The Yeomen of the Guard was one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s darkest and emotionally engaging Savoy operas. The eleventh collaboration was more subdued and, much to Sullivan’s relief, it was human, straight-forward and had no evidence of Gilbert’s usual trademark satire.
Set at The Tower of London in the 16th century, The Yeomen of the Guard premiered at The Savoy Theatre, London, on 3rd October 1888 – it ran for a total of 423 performances.
Sullivan had previously expressed a wish to end the partnership and focus on grand opera and more serious works. Gilbert however, used The Yeomen of the Guard to tempt Sullivan into continuing. The opera took longer than normal to write and Gilbert went out of his way to accommodate Sullivan – even changing song lyrics to suit. It allowed Sullivan the opportunity to write his most ambitious score to date – a score that is considered to be Sullivan’s best – and one that gave him the opportunity to use his new, larger orchestra.
Although the opera sill had funny moments, it ends with a heartbroken Jack Point, jester and main character of the opera, as well as at least two reluctant engagements. It soon became both Gilbert and Sullivan’s favourite collaboration.
Gilbert initially worried the audience wouldn’t like the more serious, sentimental tone of The Yeomen of the Guard – so they both agreed to cut 2 songs from Act 1 to decrease the sentimentality
As per other Savoy Operas, quite a lot of material was cut and/or dropped during rehearsals. What is surprising however, is the amount of those cuts that survived and were subsequently recorded. Even after the authors’ deaths, there were further changes made that, in turn, became part of the traditional opera.
The Yeomen of the Guard was immediately a hit in London and New York ‘The Times’ noted that “Mr Gilbert has earnestly endeavoured to leave familiar grooves and rise to better things.” However, it also went on to state that “it was too early to decide if this was a good move or not.” It did however, become a fixture in the D’Oyly Carte repertory, with at least one official touring company playing it somewhere until the company closed in 1982.
Interestingly, The Yeomen of the Guard is based on the guardians of The Tower (and the crown jewels) – the Yeoman Warders. Often mistakenly referred to as The Yeoman of the Guard, they are in fact, a separate distinct corps of royal bodyguard!
Historically, the bell of St Peter’s tolled to accompany the executioner’s procession. This effect was mimicked during the first production of The Yeomen of The Guard, with the use of a 2 cwt bell provided by the stage manager. This bell subsequently found its way into the billiard room of Gilbert’s house at Grim’s Dyke!
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