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Gilbert and Sullivan Society · Exeter · Devon

Written by W S Gilbert

Composed by Arthur Sullivan


    The Gondoliers was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last great success.


    In this opera, Gilbert returns to the satire of class distinctions figuring in many of his earlier librettos.

    The libretto also reflects Gilbert’s fascination with the ‘Stock Company Act’, highlighting the absurd convergence of natural persons and legal entities, which plays an even larger part in the next opera, Utopia, (Limited).


    As in several of their earlier operas, by setting the work comfortably far away from England, Gilbert was emboldened to direct sharper criticism at the nobility and the institution of the monarchy itself.

    In the city of Venice in the year 1750 the handsome Palmieri brothers, Marco and Giuseppe, have won the hearts of all the Contadine (peasant girls).


    So much so, in fact, that the girls will have nothing to do with any of the other gondoliers who ply their trade on the various canals. However,

    today all is to be finally settled, for Marco and Giuseppe are to choose their brides.


    After the two gondoliers have arrived, they indulge in a game of
    ‘blind-man’s-buff’, and eventually, after much cheating, Marco captures Gianetta and Giuseppe, Tessa. Together with their friends, they leave for the nearest church.


    A Duke visits the Republicans


    A gondola arrives at the steps of the piazetta and the impoverished Spanish Duke of Plaza-Toro, his formidable Duchess, his beautiful daughter Casilda and their one remaining servant, Luiz, disembark.


    It soon transpires that Casilda was married in babyhood to the infant son of the wealthy King of the island kingdom of Barataria. Not long afterwards however, the King was converted to the Methodist faith and the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, Don Alhambra Del Bolero, determined to restore Catholicism at a later date, arranged for the Prince to be kidnapped and fostered in Venice.


    The old King has recently been killed in an insurrection and the Duke and Duchess have come to Venice to find the Prince and to declare Casilda the new Queen of Barataria. As they leave we discover that Casilda and Luiz are in love, and both are greatly distressed at the thought that they will have to parted forever.


    Don Alhambra confirms that the Prince is in Venice. Unfortunately, the foster-fathers lifelong addiction to drink meant that he could never tell which of the two children in his care was his own child, and which the foster child. Luiz is dispatched to Spain to fetch his mother, Inez, as she was the Prince’s nurse, and will no doubt be able to identify him.


    Ladies are not admitted!


    When Marco and Giuseppe arrive back from church it is to be told by the Don that one of them, despite both being staunch republicans, is the King of Barataria and that, until it is known which of them can rightfully claim the  title, they will reign jointly. However, ‘Ladies are not admitted’ to the Baratarian court and so Marco and Gianetta and Giuseppe and Tessa must part for the time being.


    Three months later the two monarchs have remodelled the Baratarian Court upon republican principals — everyone is equal.


    Gianetta, Tessa and the rest of the Contadine have travelled the Baratarian Court and all are reunited amidst joyful scenes and much dancing; only interrupted by the arrival of Don Alhambra with the news that one of the Kings was already married and that his nurse, Inez, is even now in the torture chamber awaiting interview and his wife will shortly arrive.


    The Ducal party appear and the time arrives for Inez, Luiz’ mother and nurse to the Prince, to reveal the true King’s identity.


    It is …


    ACT 1

    List and learn
    Gondoliers, Antonio, Marco, Giuseppe,
    Chorus of Contadine

    From the sunny Spanish shore
    Duke, Duchess, Casilda, & Luiz

    In enterprise of martial kind
    Duke with Duchess, Casilda, & Luiz

    O rapture, when alone together
    Casilda & Luiz

    There was a time
    Casilda & Luiz

    I stole the prince
    Don Alhambra with Duke, Duchess, Casilda, & Luiz

    But, bless my heart
    Casilda & Don Alhambra

    Try we life-long
    Duke, Duchess, Casilda, Luiz, & Don Alhambra

    Bridegroom and bride

    When a merry maiden marries

    Kind sir, you cannot have the heart

    Then one of us will be a Queen
    Marco, Giuseppe, Gianetta, & Tessa

    ACT 2

    Of happiness the very pith
    Marco, Giuseppe, & Chorus of Men

    Rising early in the morning
    Giuseppe with Chorus

    Take a pair of sparkling eyes

    Here we are at the risk of our lives
    Giuseppe, Tessa, Gianetta, Marco, & Chorus

    Dance a cachucha
    Chorus & Dance

    There lived a king
    Don Alhambra with Marco & Giuseppe

    In a contemplative fashion
    Marco, Giuseppe, Gianetta, & Tessa

    With ducal pomp
    Chorus of Men with Duke & Duchess

    On the day when I was wedded

    To help unhappy commoners
    Duke & Duchess

    I am a courtier grave and serious
    Duke, Duchess, Casilda, Marco, & Giuseppe

    Here is a case unprecedented
    Marco, Giuseppe, Casilda, Gianetta, Tessa & Chorus


    The Duke of Plaza-Toro
    A Grandee of Spain (comic baritone)

    his Attendant (lyric baritone or tenor)

    Don Alhambra del Bolero
    the Grand Inquisitor (bass-baritone)

    Marco Palmieri
    Venetian Gondolier (tenor)

    Giuseppe Palmieri
    Venetian Gondolier (baritone)

    Venetian Gondolier (baritone)

    Venetian Gondolier (tenor)

    Venetian Gondolier (bass)

    Venetian Gondolier (speaking role/chorus)

    The Duchess of Plaza-Toro

    her Daughter (soprano)

    Contadina (soprano)

    Contadina (mezzo-soprano)

    Contadina (soprano)

    Contadina (mezzo-soprano)

    Contadina (mezzo-soprano or soprano)

    the King’s Foster-mother (contralto)



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      Annotated libretto of The Gondoliers


      Annotated libretto of The Gondoliers including material subsequently discarded



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    Reviews currently included here have been posted by contributor, Ian Bond, and are his personal views, and these may not necessarily represent the views of St David’s Players

    The Gondoliers has always been one of the happiest of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and as such one of the most often produced, certainly in the UK. No surprise then that a complete recording supervised by Rupert D’Oyly Carte and recorded by His Master’s Voice appeared on the market as long ago as 1919. Despite Carte’s involvement, not a single singer on the recording was a member the opera company.

    With the advent of the Compact Disc and the enterprise of a number of independent (often private) labels, recordings such as this are once more available, and often with greatly improved and enhanced sound quality. This 1919 recording features George Baker as the Duke of Plaza-Toro, Giuseppe and Antonio, Violet Essex as Casilda and Edna Thornton as The Duchess. This was of course an acoustic recording.

    This recording is currently available in two private issues, Sounds On CD (pictured above) and 78s2cd (GS11C). Both are private labels Sounds on CD being (until recently) a UK based label and 78s2cd a US based enterprise. Both labels are now freely available over the internet, alternatively see links to both sites on the links page.

    This recording is currently available in two private issues, Sounds On CD  and 78s2cd (GS11C).

    With the advent of electrical recording in 1927, His Master’s Voice, having already recorded 9 of the opera acoustically, began to re-record all the operas again. This time George Baker retained the role of Giuseppe whilst the legendary Henry Lytton, (who had first appeared in the chorus of Princess Ida in 1883, had taken over the role of Robin in Ruddygore when Grossmith was taken sick in 1887 and had subsequently become one of the most famous of all G & S patter baritones), played to role of The Duke. The equally famous Derek Oldham sang Marco and Leo Sheffield played Don Alhambra. Lytton’s famous partner, Bertha Lewis, is a magnificent Duchess and the delightful Winifred Lawson plays Gianetta. 1927 was also the first year when the D’Oyly Carte chorus were used. What is so remarkable about this recording is the sheer joy and vitality that leaps out of the speakers. Bear in mind that this recording is now some 80 years old, but for all that it has to be said that this 1927 recording is probably the best all-round Gondoliers to have ever been recorded. I don’t say that this should be a first choice, in this day and age it is technically not the equal of modern recordings, but if you have room for two versions in your collection, then this undoubtedly should be one of them.

    The recording is currently available from two sources. ARABESQUE (Z8058-2) couples the opera with a number of acoustic recordings made between 1898 - 1911 featuring a number of artists who were directed by Gilbert and/or Sullivan. Of much better quality is the reissue by PEARL (GEMM CDS 9961) which couples the opera with the equally delightful 1928 recording of Trial by Jury.

      Hear Sir Henry Lytton and Bertha Lewis perform
              ‘Small titles and orders’

    Between 1936 and 1949 no complete Gilbert and Sullivan recordings were made at all. The war intervened and at it’s conclusion a new company, DECCA, appeared to start a fresh series of recordings. This was affectionately known as the DECCA ‘First Series’, was recorded between 1949 and 1955 and totalled 11 operas.

    The Gondoliers was one of the first operas to be recorded being committed to tape in one single day, 11th May 1950. This must have put quite a strain on the company as they were that week playing at Oxford. Some of this strain comes across in the recording which in places sounds somewhat hurried and slapdash. The cast is that of the stage production of the day with Martyn Green and Ella Halman turning in vintage performances as the Duke and Duchess, Margaret Mitchell is delightful as Casilda, Muriel Harding and Yvonne Dean are both on good form as Gianetta and Tessa. Of the men Henry Goodier is unexceptional as Luiz, Alan Styler and Geoffrey Sanders are excellent as Giuseppe and Antonio, and Richard Watson is a suitably unctuous Don Alhambra - one can almost ‘hear’ the smell under his nose! Disappointing in the recording studio but, apparently, excellent on stage was Leonard Osborn, heard here as Marco. The problem with Osborn is a distinct tendency to sound nasal, and although not as apparent here as in some later recordings, some listeners find it unpleasant for repeated hearing. The chorus and orchestra are conducted in a suitably lively fashion by Isidore Godfrey.

    The digital re-mastering process has removed virtually all the technical glitches inherent in these early LP recordings - glitches which became more apparent with each vinyl re-issue as technology improved. The recording is currently available in three different CD reissues. REGIS (RRC 3003) issue the recording on a three disc set coupled with the 1950 Yeomen and highlights from the 1950 Ruddigore. This recording has been re-mastered at much too high a modulation and tends to ‘boom’ and distort, the disc breaks also being unhelpful for continuous listening. Also unhelpful is the PEARL (GEMS 0135) issue. Again on three discs, this time coupled with the complete 1950 Ruddigore. Act One is accommodated complete on Disc 1 with Act Two of both operas on Disc Two, leaving Act One of Ruddigore on Disc 3. Again the modulation is quite high.

    Much better value and re-mastered at a much more acceptable level is the reissue on NAXOS (8.110196-97). No couplings on this one but each act has it’s own disc and it is sold at budget price

    That I have been scathing about the Sir Malcolm Sargent ‘Glyndebourne’ series in the past is common knowledge and I
    make no apology for that . Apparently I am by no means in the minority in my opinions. However, I will admit that the last three recordings in the series (
    Pirates, Patience and Ruddigore) are,
    in fact, excellent.

    Sadly, this cannot be said of The Gondoliers as the two main criticisms, those of lethargic, lack lustre tempi and serious miscastings are both prevalent. Why this should be so is unfathomable as Sargent had been a much respected musical director at D’Oyly Carte in the 1930’s and his recordings from that time are full of life. The Gondoliers, recorded by EMI in 1957 is sadly anything but “sunny” or “joyous”, in fact anything other than a performance of this lightest of G & S confections should be. The orchestral playing is superb, the singing highly polished, but the pace is so slow that the whole becomes a dirge. How could anyone dance to this cachucha?

    The miscastings too, bring the whole enterprise down. Sir Geraint Evans has a beautiful voice, but it is totally unsuited to the role of the Duke. James Milligan is cast as Antonio and Giorgio - this is fine for Giorgio as James is a bass-baritone, but Antonio should be sung by a high-baritone and so “For the merriest fellows” sounds completely dull. The Gondoliers is, of course, a large cast show as G & S goes, and pairing Antonio with another role is common. However, that role is usually Annibale, a tenor.

    The one redeeming feature of the current reissue of this recording is the inclusion as a filler of Sullivan’s Cello Concerto played by Julian Lloyd Webber with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

    If you must have this issue it has been available on HMV CLASSICS (HMVD 5 73672 2),
    but yet another re-packaging and re-issue finds it now on the budget Classics for Pleasure label. The Cello Concerto is available in a number of other, much better, couplings.

    Just three years later, D’Oyly Carte were back in DECCA’s recording studio to add another recorded Gondoliers to their list. DECCA had commenced it’s ‘Second Series’ in 1957 and The Gondoliers would become one of four ground-breaking releases in this series to contain not just the complete music, but also the complete dialogue. Because of the length of the opera, the recording spread over 5 LP sides, so the decision was taken to record the current abridged D’Oyly Carte production of Cox and Box to occupy the 6th side, thus becoming the first ever recording of that work.

    Of the modern recordings, this is undoubtedly the all round best available. John Reed, still new to the role, turns in a truly comic portrayal of the Duke whilst Gillian Knight is his most formidable adversary, never to be equalled, as the Duchess. Jennifer Toye is a delightful and charming Casilda. Both Mary Samson and Joyce Wright give sparkling and idiomatic performances as Gianetta and Tessa and their renditions of ‘Kind Sir’ and ‘When a merry maiden’ respectively have probably never been bettered on record. Kenneth Sandford shows all the promise of his unfolding long career in a classic performance of Don Alhambra. 10 years on Alan Styler is still there, dependable and charming as ever, as Giuseppe, but now with the ever popular and delightful Thomas Round as Marco.

    The smaller roles, the chorus and orchestra, acquit themselves
    with the panache that one came to expect from D’Oyly Carte at a time when they were very definitely in their post-war ‘golden age’, the whole enterprise being in the hands of dear old ‘Goddie’ (Isidore Godfrey).

    The performance is available on DECCA (473 632-2). The set is also included in DECCA’s 24 disc Gilbert and Sullivan boxed set

    DECCA’s ‘Third Series’ (sadly never completed) commenced in 1968 with a recording of Pirates which, it has to be said, despite the inclusion of dialogue, is not a patch on the recording of 1957. Sadly this downward trend continued, although to those brought up with the casts represented on these final recordings, they still represent an age remembered with particular fondness and, indeed, there is much to commend in this third series. By the time DECCA got round to this recording of Gondoliers, the cracks in the company were beginning to show, although at this point no one realised that the company had less than five years left.

    There is a definite sense of tiredness in the singing and dialogue, although in many ways the actual musical quality was higher than had been the case for a number of years. This is attributable to the influence of Fraser Goulding, recently appointed to the music staff and a regular conductor in the theatre.

    The main problem emanated from Leonard Osborn who had recently been appointed Director of Productions. His only qualification for this post seemed to be that he had been a former principal (see 1950 recording reviewed above) and the fact that he had directed 28 amateur productions in 15 years. Eventually the performing company would pass a vote of no confidence in him and the management had to act. Unfortunately, by the time they did so it was too late.

    Despite being recorded over three days there are some distinctly dodgy moments, especially in the overture where there are an abundance of wrong notes. Parts of the the opening number sound rushed and claustrophobic, whilst somehow, Marco’s contribution to ‘Then turn us round’ is completely missing leaving Giuseppe to sing it solo. Why these glaring faults ever made it to the final product is not known, but it seems to demonstrate that the staff at DECCA by this time just did not care. However, things calm down and the performance becomes enjoyable if never a rival for that of 1960.

    John Reed, now in his last 24 months with the company, turns in a classic performance as the Duke, matched by the remarkable and very much underrated Lyndsie Holland as the Duchess. Some find Casilda’s lisp in this production (first staged in 1967) irritating, but it is handled delightfully by Julia Goss who is, quite simply, charming. Stalwart, Kenneth Sandford, has matured into the role of Don Alhambra, played in this production as an extremely lecherous Cardinal. Meston Reid is a delightful Marco, whilst Michael Rayner comes over much better as Giuseppe than he ever did on stage. Barbara Lilley and Jane Metcalf are, perhaps, slightly heavy for Gianetta and Tessa, but are delightful none the less.

    The recording is issued under licence from DECCA by Chris Webster on SOUNDS ON CD (VGS 252)

    1991 saw the release of the New D’Oyly Carte recording. The re-formed company now boasted a high musical standard not heard since the 50’s and 60’s. However, on the opening night in Birmingham, this production by Tim Hopkins was booed, no doubt a reaction to Don Alhambra’s actions in flinging a bible onto the floor of the stage.

    None of this of course, is present in the recorded performance, which is a delight from start to finish. The musical standard is high and Sullivan’s original orchestral detail (the band parts having been prepared from the composer’s autograph manuscript score) are clearly audible for the first time in the history of recording of this opera.

    The whole is a joy from start to finish, presented (as on stage) at a cracking pace under the musical direction of John Pryce Jones. The cast benefits from the inestimable talents of Richard Suart and Jill Pert as the Duke and Duchess and they, in turn, are backed up by a highly polished team of principals, chorus and orchestra. The recording also includes the first uncut performance of Sullivan’s delightful Overture ‘Di Ballo’ as a filler to the second disc.

    This recording is available from TER (CDTER2 1187)

    The Brent Walker series has come in for a considerable amount of flack over the years and the reissue of the entire series of 12 operas on DVD by no means dispels all the arguments. However, the production of GONDOLIERS is much better than perhaps one has been led to believe. It is certainly one of the more acceptable productions of the series. The habit at the time of filming (1982) of updating the period of the costumes from 1750 to the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, does, to my mind, take a lot of the colour and sparkle out of the production, but as a performance this is enjoyable.

    It has to be said that the stars (despite the billing) are Eric Shilling as the Duke and Anne Collins as the Duchess ably supported by Sandra Dugdale as Casilda. The remainder of the cast are excellent in their way although it is very obvious at times that the chorus are miming to pre-recorded tape (when they remember they should be singing), whilst the principals are singing live.

    Star name, Keith Michell, is too lightweight as a singer for Don Alhambra, although he acts well and some of his dialogue takes on a distinctly, and appropriately, sinister tinge. The London Symphony Orchestra are superb and the whole is ably conducted by Alexander Faris.

    The complete set of 12 operas has been reissued in new packaging and with complete production libretto included in each case, by Universal (catalogue number DVD 8228651-11), and can be purchased at various purchase prices, check out amazon as a guide although they are by no means the cheapest. Keeping an eye on ebay often reveals considerable bargains, whether as a ‘buy now’ item or as an auction. The opera can also be purchased separately. UNIVERSAL (DVD 8228700-11)

    Recently a re-issue of a production by Australian Opera has, once more, become available. BE WARNED!! Much of the orchestration has been re-written, Gilbert’s text is certainly not respected. There are endless repeats and - HORROR OF HORRORS - the Duchess is played by a man!! One to be avoided!!