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Introduction

Adapted from the book "Tit-Willow or Notes and Jottings on Gilbert and Sullivan Operas" by Guy H. and Claude A. Walmisley (Privately Printed, Undated)

"THE GONDOLIERS, or the King of Barataria", was produced at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday, 7 December, 1889, and is doubly famous among the operas; in the first place for possessing perhaps the most sparkling and tuneful music of them all, and secondly for being the last opera to be produced before the lamentable and unnecessary quarrel between the great triumvirate—Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte.

The story of "The Gondoliers", which satirizes snobbery in all grades of society, follows Gilbert's favourite theme of topsy-turvydom. "I am told", said he, "that the public like the topsy-turvy best, so this time they are going to get it".

Act I, opens on the Piazetta at Venice.  The opening section is the longest continuous musical stretch in any of the G&S operas, with nearly 20 minutes of bright music and dancing before the first spoken dialogue.  The two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, chose brides, Gianetta and Tessa, and marry them.  Shortly thereafter, they are informed by Don Alhambra, Choosing their brides the Grand Inquisitor, that one of the two gondoliers is no less a personage than the only son of the late King of Barataria. The uncertainty of their identity being due to the fact that the gondolier, to whom the royal babe was entrusted at the time of the revolution in Barataria, mixed up the child with his own baby son; and thereafter, owing "to his terrible taste for tippling, that highly respectable gondolier could never declare with a mind sincere which of the two was his offspring dear, and which the Royal stripling".

Catherine Fergusson as Tessa Therefore, until it is ascertained which of the two is to be King they must reign jointly but, for the time being, they must leave their brides behind in Venice and set sail at once to assume the reins of Government in Barataria. This leads to Gianetta's delightful song at the opening of the Finale to Act I, "Kind sir, you cannot have the heart our lives to part".

However they soon forget their sadness at the thought of being parted when Gianetta realizes that either she or her sister Tessa will be a Queen and "drive about in a carriage and pair with the King on her left-hand side".

Meantime the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro arrive with their daughter Casilda, and their Attendant, Luiz, and while awaiting an audience with Don Alhambra, which the Duke has demanded, his Grace describes his conversion into a Limited Liability Company and then tells, in song, of his military prowess and how "he led his regiment from behind—he found it less exciting".

Act II opens at the Court of Barataria with Marco and Giuseppe magnificently dressed and seated on two thrones. They sing of the delightful duties and privileges of being a King, and, when left alone on the stage with Giuseppe, Marco sings that famous song, "Take a pair of sparkling eyes" which is thought by many to be one of Sullivan's finest airs.

Luiz assumes the throne of Barataria
Luiz
Gianetta and Tessa and their friends arrive, and soon everyone is dancing a gay Spanish cachucha. This is followed later by a graceful Gavotte danced and sung by the two Kings, together with the Duke and Duchess and Casilda—all three now dressed with the utmost magnificence (the Limited Liability Company paying well); towards the end of the Gavotte the Duke dances a pas seul with exaggerated flourishes and gestures that always bring numerous encores from the delighted audience.

Inez
Inez
Finally Inez, the Prince's foster-mother, is brought from the torture chamber where she has been waiting, with the illustrated papers to amuse her. "Speak, woman, speak," they implore her, and to the astonished assembly she explains that neither of the gondoliers is King but that Luiz, the Duke of Plaza-Toro's "Suite", is the Royal Prince and the rightful King of Barataria.

The Composer went to Venice to get atmosphere, returning later to England where he worked on the opera both at Weybridge and in London.

In the "Life of Sullivan" written by his nephew, Herbert Sullivan, an amusing story is told of Sir Arthur at one of the rehearsals. A certain singer persisted in singing by ear instead of by music and annoyed Sullivan. "Bravo!" said he, "that is really a very good tune of yours—capital. And now, if you don't mind, I will trouble you to sing mine!"

After the first brilliant performance Gilbert wrote his appreciation to Sullivan—"I must thank you again," said he, "for the magnificent work you have put into this piece. It gives one a chance of shining right through the Twentieth Century with a reflected light".

"The Gondoliers" ran for 554 consecutive performances and was honoured by a Command Performance before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in March, 1891. The entire company and orchestra went there and back in a special train; the opera lasted from 9-11.30 p.m.

Unfortunately, while to the outside world all seemed to be running smoothly, a storm in a teacup was brewing.  D'Oyly Carte, as Manager, had purchased a new carpet for the front of the house, the cost, among other items, being charged to the joint account.  Gilbert considered the expenditure of 140 gross extravagance but Sullivan, on being consulted, raised no objection and sided with Carte; whereupon Gilbert went to law against Carte and Sullivan—and lost the case.

As the operas probably reached their zenith with the production of "The Gondoliers", which for sparkle, buoyancy and sheer delight in absurdity surpasses them all, it is the more to be regretted that their quarrel should have taken place at such a time.



Updated 5 December 2003