Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘The Gondoliers’

Samantha PillingEntertainment, History, Latest News


The twelfth savoy opera written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan was entitled ‘Gondoliers’ (also known as ‘The King of Barataria’). The satire within this opera was firmly focused on two of Gilbert’s fascinations –class distinction and the absurd convergence of natural persons with the legal system. Gilbert avoided major criticism from the British nobility and monarchy, by setting this latest libretto far away from England, in the fictional kingdom of Barataria in Venice.

But it wasn’t just criticism from nobility and monarchy that needed to be avoided. The partnership was starting to show evidence of strain.

Sullivan wanted to write dramatic work on a larger musical scale, but Gilbert wanted to continue the partnership on its original basis. He used the success of the ‘Yeoman of the Guard’ to illustrate the point that the public had expressed no real desire to have similar, more serious operas, so they should continue on the same course. However, Sullivan had lost the liking for writing comic opera. He felt he had been sacrificing himself and his abilities on all of their joint ventures – whereas Gilbert had made it clear he’d feel he was sacrificing what he held dear, if they opted for more serious operas and he was always bending over backwards, trying to please Sullivan!

The finally agreed to write two new operas – a light opera for the Savoy, followed by a grand opera (‘Ivanhoe’) for a new theatre that Carte was constructing. Work for Gondoliers finally commenced in the early summer of 1889, with Gilbert writing the libretto. Sullivan was able to start composing on Act 1, during late summer, the same year. Gilbert provided several alternatives for the lyrics, giving Sullivan the final choice over which he preferred. They worked all summer and autumn and The Gondoliers finally premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 7th December 1889.

The Gondoliers was largely successful, with the press delighted that Gilbert had returned to his usual self; the Gilbert the public wanted to see. They also praised the ‘bubbling, champagne-quality of the libretto’, as it bought out the best in Sullivan.

But there were more cracks appearing in their partnership. During the initial run of The Gondoliers, Gilbert discovered discrepancies in the maintenance expenses for the Savoy theatre (including £500 for a new front lobby carpet). He found the partnership was bearing the brunt of these costs, instead of Carte. He confronted Carte, but the producer refused to reconsider the accounts, so Gilbert wrote of his findings in a letter to Sullivan.

Unfortunately, Sullivan took Carte’s side in the argument. Carte later admitted to an unintentional overcharge of nearly £1,000 in the electrical lighting accounts alone, but the damage between the partnership was clear. Gilbert felt betrayed and bought suit against Carte, whilst Sullivan was eager to stay in Carte’s good books, as he was going to produce his grand opera, ‘Ivanhoe’.

The Gondoliers ran for 554 performances before closing on 30th June 1891. After it closed, Gilbert withdrew the performance rights to his libretti and vowed to write no more Savoy operas.

The Gondoliers forms part of the repertoire of Gilbert & Sullivan operas performed at The Grim’s Dyke. For further information please visit Entertainment.

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