The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria, is a Savoy Opera, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It premiered at the Savoy Theatre on December 7, 1889, and ran for 554 performances, closing on June 20, 1891. This was the twelfth comic opera collaboration of fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan.
In this opera, Gilbert returns to the satire of class distinctions figuring in many of his earlier librettos. It shows Gilbert's fascination with the "Stock Company Act," highlighting the absurd convergence of natural persons and legal entities, which plays an even larger part in the next opera, Utopia Limited. As in several of their earlier operas, by setting the work comfortably far away from mother England, Gilbert was emboldened to direct sharper criticism at the nobility and the institution of the monarchy itself.
Genesis of the opera
The Gondoliers was preceded by the most serious of the Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations, The Yeomen of the Guard. On January 9, 1889, three months into that opera's fourteen-month run, Sullivan informed the librettist that he "wanted to do some dramatic work on a larger musical scale," that he "wished to get rid of the strongly marked rhythm, and rhymed couplets, and have words that would have a chance of developing musical effects." (Jacobs, p. 287). Gilbert counseled strongly that the partnership should continue on its former course:
On March 12, Sullivan responded, "I have lost the liking for writing comic opera, and entertain very grave doubts as to my power of doing it.... You say that in a serious opera, you must more or less sacrifice yourself. I say that this is just what I have been doing in all our joint pieces, and, what is more, must continue to do in comic opera to make it successful." (Jacobs, p. 288).
A series of increasingly acrimonious letters followed over the ensuing weeks, with Sullivan laying down new terms for the collaboration, and Gilbert insisting that he had always bent over backwards to comply with the composer's musical requirements. Gilbert tried to encourage his collaborator:
Gilbert offered a compromise that Sullivan ultimately accepted — that the composer would write a light opera for the Savoy, and a grand opera (Ivanhoe for a new theatre that Carte was constructing for that purpose. Sullivan's acceptance came with the proviso that "we are thoroughly agreed upon the subject." Gilbert suggested an opera based on a theatrical company, which Sullivan rejected (though a version of it would be resurrected in 1896 as The Grand Duke), but he accepted an idea "connected with Venice and Venetian life, and this seemed to me to hold out great chances of bright colour and taking music. Can you not develop this with something we can both go into with warmth and enthusiasm and thus give me a subject in which (like the Mikado and Patience) we can both be interested....?" (Jacobs, p. 294).
Gilbert set to work on the new libretto by the early summer of 1889, and by the mid-summer Sullivan had started composing Act I. Gilbert provided Sullivan with alternative lyrics for many passages, allowing the composer to choose which ones he preferred. The long opening number (more than fifteen minutes of continuous music) was the librettist's idea, and it gave Sullivan the opportunity to establish the mood of the work through music.
They worked all summer and autumn, with a successful opening on December 7, 1889. Press accounts were almost entirely favourable, and the opera enjoyed a run longer than any of their other joint works except for H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado. Sullivan's old collaborator on Cox and Box (and the editor of Punch), F. C. Burnand, wrote, "Magnificento!...I envy you and W.S.G. being able to place a piece like this on the stage in so complete a fashion." (Baily, p. 344).
Reaction of the press and public
Leslie Baily notes, "The bubbling, champagne-quality of the libretto brought out the gayest Sullivan, and the Italian setting called up a warm, southern response from his own ancestry. The Graphic (14 December, 1889) pointed out that the music contains not only an English idiom but 'the composer has borrowed from France the stately gavotte, from Spain the Andalusian cachucha, from Italy the saltarello and the tarantella, and from Venice itself the Venetian barcarolle'." (Baily, p. 342).
Of Gilbert's contribution, the Illustrated London News reported, "Mr. W. S. Gilbert has returned to the Gilbert of the past, and everyone is delighted. He is himself again. The Gilbert of The Bab Ballads, the Gilbert of whimsical conceit, inoffensive cynicism, subtle satire, and playful paradox; the Gilbert who invented a school of his own, who in it was schoolmaster and pupil, who has never taught anybody but himself, and is never likely to have any imitator—this is the Gilbert the public want to see, and this is the Gilbert who on Saturday night was cheered till the audience was weary of cheering any more." (Baily, p. 344).
There was a command performance of The Gondoliers for Queen Victoria and the royal family at Windsor Castle in 1891, the first such performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera to be so honoured.
End of G&S's golden era
The Gondoliers was Gilbert and Sullivan's last great success. Unlike Pinafore and The Mikado, however, the British success was not duplicated in New York. Departing from past practice, Carte did not mount the American production himself, but instead sub-contracted it to a local producer who "cut corners and presented a production of poor quality with some disgraceful performances which, not unnaturally, got a worse than lukewarm reception." (Gänzl, p. 375). Once he realised what had happened, Carte assembled his own company and sent it across the Atlantic, but the damage was done, and the opera closed after just 103 performances in New York. The New York press referred to it as "the gone-dollars." (Baily, p. 347).
During the run of the opera, the partners became embroiled in a lengthy quarrel about the sharing of expenses for a new carpet in the Savoy Theatre lobby (See the entry for Gilbert and Sullivan). It would be another four years before Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated again, but in neither Utopia Limited (1893) nor The Grand Duke (1893) were they able to reproduce the popularity of their earlier collaborations.
The scene opens in Venice with a bevy of four and twenty young maidens declaring their undying love for a pair of gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri. The male chorus of gondoliers enters, trying to pry these young ladies from their loves, and they start to win the ladies hearts - but when the two gentlemen enter, the ladies go back to loving them. They offer to pick two as their brides and "As all are young and fair, and amiable besides", pick them with a game of blind man's buff. They, undoubtedly, cheat and eventually grab their favourite maidens out of the four and twenty (Giuseppe picks Tessa, and Marco Gianetta – "Just the very girl I wanted!"). The rest of the maidens content themselves with marrying the other gondoliers, and leave to get married.
Enter His Grace the Duke of Plaza Toro (Count Matadoro, Baron Picadoro), Her Grace the Duchess, their beautiful daughter Casilda, and their drummer boy, Luiz. They have come to meet Don Alhambro de Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who now resides in Venice. As Luiz goes to announce the Duke's presence, the Duke and Duchess tell their daughter a secret they have kept for twenty years — namely that when she was only six months old, she was married to the infant son of the king of Barataria, a fictional island off the coast of Spain. She is indignant, especially as the union was conducted without her knowledge, and, as we soon discover, she is secretly in love with Luiz. However, the young prince was stolen from his home by the Grand Inquisitor after the king of Barataria became "a Wesleyan Methodist of the most bigoted and persecuting type", and taken to Venice. The king was recently killed in an insurrection, and as such, Casilda is now the queen of Barataria and the lost prince in now king. She breaks this news to Luiz when they are alone, and they resign themselves to a life forever apart.
When the Grand Inquisitor enters, he explains to them that the prince was adopted by a gondolier who already had a young son about the same age. The gondolier was a drunkard and eventually forgot which boy was his own son and which boy was the prince of Barataria. The two boys (naturally, Marco and Giuseppe) grew up and now were both working as gondoliers. Fortunately, the nurse who took care of the prince was Luiz's mother, who was now living in the mountains, married to a highly respectable brigand. Don Alhambro says that they will find her and she will surely know which gondolier is the lost prince. If not, he says, "then the persuasive influence of the torture chamber will jog her memory." The scene closes.
In the next scene, the two gondoliers marry their brides, and as they are rejoicing in the virtues of marriage, Don Alhambro arrives and informs them that one of them is the king of Barataria - but no one knows which. Despite being Republicans, the gondoliers and their wives are delighted, and agree to go to Barataria at once, acting as one individual until the actual king is identified. They are told that ladies are not admitted, but as soon as the king is identified, each couple can be reunited - the Inquisitor neglects to mention the marriage to Casilda, knowing that it would surely cause them to change their minds. As the two wives are revelling that one of them will be a queen, the chorus enters, and Marco and Giuseppe announce their discovery, and promise to reign in a Republican fashion. They announce that in their kingdom, "All shall equal be" and will create new posts such as "the Lord High Coachman on the Box, the Lord High Vagabond in the Stocks". The entire male cast then leaves for Barataria, leaving their wives behind them.
The scene opens in Barataria, with the chorus of gondoliers telling the audience of the joys of living under "a monarchy that's tempered with republican equality". It turns out that Marco and Giuseppe have in fact been doing all the work for the past three months - far from doing the work of one man, they're doing the work of twenty! They are quite happy with this arrangement, with the notable exception of having to share single portion for dinner, and feel that life is perfect apart from the lack of women. As if on cue, the ladies rush on, having risked life and limb to sail from Venice to see them. In delight, the reunited couples have a magnificent banquet and a dance (a cachuca). After the dance, the Grand Inquisitor makes his entrance, and inquires why he saw unimportant servants dancing. Realising that the gondoliers have attempted to make everyone noble, he persuades them that there is a place for the common things and "when every blessed thing you hold, is made of silver or of gold, you long for simple pewter". He then breaks the news that one of the gondoliers married Casilda when a baby, and therefore is an unintentional bigamist. The gondoliers attempt to console their wives, who are distraught to discover that neither one will be queen.
The Duke and Duchess soon arrive with Casilda, and the Duke, appalled at the lack of pomp and ceremony in which he is received, attempts to educate the two monarchs in proper royal behaviour. When they finally begin to learn, they are left alone with Casilda. She agrees to be an obedient wife, but warns them that she is "over head and ears in love with someone else." Seizing this opportunity, the two men announce they are married, and the three ladies and two men sing about their woes.
At this point, Don Alhambro announces that the nurse who tended the prince, and Luiz's mother, has arrived. They beg her to reveal which one is the king - and she does. When the Grand Inquisitor came to steal the prince, she had loyally hidden him away and given Don Alhambro her young son instead. The king is neither Marco nor Giuseppe, but actually Luiz. As everything is resolved, the monarchs surrender their crown to Luiz, and become gondoliers again. There is a final dance, a reprise of the gondolier's first song mixed with the cachuca from earlier.