PROGRAM NOTES BY
RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J., Ph.D.
Gilbert and Sullivan premiered their last really successful opera, The Gondoliers or The King of Barataria, in D'Oyly Carte's Savoy Theater on December 7, 1889. This twelfth in their great series would enjoy a run of 554 performances and be one of the Savoy trinity's most profitable successes.
The Gondoliers' immediate predecessor had been The Yeoman of the Guard, a story of genuine pathos relieved by wit and humor. In spite of the increasing artistic and financial disagreements between Gilbert and Sullivan in the course of its elaboration and production, The Yeomen came to be among the most-loved products of their collaboration through the sweep and power of Sullivan's music. For once Sullivan had been confronted with a subject permitting him to compose some of that "serious" music he so longed to produce, but on which his reputation has never subsequently rested.
As a result of Gilbert's acrimonious and unfortunate accusations against Carte's management of the "exorbitant'' expenses in the production of The Gondoliers (the famous "carpet" incident leading to a court settlement), Sullivan became estranged from his librettist. Only in 1893 and 1896 would they work together again to produce Utopia Unlimited and The Grand Duke, both relative failures. Indeed, the farewell chorus of The Gondoliers held more truth in it than was apparent at the premiere.
In March 1889, Sullivan had written to Gilbert indicating that he had “lost the liking for writing comic opera'' and entertained very grave doubts about his capacity to do it anymore. But in the early summer a communication from Carte piqued his interest. Gilbert ''had some subject connected with Venice and Venetian life.” This news seemed to Sullivan "to hold out great chances of bright and taking music.” By letter he urged Gilbert to develop his idea "with something we can both go into with warmth and enthusiasm and thus give me a subject in which (like the "Mikado" or "Patience") we can both be interested:'
What caused Sullivan's apparent about face? First, Gilbert appears to have convinced him that he was quite capable of composing the English "grand opera'' he dreamed of setting in Ivanhoe and another comic opera at the same time. Secondly Sullivan, during the late winter and spring of 1889, had traveled to the Riviera, Genoa, Verona and Venice, then to Vienna on his return to Paris. The sights and sounds of Venice had entranced and captivated him. Only the “low quality" Venetian opera had disappointed him. The whole tour served to prepare him for the composition of The Gondoliers.
Alan Jefferson (The Complete Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Guide) observed in 1984 that The Gondoliers "is the first opera where Sullivan adopts the Viennese style and this marks a change from his earlier, more subdued comic writing.” The fact that Gilbert places the dramatic action of this opera in 1750 gave Sullivan further scope to permit Mozart's music to influence him. While the episodes involving gondolieri and contadine (peasants) exhibit Sullivan's absorption of the "popular" Italian idiom, Spanish elements and some Italian peasant scenes appear to have been influenced by the Habanera music in Bizet's Carmen and scenes from Mozart's Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Jefferson's elaborate musical analysis of The Gondoliers specifies numerous instances where the influence of Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Johann Strauss and Flotow appear evident.
Gilbert had a field day poking fun at Karl Marx's Das Kapital in his portrayal of the Sancho Panza Baratarian monarchy "tempered with Republican equality.” While he further jested about religious discrimination and bigotry with the conversion of the Baratarian king from Catholicism to Wesleyan Methodism, Sullivan has the Grand Inquisitor narrate the whole episode of that monarch's infidelity to the tune of ''The Vicar of Bray,” that arch English clerical turncoat.
Gilbert began delivering the libretto by installments on July 1, 1889. From early August onward, with the exception of the time spent conducting the Leeds Festival in October, Sullivan devoted full time to its composition. Throughout his career Sullivan worked best under the increasing pressure of an approaching opening. For days and nights on end during November he reveals himself in his diary working at breakneck speed. Previous similar efforts had resulted in a physical breakdown of his always precarious health. This time, however, he escaped from that hazard, though he was to remark later (like old Haydn of The Seasons) that the composition of The Gondoliers had cost him dearly.
Of opening night, Sullivan recorded in his diary: "Everything went splendidly with immense 'go’ and spirit right up to the end. Gilbert and I got a tremendous ovation - we have never had such a brilliant first night.” Their old colleague Francois Cellier would later write in his memoirs: "It is doubtful if the walls of the Savoy had ever resounded with such ringing peals of laughter as those which greeted The Gondoliers on that first night. A wild thunderstorm of applause raged through the theater from rise to fall of curtain.”
The Gondoliers merited a command performance on March 6, 1891 at Windsor Castle before Queen Victoria, her first such entertainment after emerging from her long period of mourning for her beloved Prince Albert.
Commentators observe that the orchestra pit of The Savoy Theater originally accommodated but thirty players. Sullivan scored his comic operas for an orchestra of sixteen strings, two flutes, one oboe, two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns (which he never scored to best advantage), two comets (as mellower than trumpets), two trombones, and two percussionists. The pit was subsequently enlarged slightly, and for Sullivan added a second bassoon and a third trombone. His talent for orchestration with these limited resources produced remarkably full sound. The sonority of the music of The Yeomen and the Venetian warmth of The Gondoliers are singled out for particular comment. Sullivan's skill at manipulating various melodies in a contrapuntal texture shows to best advantage in the quartet of The Gondoliers entitled "In a contemplative fashion.” Gilbert supplied Sullivan in this opera with opportunity for some extended word setting wherein he has produced some of his "gayest and most tuneful music.”
The Overture to The Gondoliers is among those accepted as Sullivan's own, except that in these performances you will hear a concert ending by Sir Malcolm Sargeant.
The Plot: The beginning of The Gondoliers "matches the libretto as one of the most splendid openings in all Gilbert and Sullivan.” Two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, by blindman's buff choose two brides, Gianetta and Tessa, to their complete satisfaction. Now arriving by gondola the impecunious Duke of Plaza-Toro (Bull-Ring) appears together with his Duchess and servant, Luiz. The Duke announces that his daughter Casilda is Queen of Barataria. In infancy she had been married to the son of that realm's monarch, deposed for becoming a Methodist. After being summoned by Luiz at the Duke's behest, Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor, relates how he stole the now dead king's infant son and gave him into the safekeeping of a drunkard gondolier so tipsy he couldn't distinguish the royal infant from his own son. Circumstances point to Marco and Giuseppe, Republicans by preference, as kings-designate until one is singled out. One of them is bigamously married to Casilda, who by now is in love with Luiz. The two gondoliers agree that whichever of them is chosen will assume the monarchy, now to become a land of equality for all.
"For every one who feels so inclined
Some post we undertake to find
Congenial with his peace of mind -
And all shall equal be . . .
Sing high, sing low, Wherever they go
They all shall equal be!
Bemused confusion reigns in this egalitarian kingdom in which our gondolier "kings" share tasks and duties. Finally Don Alhambra summons the royal nurse of yesteryear, Inez. Full of self-importance, she designates Luiz as the true monarch to everyone's satisfaction. All find happiness in their respective marital matches.
Much of what occurs in The Gondoliers has a frankly deja vu aspect to it. Isaac Goldberg sums up the general opinion when he notes: "The Gondoliers is a farce of errors: Shakespeare filtered through Gilbert and Sullivan and brought down from the Globe to the Savoy. Sullivan in spirit and substance . . . returned to the youth of his muse. The Gondoliers indeed is one of the most delightful of the series musically, and one of the most eclectic. There is something of almost every influence that Sullivan underwent.” As Jefferson comments: "The Gondoliers is known as the sunniest of the Savoy operas. Gilbert is at his best ... Sullivan's music is consistently spirited and the first night critics had only praise for the collaborators' Venetian venture.”