Bitter Sweet was an operetta written by Noel Coward and first produced in 1929. The relatively simple plot - set in 19th-Century and early 20th Century England and Austria-Hungary, and concerning a young woman's elopement with her music teacher - is used as the hook for a series of excellent light-operatic numbers, many with surprisingly complex melodies strongly reminiscent of the best work of Gilbert and Sullivan. Of the songs in the show, the best known by far is I'll See You Again, used as a recurring motif throughout the play. Short on memorable Cowardian dialogue, Bitter Sweet nonetheless stands out as containing some of Coward's best music and has always been popular in revivals around the world, a number of which have been recorded for posterity on CD. It was filmed twice, in 1933 and 1940 the latter starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
Using a flashback technique, the aged Marchioness of Shayne is transformed into the young Sarah Millick, having a singing lesson with Carl Linden. The action passes from London to Vienna, where Carl is fatally wounded in a duel, and back to London, where Sarah (now known as Sari), having become world-famous as an interpreter of Carl's songs, somewhat reluctantly accepts a marriage proposal from the Marquis of Shayne. Finally, the action is back to the Jazz Age where it was at the start of the show, and Sarah, who has never stopped loving Carl, sings sadly,
It has been suggested that the operetta has an early use of the word "gay" to mean "homosexual", in the song "Green Carnation" where four overdressed, 1890s dandies sing:
The suggestion is that Coward uses the "gay nineties" as a double entendre. The song title alludes to the gay playwright Oscar Wilde, who famously wore a green carnation himself. (The first use of the word "gay" in this sense recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in a novel published in America in 1951, but earlier instances have been found.)
Although popular with amateur operatic societies, Bitter Sweet has had relatively few professional productions. The original production starred Peggy Wood as Sarah, with Georges Metaxa as Carl. Evelyn Laye had been the first choice to play Sarah, but turned it down as she was annoyed with the producer, C.B. Cochran who she felt had caused her marriage to actor Sonnie Hale to fail by putting him in a show opposite Jessie Matthews, with whom he had an affair. Laye later played the part on Broadway.
A revival at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter in the early 1980s with Jan Hartley-Morris as Sarah led to a large-scale revival in London which also toured the provinces in 1988.
This New Sadler's Wells Opera production by Ian Judge used a revised orchestration by Michael Reed, and was recorded complete (although without dialogue) by TER (That's Entertainment Records). On stage, Valerie Masterson and Ann Mackay alternated in the major leading part of Sarah, with Martin Smith as Carl and Rosemary Ashe as Manon. It was Valerie Masterson who was chosen to record her role in the recording.
The Long Beach Civic Light Opera in Southern California staged a celebrated production of Bitter Sweet in 1983 starring Shirley Jones as Sarah/Sari/Marchioness, and the Ohio Light Opera produced Bitter Sweet in 1993 and 1998, both times starring Julie Wright as Sarah/Sari/Marchioness.