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The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   The Mountebanks

Synopsis of the Plot

by Arthur Robinson

Act I Act II

Gilbert's comic opera The Mountebanks, with music by Alfred Cellier, was first performed on 4 January 1892, but its genesis had taken place much earlier. This was the notorious "lozenge plot" that Gilbert had tried to press on Sullivan so often, but without success. After the "carpet quarrel," Gilbert offered the libretto to other composers. Apparently Sullivan knew what he was doing. According to David Eden's Gilbert & Sullivan: The Creative Conflict, p. 37, Arthur Goring Thomas, the first composer to try to set the libretto, "began to show symptoms of mental disease" after starting work on it and died shortly afterwards, and Cellier, who replaced him, "became fatally ill during the composition of The Mountebanks" and died a few days before it opened. The opera had a highly respectable run of 229 performances, but has rarely been revived, although the Lyric Theatre Company of Washington D.C. recorded it in 1964.

The principal characters are: Alfredo, a young farmer; Teresa, described in the dramatis personæ as "loved by Alfredo, and in love with herself"; Ultrice, who does love Alfredo but is loathed by him; Elvino di Pasta, an inn-keeper; Arrostino Annegato, captain of the Tamorras, a rather timid Secret Society, whose other members include Risotto, Giorgio Ravioli, and Luigi Spaghetti; Minestra, Risotto's bride; Pietro, "proprietor of a troupe of mountebanks"; and the two members of his troupe, Bartolo, a clown, and Nita, a dancer.

Act I

The curtain rises on a mountain inn in Sicily. The opening chorus consists of a procession of Dominican Monks, who intone a chaunt lamenting the inconveniences of a monk's life (in Latin). As soon as the monks have departed, the members of the Tamorra Secret Society creep on cautiously, and inform the audience of the reason for their grudge against society: five centuries ago, somebody's ancestor's neighbor's mother's brother served a three-month prison sentence. Nobody's sure of the details, but all are resolved to avenge this blot on their previously unstained escutcheon. Their motto, they sing, is "`Revenge without Anxiety' — that is, without unnecessary risk."

They explain to Elvino, the innkeeper, that they are about to get married, one a day for the next three weeks, and have come to his inn to celebrate. Elvino urges them to "let these revels be as joyous, as reckless, as rollicking as you please — only, let them be conducted in a whisper." This is not because they are a Secret Society but because Elvino doesn't want them to disturb an alchemist staying at the inn. This alchemist keeps blowing himself up in the course of his experiments; Elvino considerately wishes to give his tenant every chance to succeed in his researches, in the hope that if he learns to make gold he will finally pay his bill.

Risotto, the first of the Tamorras to marry, arrives with his bride, Minestra; Arrostino, the captain of the band, follows, and is greeted with "three secret cheers" ("Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!"). He urges his men to continue their vendetta against society by kidnapping a Duke and Duchess who are expected to ride by the inn. His plan is to seize the monastery (while the monks are safely asleep, of course); his men will put on the monks' robes, and Minestra will lure the Duke into their clutches, disguised as an old woman (she comments that she could do it better as a young woman). They will detain the ducal duo for "a ransom very handsome," and thus achieve their ideal — "the very maximum of profit with the very minimum of risk."

They go off to leave the stage free for the inevitable ballad-singing tenor, Alfredo, a young farmer who is in love with the village beauty, Teresa. She shares his love — for herself. She confides that actually she thinks herself plain and him "extremely good-looking"; but, since most people think the opposite, she has decided out of modesty that she must be wrong. She urges Alfredo to marry a girl as plain as he himself is, such as Ultrice. Ultrice enters in time to overhear this, and is enraged at Teresa; soon the two women are engaged in an acrimonious patter-song, with Alfredo trying to make peace.

Elvino breaks in on their trio, happily announcing that the Duke and Duchess are coming to stay at his inn; the others ponder on this strange instance of ducal masochism. Elvino's only concern is that he doesn't know how to behave before Dukes and Duchesses; he asks Alfredo to imitate a Duke and provide him with a chance to practice. Alfredo agrees, and attempts to persuade Teresa to pose as his Duchess. She refuses, but suggests Ultrice for the part; Ultrice sings about the proper etiquette for people of high society, while Teresa comments maliciously and mimics her.

At this point yet another group arrives: a troupe of mummers consisting of Pietro, Bartolo, and Nita. Bartolo used to be a leading tragedian, but never made it to the second act in any tragedy — he was always laughed off the stage. He could not endure being laughed at, so he became a clown, and nobody has laughed at him since. Unfortunately this caused Nita to break off her engagement to him; she can't bring herself to love a clown, so she is now engaged to Pietro.

Mr. Harry Monkhouse as Bartolo and
Miss Ada Jenoure as Nita

Pietro has promised the villagers a performance from the troupe's two "world-renowned life-size clockwork automata, representing Hamlet and Ophelia," but a hitch occurs — the clockwork figures have been detained at the border because they didn't have passports. As Pietro is lamenting his difficulty, Elvino arrives with his own problem: his alchemist tenant has now blown himself up completely, leaving nothing but what seems to be a medicine bottle. Pietro learns, by reading the label (while Ultrice eavesdrops unperceived), that the bottle contains an elixir that makes "every one who drinks it exactly what he pretends to be. The hypocrite becomes a man of piety; the swindler, a man of honour," and so on. Nita suggests giving some to Bartolo to make him funny, but Pietro has a better idea: Bartolo and Nita will pretend to be clockwork figures of Hamlet and Ophelia, drink the potion, and become real automata. After they have given the promised performance before the Duke and Duchess, he will apply the antidote (by burning the bottle's label) and restore them to humanity. Nita agrees, but Bartolo refuses, despite the chance to appear as Hamlet again, until Nita points out that, as Ophelia, she will be desperately in love with him. He hints that if she coaxes him "very hard," he may relent; she does, and he does.

When the others have gone, Teresa enters and sings of her plan to make Alfredo declare his love for her, whereupon she will reject him again. He overhears her (the people in this opera seems to spend a lot of time eavesdropping) and pretends to reject her to teach her a lesson; her pride hurt, Teresa plans (again in song, but this time not overheard) to pretend to go mad for the love of Alfredo to teach him a lesson. (One can see why Sullivan had reservations about Gilbert's characterization in this play.)

We are now in the finale of Act I, and impostures are coming thick and fast. Alfredo and Ultrice pretend to be the Duke and Duchess; Teresa follows him around, pretending to be insane with passion; the Tamorras appear, pretending to be monks and intoning garbled Latin; Minestra pretends to be an old crone. Bartolo and Nita, having imbibed the potion diluted in wine, appear as automata and act out a scene in which Hamlet, "a noble prince... unhappily afflicted with a mania for soliloquy," manages to soliloquize Ophelia into insanity. Alfredo, posing as the Duke, suggests that they all show Pietro their appreciation by drinking his health from a convenient wine-skin. Unfortunately, this is the wine-skin in which Pietro has put the alchemist's potion; he tries to keep them from drinking it by claiming that it is poisoned, but Alfredo, having seen Pietro help himself to this wine earlier (before it was spiked), doesn't believe him. All drink, and Alfredo forces Pietro to drink as well, as Act I ends.

Act II

By the time Act II begins, the potion has taken effect (as in The Sorcerer), and everyone has become what he or she pretended to be before they drank it. Minestra has become an authentic little old lady, and doesn't like it; Risotto consoles her, but admits that this change, on their wedding-day, "is a little disappointing." Teresa appears, also unhappy; not only is she now really madly in love with Alfredo, she has had to hire the village fiddler to compose crazy love-songs for her. Meanwhile, Bartolo and Nita are finding that an automaton's lot is not a happy one (especially when people put the wrong coin in your slot). Pietro, who because he pretended that the wine he drank was poisoned is now genuinely ill, is even more upset to find Nita "oiling" Bartolo, and they sing a "clockwork trio" commenting on the situation (Nita observes of Pietro's jealousy: "Some people are too terribly partic-tic, tic-tic, ticular").

The Tamorras are also unhappy at being transformed into actual monks; because of their sudden saintliness they must ignore their fiancées. They demand the truth of Pietro, who explains the situation, but promises to reverse the spell with the antidote shortly; the Tamorras decide that they can endure "life-long celibacy" so long as it only lasts an hour or so. But now they encounter another problem: the Duke (actually Alfredo) is approaching, and they don't know how to sing a song to greet him without revealing their true identities, as the only songs they know are too "worldly." (This being an opera, you can't let a Duke enter without singing something.) Arrostino, however, has a solution: all they have to do is sing together, and the Duke won't detect their imposture, since "No single word is ever heard when singers sing in chorus." (This may be Gilbert's most heartfelt line in the whole play.)

Mr. J. Roberts as Alfredo

"Duke" Alfredo arrives, escorting an old lady whom he has found (actually Minestra) to the monks so that they can help her. He compliments them on their piety, and Arrostino informs him that he is lucky to have arrived at this moment, as he used to be "confoundedly bad" until he reformed, and he will relapse in an hour. Alfredo is puzzled by the monks' strange behavior, especially when Arrostino asks him to put his handkerchief out of sight: "Temptation, you know, temptation. We are all weak, and it is sometimes difficult to resist."

Teresa appears, singing yet another crazed love song (and complaining that it isn't worth what she paid for it). Alfredo explains to her that he has somehow become a real Duke, and Ultrice his Duchess, so he cannot love her, as "no married man ever loves anybody but his wife." But he promises her that when the spell is over he will love her again, and promises Ultrice, when she appears, that his love for her won't last longer than an hour. When she is left alone, however, Ultrice reveals that she has stolen the antidote from Pietro, and thus can keep Alfredo's love for ever.

Pietro had planned to end the spell as soon as the automata had performed for the Duke and Duchess; but, finding that the Duke and Duchess are actually Alfredo and Ultrice, he decides to end it now — until he realizes that the antidote is gone. All are horrified at the thought of remaining monks, clockwork figures, old ladies and so on permanently. Bartolo and Nita discuss their future as Hamlet and Ophelia; Nita decides that Ophelia should have gone to a solicitor to sue Hamlet for breach of promise, and Bartolo resolves to avoid this by marrying "Ophelia" — "What! am I to be the only Hamlet who is not permitted to discover new readings?"

Ultrice encounters Teresa and gloats over her plight, now that their positions are reversed and it is Teresa who is hopelessly in love with Alfredo, while Ultrice has his eternal (if involuntary) devotion. When she realizes, however, that the love-crazed Teresa is about to throw herself into the river (like Ophelia, or a certain tom-tit), she relents, confesses her theft of the antidote, and returns it. Pietro burns the label, and all are restored to their earlier conditions — the monks become outlaws again, Minestra a young woman, Bartolo and Nita human, Alfredo and Ultrice peasants, and Pietro is unpoisoned. Teresa and Alfredo wind up together, the Tamorras are liberated from their enforced virtue, and all celebrate in the traditional way — with a reprise.