching.
José wants to rob this stranger, but the others determine to make him their new
chieftain. All depart except for Rita and the shepherd, who reveals himself to be none
other than Count Vasquez in disguise; they try to go off together, but are spotted.
Peter Grigg, a travelling Englishman and amateur photographer, enters with his camera;
he sings a song expressing disillusionment with tourism and a desire to retire to a farm
and rear "little pigs and little Griggs." But the Ladrones have other plans;
they seize him and offer him the choice between the chieftaincy and death. Not only that,
they brutally force the unwilling Grigg to join them in a bolero.
Inez informs the captured Vasquez that by the law of the Ladrones, the new chieftain
must decide what to do with him. Grigg tells Vasquez and Rita that they may go, but Inez
invites them to stay long enough to join in the "carousals held for our espousals."
Grigg, learning that he is obliged as chieftain to marry Inez, becomes more reluctant than
ever. The brigands photograph the "happy pair" with Grigg's confiscated camera.
The act ends with a joyful wedding celebration--joyful, that is, for all except the groom.
By the time Act II begins, Vasquez and Rita have married, Grigg has been ransomed by
Vasquez (on condition that he return when Inez summons him), and Grigg's wife (that is,
his original wife), Dolly, has come from England to Spain in search of him (the characters
have evidently been busy during intermission). An alleged "Polish
courier"--actually Ferdinand de Roxas, the former chieftain of the Ladrones and
Inez's missing husband (remember him?)--conducts the Griggs to Count Vasquez and his
Countess. Mrs. Grigg has been suspicious of her husband's reticence about what he
has been up to in Spain (he is a timid sort, and finds it awkward to explain to his wife
that he has become a brigand chieftain and married a brigandess). Vasquez and Rita help
out their friend by claiming that Grigg heroically rescued them from a band of brigands,
who all perished in the ensuing battle. Grigg is relieved that now his wife can never
learn the truth; Ferdinand is relieved that the wife and band he has deserted can never
expose him. The audience, of course, knows better.
Sure enough, at this point Inez, Sancho, and the other Ladrones enter in disguise.
They meet the Griggs; as soon as his wife has left Grigg tells the brigands that he will
deny whatever they say, but Inez produces the compromising photograph of their wedding
celebration. Grigg purchases it, and thus escapes the clutches of Inez. Ferdinand is not
so lucky; he enters and is recognized. The brigands persuade him (with the help of a few
pistols) to rejoin their band, and the opera ends happily, if rather abruptly.
- Arthur Robinson