'The Gondoliers' - the Comic Opera Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'The Gondoliers' - the Comic Opera

0 Conversations

The Comic Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan | William Schwenk Gilbert - Dramatist | Sir Arthur Sullivan - Composer | 'HMS Pinafore'
'The Pirates of Penzance' | 'Patience' | 'Iolanthe' | 'The Mikado' | 'Ruddigore' | 'The Yeoman of the Guard' | 'The Gondoliers'
The D'Oyly Carte Company

A poster of Guiseppe's costume from 'The Gondoliers'.  Image in the Public Domain

The Gondoliers, or the King of Barataria was the last of Gilbert and Sullivan's huge successes. Unfortunately, during its long run at the Savoy Theatre, Gilbert quarrelled with D'Oyly Carte and Sullivan over the price of a new carpet, and withdrew all his works from the Company at the close of 1890. Gilbert and Sullivan had often had their differences, including during the last months of the run of The Yeoman of the Guard. Despite this, work on The Gondoliers, although conducted at a distance, was amicable. Gilbert wrote the book at his home in Uxbridge, and then sent the pages to Sullivan at Weymouth to be scored. For all their arguments, each man had a great respect for the other's talents, and a gratitude for what the partnership had brought them. The result of this laying aside of differences was one of their most popular operas, second only to The Mikado on its opening.

The Gondoliers opened in December 1889 to rapturous audiences. It is, strangely, a wonderful valedictory opera, one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most amusing and affectionate. It features an ensemble cast with no one character created to stand out, and a host of memorable tunes. On a slightly baser level, the glowing review in The Topical Times began thus:

The attractions of The Gondoliers are numerous. To begin with, the chorus wore comparatively short skirts for the first time, and the gratifying fact is revealed to a curious world that the Savoy chorus are a very well-legged lot.

In a gentle manner, the opera satirises the class system. Gilbert also draws in other elements for ribbing: the ideas of republican government held by Marcus and Guiseppe, and the idea of arranged marriages and impoverished aristocrats. Despite this The Gondoliers was popular with the royal family. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) attended at least four performances at the Savoy, while Queen Victoria requested her own private performance at Windsor Castle. This highlights one of the most important facets of Gilbert and Sullivan's work: their ability to appeal to all classes, and even to the people whom they satirised.

The Plot

As said above, there is no one main character in The Gondoliers, but rather a large ensemble cast, featuring in particular three pairs of lovers: Casilda and Luiz, Gianetta and Marco, and Tessa and Guiseppe, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro and the Spanish Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra.

Act I

The operetta opens in Venice with scenes of joy and dancing as the two most eligible gondoliers, Marco and Guiseppe (who are twin brothers), arrive to find wives. As they cannot chose between the Venetian maidens, they play a game of Blindman's Bluff to pick a bride, Marco catching Gianetta and Guiseppe Tessa. Needless to say the two men immediately declare that these were just the girls they were hoping for, which amuses their future brides immensely.

After the crowd disperses a new gondola arrives at the piazza. It contains the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, their beautiful daughter Casilda and Luiz, the Duke's 'suite'. The Duke has come to Venice to see the Grand Inquisitor and sends Luiz off to seek that gentleman. Meanwhile he breaks to Casilda the news that when she was six months old she was married to the baby son of the King of Barataria. Unfortunately for the match, the King then became a Wesleyan Methodist and began to persecute his people. The Grand Inquisitor was determined that this state of affairs should not continue, and so kidnapped the infant heir and brought him to Venice. The King and Court of Barataria were subsequently killed in an uprising.

Casilda is not at all pleased by the news that she is now Queen of Barataria, married to a man she has never seen, especially since she is really in love with Luiz. When he returns she breaks the news to him, and reluctantly tells him that they must part. Don Alhambra then arrives, and announces that he left the baby prince in the care of a gondolier, now deceased. Unfortunately it seems that the gondolier had a son the same age as the prince, and now no-one can tell which of the two men is the king, and which the gondolier. The only person who may be able to identify them is Luiz's mother, who was nanny to the prince. Luiz is sent to bring her to the court of Barataria.

Marco, Gianetta, Guiseppe and Tessa return to the square, now married. Don Alhambra informs the two men that one of them is in fact the King of Barataria and that until the mystery is resolved they must both go to Barataria and rule as one person (he conveniently neglects to tell them about Casilda). They are allowed to take their friends with them, but not the girls, Don Alhambra announcing that women are not currently allowed at the Court of Barataria. They are however assured that the separation will only be temporary, and the girls' pain is soothed by the knowledge that one of them will be a Queen. Marco and Guiseppe then depart accompanied by the other gondoliers, leaving all their wives behind.

Act II

The second act takes place at the Court of Barataria. Marco and Guiseppe have acted on their republican ideals and made every serving department equal, and each servant the head of his department. The visiting Grand Inquisitor is horrified to find that the footman therefore is of the same importance as the butler. He is even more shocked to find that the Kings have taken over the servants quarters for their own apartment, and opened the rest of the palace to the servants.

The act opens with the gondoliers cleaning the royal crown and sceptre as they sit on the throne. They are almost perfectly happy, but they miss their wives. No sooner have they confessed this than all the girls arrive from Venice, because they are so curious to see Barataria. Tessa and Gianetta are particularly excited, wishing to know if their husbands have found anyone to mend the royal socks, and which of them is to be queen. In the middle of the banquet to celebrate the girls' arrival, the Grand Inquisitor appears, distressed at the incidents, and announces the arrival of Casilda as the true Queen of Barataria.

Casilda is worried that she will be unable to love her husband, even though she may be a dutiful wife. The Duchess of Plaza-Toro tells her that this is nonsense, and goes on to explain that she herself once had to tame the Duke. Casilda then expresses her hope that when the King sees the family he has been married into he will refute the liaison - it turns out that the Duke has just turned himself into a Limited Liability Company in order to market himself and make more money.

On the appearance of Marco and Guiseppe, the gondoliers try to explain their principles of government. The Duke, in turn, tries to persuade the two men to act in a more kingly manner, but they don't follow his instructions well. When the brothers are left alone with Casilda, Tessa and Gianetta return, and the five young people discuss what they are to do about their problem. Fortunately for them their elders soon reappear accompanied by Inez, Luiz's mother, who was nurse to the baby King of Barataria and who alone can identify the man to rule. She confesses that when the kidnapping of the prince took place she substituted the royal baby with her own son. Therefore one of the two gondoliers is her son, and Luiz is the real King of Barataria. Everything ends happily as Casilda is united with Luiz and Marco and Guiseppe can return to Venice with their brides.

The Songs

The Gondoliers contains the last of Gilbert and Sullivan's most memorable tunes. Before composing the score Sullivan paid a visit to Venice to soak up the atmosphere. The music he produced reflects wonderfully the tranquil bustle of the island city. The most notable of the songs in this operetta is Marco's second act solo, 'Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes', often regarded as featuring one of the composer's finest airs.

The operetta opens with the longest unbroken musical sequence of any of Gilbert and Sullivan's works. There is not an overture in the traditional sense, but simply a brief introduction featuring a few of the main tunes. This is then followed by nearly 20 minutes of music and dancing before the first spoken dialogue occurs. This includes both songs and recitative as the maidens and gondoliers greet each other and Marco and Guiseppe choose their brides. The first spoken words only come when the Duke of Plaza-Toro arrives with his entourage.

The Duke features in three of The Gondoliers most popular songs. The first of these is his solo 'The Duke of Plaza-Toro', in which he justifies his claim, singing 'My child, the Duke of Plaza-Toro does not follow fashions - he leads them', after Casilda has queried his setting himself up as a PLC. He merrily describes his time in the army and how he led his troops from the back, where it was less exciting, so that he could lead them effectively in retreat. His other major numbers include his duet with the Duchess, 'Small Titles and Orders', in which they describe the functions of his limited company, and 'I am a Courtier', the famous Gavotte quintet in which he tries to instruct Marco and Guiseppe in the art of Kingship.

Other famous Gondoliers songs include Tessa's 'When a Merry Maiden Marries' in which, ten minutes after her wedding, she describes the joys of marriage. In the Grand Inquisitor's number 'I stole the Prince' Gilbert mocks and exaggerates the machinations of political courtiers, while in 'One of us will be a Queen' Tessa and Gianetta discuss the benefits of royalty, which include robes of gold and green, a milk white horse, silver shoes and endless frocks. Many of the songs in 'The Gondoliers' are the equal of the hits of earlier operas, and their success with audiences ensured the long run of the opera.

Original Productions

The creation period of The Gondoliers was perhaps one of the most peaceable phases between the collaborators. Gilbert even went so far as to write a note to Sullivan after the opening night, which ran thus:

...for the magnificent work you have put into this piece. It gives one a chance of shining right through the Twentieth Century with a reflected light.

Sullivan's response was equally complementary:

In such a perfect book as The Gondoliers you shine with an individual brilliancy which no other writer can hope to attain.

Such appreciation of their mutual talents only serves to highlight the unfortunate, and minor, events that were to lead to the severing of the relationship. Gilbert's dislike of extravagance - as witnessed in the row over the Savoy carpet - was notorious, and showed itself on occasion during rehearsals for The Gondoliers; it was in fact one of the reasons for the ensemble character of the story. All the leading artistes of the D'Oyly Carte Company had requested that their salaries increase in accordance with their rising fame, and in consequence Gilbert decided to have no 'star' parts in his new work. Despite this, Jessie Bond, who had previously played Iolanthe, Mad Margaret and Phoebe Meryll, and who was cast as Tessa, demanded an extra £10 a week to appear. Gilbert refused, but Carte and Sullivan upheld the request. For the rest of the production Gilbert refused to call her by name, acknowledging her arrival with the comment 'make way for the high-salaried artiste'.

As on previous occasions, Sullivan conducted the first night orchestra himself. He had also had problems with the cast in preparing the production, particularly with one member who repeatedly sang by ear, rather than to Sullivan's score. This drove the composer to frustration, leading him to say to the individual in question 'Bravo! That is really a very good tune of yours. Capital! And now, if you don't mind, I will trouble you to sing mine!'.

As usual, the premiere of The Gondoliers was a massive social occasion, with many members of London's high society present. They received the opera as rapturously as the critics, calling for many encores. The critics, besides acclaiming the music and story, also commented favourably on the sets of Venice and the costumes. It would indeed have been a triumphant finale for Gilbert and Sullivan, but unfortunately it was marred by their quarrel, and by the lacklustre reunion productions of The Grand Duke and Utopia Ltd..

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more