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Plot Synopsis
by
Arthur Robinson

The Rose of Persia, with music by Sullivan and libretto by Basil Hood (which was described as a combination of The Arabian Nights and The Mikado), opened at the Savoy Theatre in 1899. The cast included Henry Lytton as the Sultan, and Rosina Brandram, the original Katisha, as Dancing Sunbeam. It received good reviews and ran for over 200 performances.

The major characters in the opera are: Hassan, a wealthy philanthropist; Dancing Sunbeam, his first wife (they are still married — he has twenty-five wives in all); Abdallah, a priest; Yussuf, a professional story-teller; the Sultan of Persia; his Sultana, Rose-in-Bloom, Rose-in-Bloom's three slaves and companions: Heart's Desire, Scent-of-Lilies, and Honey-of-Life; and the Sultan's three attendants: his Grand Vizier, Physician-in-Chief, and the Executioner.

Hassan is contented with his life, and explains in his first song that he likes to live in peace. That is why he has, despite his wealth, only married twenty-five times. Dancing Sunbeam is less happy. She complains to her husband that he is unresponsive to her nagging, and besides, when she married him for his money she expected to be in the best society. Instead, he prefers to associate with beggars rather than with the socially prominent, and therefore is rumoured to be insane. But she has concocted a plot with the villain of the piece, the priest Abdallah. He declares Hassan mad and prepares to drive out the evil spirit by which he must be possessed by (as he explains in rhymed verse) hanging him, kicking him, pricking him with swords, and then flicking him with wet towels. To avoid this, Hassan makes a will in Abdallah's favour, pointing out that this will would only be valid if he were of sound mind; the priest promptly decides the evil spirit has left Hassan, and pronounces him sane.

At this point a young man, Yussuf, appears, followed by four alleged dancing girls. Since they are afraid of meeting with the Sultan's guard, he deduced that they are really royal slaves in disguise. He is three-quarters right: three of them are royal slaves (including Heart's Desire, with whom he has already fallen in love), but the fourth is the Sultana herself, Rose-in-Bloom. She, while shut up in the palace, longed to see the world outside, and now wants to get back to avoid execution. A chorus of tramps and beggars (Hassan's dinner guests) arrives; Yussuf entertains them with a drinking song, and the "dancing girls" are invited to perform as well. In the middle of this, Abdallah returns, with two police officers, to arrest the beggars; but while he is singing his intricately-rhymed warrant, the beggars sneak off. Hassan has bribed the police to look the other way. Having lost the beggars, Abdallah orders the "dancing girls" to be arrested and brought to the Sultan. Rose-in-Bloom is alarmed, but Heart's Desire, wearing the Sultana's ring, claims that she herself is the Sultana. Her plan is to make the Sultan believe that his wife was home in the palace while a slave was impersonating her.

Abdallah is delighted. When the Sultan hears that his wife has been secretly visiting Hassan, Hassan will certainly be executed — and then his will can also be executed! Dancing Sunbeam realizes she has been double-crossed: Abdallah will now have all of Hassan's money, instead of sharing it with her.

Hassan determines to get himself through the execution by taking a drug called "bhang" (ed. note: some of you may remember how, in Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne tells how Mrs. Aouda was drugged with "bang" to keep her quiet while she was burned on her husband's funeral pyre). Yussuf is also distressed: Hassan is only going to lose his head, but he himself has lost his heart to the Sultan's wife. Rose-in-Bloom then reveals that the woman Yussuf loves isn't the Sultana — but she is. This cheers Yussuf up, but Hassan, learning that the Sultan's wife is still in his house, takes an overdose.

Hassan's house seems to be a magnet for impostors. He has already been visited this night by beggars posing as cripples and the Sultana and her slaves disguised as dancing girls; and now Heart's Desire announces that the Sultan, Grand Vizier, Physician-in-Chief, and Royal Executioner are arriving, disguised as dancing dervishes. The Sultan has decided to investigate for himself, incognito, the rumour that Hassan is mad. Hassan, high on "bhang", claims that he himself is the Sultan; he must be, since the Sultan's wife is in his house. The Sultan, informed by his physician, that Hassan must have taken an overdose of "bhang", decides to play a joke on him. He will pretend that Hassan is the Sultan. He informs Hassan's wives that their husband has been leading a double life and is, in fact, the ruler of Persia. His attendants, having shed their disguises, confirm this. Hassan is about to make Rose-in-Bloom unveil herself to prove her (and his) identity when he passes out. The Sultan has him conveyed to the palace, unconscious.

The second act takes place in the Sultan's palace. Yussuf appears and tells Heart's Desire that he is going to ask the Sultan to let him marry her. She points out that if he does so, there may be some awkward questions, and, if the truth comes out, they will all be executed. So he agrees to bend the truth a little.

The Sultan enters with his court, and announces that everyone is to treat Hassan, when he awakens, as the Sultan. Dancing Sunbeam arrives: since she believes Hassan to be the real sultan, she proclaims herself Sultana, proclaiming in a song the joys of rising in society (she can now snub everyone who used to snub her). The Sultan plays along. Rose-in-Bloom, hearing that there is a new sultana, thinks she has been found out, and begs her husband for pardon, only to find that he doesn't know what has been going on. She tries to sound him out to learn what his attitude would be if he should learn the truth, and the results are not encouraging. He remarks casually that if she did leave the palace in disguise, the punishment would probably be death, but if he was in a bad mood he might try to think of something worse.

Hassan finally comes to, and is bewildered to find everyone treating him as the sultan. He is told that he has just awakened from a long illness and lost his memory. He is almost convinced that he only dreamed his life as Hassan, and is appalled to learn that he now has 671 wives instead of a mere twenty-five. Then Abdallah arrives, and reveals that the Sultana secretly visited Hassan the night before. Hassan's relief at finding he does exist after all is short-lived: the enraged Sultan condemns him to death, and then comes up with a worse punishment for Rose-in-Bloom. Since she "favours low company", he will divorce her and marry her off to a mere story-teller, Yussuf. All prepare for the wedding, except for Hassan, who sings, "Bless my heart, it's time to start, or I shall be late for beheading!"

Heart's Desire is upset at the prospect of Yussuf's marrying the young and beautiful Rose-in-Bloom, and when Dancing Sunbeam arrives claiming to be the sultana, she arranges for her to take the real Sultana's place at the wedding ceremony. Soon, the social-climbing Dancing Sunbeam is shocked to find herself married to a lowly storyteller, and he seems no happier at finding himself married to her. Heart's Desire at last confesses to the Sultan that she was the one wearing the royal signet at Hassan's house. When Abdallah identifies her as the woman he saw wearing the ring, the Sultan condemns him to death for falsely sullying the Sultana's reputation. The relieved Hassan requests "the usual free pardon for what I never did", but is told that he, too, must die, since he falsely stated that the Sultana was at his house last night. Heart's Desire is also condemned to death, but Rose-in-Bloom begs her husband to spare her slave. When he asks why, Heart's Desire claims to that she has been telling a story to Rose-in-Bloom, who wants to know how it ends. The Sultan decrees that Heart's desire shall be spared — until the story is finished. Hassan then claims that he has been telling Heart's Desire the story, so the Sultan agrees that he shall not be executed either until the story has ended. He makes a further command: the story must have a happy ending — "I abominate unhappy endings." Requested to continue the story (at the end of which he is to be decapitated — he naturally wants to make it a long one), Hassan finds himself at a loss, but then has an idea. He begins to sing a song about a small boy; then he explains that this is actually the story of his own life. Since the Sultan himself has decreed that the story (which is the story of his life) must have a happy ending. . .

The Sultan, admitting that Hassan has outwitted him, spares his life, and restores Dancing Sunbeam to him, which pleases Hassan somewhat less. But it allows Yussuf to marry Heart's Desire. The opera ends with the usual epidemic of weddings. And in case anyone is concerned about the Royal Executioner, he gets paired off, too.



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