The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid, is a Savoy Opera, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 3 October 1888, and ran for 423 performances. This was the eleventh collaboration of fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan.
It is set in the Tower of London during the 16th century, and is the darkest, and perhaps most emotionally engaging, of the Savoy Operas, ending with a broken-hearted main character and two very reluctant engagements, rather than the usual numerous marriages. The libretto does contain considerable humour, including a lot of punny-laden one-liners, and Gilbert's trademark satire and topsy-turvydom. The dialogue, though in prose, is quasi-Shakespearian in its language, being in early modern English. Despite its title, the opera is clearly about the Yeomen Warders rather than the Yeomen of the Guard. The character Sir Richard Cholmondeley, the Lieutenant of the Tower, is an actual historical figure.
Many consider the score to be Sullivan's finest, including an overture written in sonata form, rather than as a sequential pot-pourri of tunes from opera. This was the first Savoy Opera to use Sullivan's larger orchestra, including a second bassoon and third trombone. Prior to Yeomen, Sullivan's standard pit orchestra had just one bassoon and two trombones. Most of Sullivan's subsequent operas, including those not composed with Gilbert as libretist, use this larger orchestra.
Phœbe Meryll sits at the spinning wheel, sighing and singing of the pain of love. The head jailer and assistant torturer, Wilfred Shadbolt, enters and Phœbe mocks him, disgusted at his profession. Wilfred, who is in love with Phœbe, in turn mocks Colonel Fairfax, who is to be beheaded for sorcery; she replies that the condemned prisoner is merely a scientist and alchemist (and a handsome one at that) and leaves Wilfred to suffer from his love for her. The citizens and Yeomen arrive, singing of the latter's charge and erstwhile valiant deeds. Dame Carruthers enters, dismisses protestations by Phœbe of Fairfax's innocence and, vexed by Phœbe's criticism of the Tower, sings its praises. All but Phœbe leave and she is joined by her father, Sergeant Meryll, who reports that her brother Leonard has been appointed a Yeoman for his valour in battle and is on his way, and may bring the Colonel's reprieve. He reminisces on his son's boyhood and more recent deeds. Leonard enters bearing a despatch for the Lieutenant of the Tower but no reprieve. His father, eager to save the man who twice saved his own life, announces a plan: Leonard will hide away and Fairfax, sprung from his cell, will assume Leonard's guise; Phœbe is charged with getting the key to Fairfax's cell from Wilfred.
Leonard leaves and Fairfax enters under guard by an escort of Yeomen. Sir Richard Cholmondeley, the Lieutenant, meets him, greeting him as an old friend. Fairfax bears his impending fate bravely and philosophically, prompting tears from Phœbe and even Sergeant Merryll. Fairfax asks a boon of the Lieutenant: the charge of sorcery was the doing of his wicked cousin Sir Clarence Poltwhistle, a Secretary of State, who will inherit his estate if he dies unmarried; he therefore wishes to be married by his confessor to any available woman, it matters not whom, who will receive a hundred crowns for her hour of matrimony. The Lieutenant agrees and leaves.
Just then Jack Point, a jester, and Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer, arrive, pursued by a crowd which demands merriment and threatens to throw Point into the river should he fail to deliver handsomely. Elsie, objecting to a man's rude attentions, boxes his ears, which gives Point a moment to quiet the crowd. The two entertainers offer to perform the song of The Merryman and his Maid: it tells of a merryman sad from his love for a maiden who jilts him in favor of an arrogant lord, but the latter rejects her; she returns on her knees to the merryman and begs for his love, which he gives, and their sorrow is over. The song over, another citizen tries to kiss Elsie and violence is averted only by the Lieutenant's arrival. Point and Elsie introduce themselves and explain that Elsie's mother Bridget is very ill and they seek money to buy medicine for her. The Lieutenant offers Elsie a chance to earn a hundred crowns, which could save her mother's life, by marrying Fairfax, a complete stranger to Elsie. Point, who intends to marry her himself, agrees once assured that the Colonel will be beheaded immediately after the ceremony. Elsie consents and is blindfolded and led off by Wilfred. The Lieutenant tells Point that he has a vacancy for a jester, and Point tells him of his skills and tries out some jokes. The Lieutenant is little impressed but leads Point off to discuss the matter further.
Wilfred leads Elsie back from her anonymous meeting with the priest and the prisoner and leaves her to reflect on her anonymous, blindfolded marriage of a moment ago. She leaves again and Wilfred returns, wondering what they were up to in Fairfax's cell. Phœbe arrives and seductively distracts him as she steals his keys, which she gives surreptitiously to her father, who goes to free Fairfax from his cell. She keeps Wilfred flustered until her father returns the keys, which she returns to Wilfred's belt, and leaves the confused and hopeful jailor to his fantasies of marrying her. Soon, Meryll arrives with Fairfax disguised as his son Leonard. The Yeomen come to greet 'Leonard', who insists that the tales of his bravery are much exaggerated. He flounders when Phœbe greets him, not having been introduced to her, but Wilfred helpfully identifies her, telling Fairfax (with a strong dose of hopeful thinking) that he, Wilfred is betrothed to Phœbe, and he commends her to the care of her 'brother' until the marriage.
All is ready for the execution and Wilfred, Fairfax (still disguised as 'Leonard') and two Yeomen go to fetch Fairfax. The Yeomen return and Fairfax announces his own disappearance. The Lieutenant leaves, returning with Wilfred and declaring his life forfeit instead. Wilfred protests his innocence and all wonder – not all honestly – how the prisoner could have escaped. Elsie is distraught, as is Point; the former faints in Fairfax's arms as all but they and the Headsman rush off to hunt for Fairfax.
Night has fallen. Dame Carruthers enters with her niece Kate and berates the Yeomen for letting Fairfax escape; they reply that they have searched everywhere but in vain. All leave and Jack Point (now employed by the Lieutenant) enters, brushing up on his jests. Wilfred joins him and they complain of their respective professions; Wilfred says he'd rather be a jester, and Point begins to tell him how to go about it by means of a patter song. He then reveals the secret wedding to Wilfred and offers to teach him the art of jesting if he will swear, backed up by Point, that he shot Fairfax dead as he swam in the river to escape. Wilfred agrees to swear to this lie. Fairfax, still disguised as Leonard Meryll, mourns his hurried marriage to a bride he cannot identify (for her face was concealed).
Sergeant Meryll arrives and says that Elsie, whose shock struck her ill and who has been placed in his charge, has recovered, but that her illness unfortunately gave Dame Carruthers an excuse to take up quarters in his house while she nursed the girl. He has spurned the old woman's obvious overtures for years. She then enters with Kate and announces that the latter heard Elsie talking in her sleep about her secret wedding. The other three leave Fairfax alone, pleased to find that his wife is the fair Elsie. He decides to test her loyalty by pretending to woo his own wife, still disguised as Leonard. She rejects him as a married woman should and he is about to reveal himself to her.
Just then, a shot is heard from the wharf and Meryll enters, followed by the chorus, Lieutenant, Point and Wilfred, who, with the jester's support, declares that he saw someone creeping about, fell upon him, identified him as Colonel Fairfax, was overpowered, saw him dive into the river and, being unable to swim, seized an arquebus and shot him dead. The Lieutenant orders the crowd to search for the body, and Wilfred is carried off as a hero. Elsie, Fairfax, Phœbe and Point are left and Point tries to persuade Elsie, as she is now free, to marry him. Fairfax tells Point that he doesn't know how to woo and, assisted by Elsie and Phœbe, begins to "instruct" him, following this up with a most effective demonstration on Elsie. Point, slow to see that Fairfax is wooing the girl for himself, finally protests, but Fairfax tells him to go and apply his teachings "elsewhere". Phœbe, seeing her 'brother' and beloved pledged to another, bursts into tears. Point wishes he was dead.
Wilfred sees Phœbe weeping and she, rendered incautious by her grief and her scorn for the jailor, inadvertently reveals that 'Leonard' is in fact Fairfax. Realizing the game is up, she desperately buys Wilfred's silence with her hand in marriage. The real Leonard then returns and announces Fairfax's reprieve, which had merely been delayed by the scheming Poltwhistle. He goes and his father enters, followed by an unseen Dame Carruthers. Phœbe tells him of her folly and goes with Wilfred, whereupon Dame Carruthers reveals herself to Meryll and threatens to expose the three schemers who had freed Fairfax illegally; he, disgustedly but to her delight, buys her silence with his hand.
It is time for Elsie's wedding to the man she still knows only as 'Leonard'. She enters joyfully, hailed by the women, but the Lieutenant arrives and announces that her husband Fairfax lives. All are distraught. Fairfax enters, this time as himself, and teases his wife, keeping up the pretense for another minute. Elsie begs for his mercy, to free her to go to her love, 'Leonard', but he says that his heart is like a "massive rock" and claims her as his bride. As soon as Elsie turns and sees his face, she recognises him as the 'Leonard' who wooed her. All once again erupt into joy. Then broken-hearted Jack Point enters. Tearfully he reprises The Merryman and his Maid with wrenching sorrow. Elsie "drops a tear" for Point, but turns back to her love. As the chorus turns away to celebrate the marriage of Fairfax and Elsie, Point falls insensible at their feet.
Like most of the Savoy Operas, Yeomen went through significant cuts and alterations during rehearsal, and there were further changes after the authors' deaths that have become traditional. Yeomen is unusual, however, in the amount of cut music that survives, has been recorded, and is available for performance.
Two songs were cut from Yeomen during rehearsals or early in the first run. Wilfred's solo about his unrequited love for Phoebe, "When jealous torments rack my soul," was cut in rehearsal. It was intended to be sung before #2. Sergeant Meryll's nostalgic solo about his son's childhood, "A laughing boy but yesterday," was cut after the first night. This was also in the first Act, right before Leonard's entrance. One or both of these songs has been used in some modern performances by both amateur and professional companies.
Before opening night, the third and fourth yeomen's couplets in the Act I finale – in which they remind "Leonard" of his brave deeds – were cut, though they remained in the vocal score until around the 1920's. The third yeomen had also joined Fairfax when he tells the Lieutenant that the prisoner has escaped. When the solo couplets were cut, the third yeoman was deleted from this passage, as well, leaving it a trio for Fairfax and two other yeomen.
Fairfax's first solo, "Is life a boon?", is the second version. Gilbert thought that Sullivan's first setting (in 6/8 time) was too similar to many of the other tenor ballads in the Savoy Operas, and urged the composer to rewrite it. Sullivan complied, but also saved the first version, leaving an unusual example of two separate settings of the same lyric.
The Act II duet for Sergeant Meryll and Dame Carruthers, "Rapture, rapture," was often cut in 20th-century D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performances, apparently because it was thought to detract from the serious tone of the work. However, D'Oyly Carte eventually restored the duet, and in modern productions it is usually performed. As originally written, the duet ended with transitional music directly into the Act II finale. It does not appear in vocal scores, and modern performances usually delete this passage, bringing the duet to a full close so that the opening bars of the finale aren't covered by applause.
At some point, certainly before 1920 or so, The "Oh day of terror" section had the parts for Kate and Phoebe significantly reduced, - in the original conception, they all echoed Elsie, with an "Oh, Leonard" solo for Kate (!), and cries to "Come thou to her side, and claim her as thy loving bride" along with Elsie. The modern version leaves Elsie singing her line by herself, puts Kate with the chorus, gives Phoebe a mixture of Dame Carruthers' part and her old one, and changes Phoebe and Dame Carruthers' lyrics.
There was one other cut made after Gilbert's death: Two solo lines for Elsie and Point, with lyrics not found elsewhere were cut during the "All frenzied, frenzied with despair they rave" section of the Act I finale, leaving behind a row of rests in the revised score. It is unlikely that the audience would be able to hear these lyrics against the rest of the company singing the "All frenzied" lyrics.
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive's Yeomen page includes lyrics, vocal scores and MIDI files of the two cut solos. The 1993 New D'Oyly Carte recording includes all the cut music and both versions of "Is life a boon?".