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In 1897 Sullivan was commissioned by the management of the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square to provide the music for a new 'ballet' to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
The Alhambra had been known for producing ballets for more than a decade. These were not 'classical' ballets, but would be more accurately described as 'mime dramas' with numerous individual scenes, 'speciality' dances and grand tableaux involving spectacular scenic effects. They were usually produced as part of a long programme which would otherwise be made up of popular music hall acts.
Victoria and Merrie England with choreography by the resident Alhambra Choreographer, Carlo Coppi, opened before a distinguished audience including the Duke of Cambridge on 25 May 1897. Sullivan conducted on that occasion.
It consists of seven scenes:
Scene I : Prologue
Set in a forest of oaks during the time of the Druids. Britannia is discovered sleeping: England's guardian genius enters and greets her. A procession of Druids and Priestesses appear: sacred dances and Druidical rites are performed. The High Priest notices the the sleeping Britannia (prompting Sullivan to quote "Rule Britannia" in soporific mood) and prophesies her future greatness: all kneel before her.
Scenes II & III: May-day Festivities
Set in the Elizabethan period, this scene depicts the coming of age of the Duke's eldest son. The May-day festivities then continue with a procession of various mummers and dancers and provides the opportunities for a historical quadrille, a Morrice (sic) dance (performed by female dancers!), Jack in the Green and a May-pole dance.
Scenes IV and V: The Legend of Herne the Hunter
A storm is raging in the forest (doubtless providing the opportunity for some spectacular scenic effects). Herne's huntsmen enter with their booty. Herne appears and commands the hunt to be resumed. The all leave and the weather becomes calmer as the sound of their horns dies off in the distance. Nymphs enter and dance. The Yule-log is processed in accompanied by musicians, mummers and peasants. They all dance round the log before dragging it off homeward. The nymphs and huntsmen return and join in a dance.
Scene VI: A Hall in an old castle during the reign of Charles II
Christmas festivities. Servants arranging tables. The Lord and Lady of the Manor enter and the boar's head (prompting Sullivan to quote "The Boar's Head Carol") and a baron of beef are brought. Peasants and vassals enter, and the revels, including Blind man's buff, a jester's dance, etc., commence. Father Christmas arrives and distributes presents, and the scene closes with a dance under the mistletoe.
Scene VII: The Present
This scene begins with a Tableau vivant of the Coronation of Queen Victoria in Westminster Abbey. Enter successively the English, Irish, and Scottish troops (an opportunity for female dancers to parade in the bare essentials of military attire) . These are followed by the Volunteers and Colonials. Various evolutions and a sailor's hornpipe. Finally Britannia enters and the final tableau, depicting the four groups of statuary representing Europe, Asia, Africa and America which surround the base of the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. In this final section of the ballet, Sullivan combines British, Scottish and Irish tunes contrapuntally. However, he found himself unable to integrate a suitable Welsh tune into the work.
The piano score, arranged by Wilfred Bendall was published by Metzler in 1897.
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