Far from being a mere relic (or rather, relics) from the late Victorian age, Gilbert and Sullivan shows are still being performed around the world, with devoted fans both among musicians and their audiences.

Advertisement

Of the 14 comic operas they wrote between 1875 and 1896 (not counting their first collaboration, Thespis – or The Gods Grown Old, whose success caught everyone by surprise and the music of which has nearly all been lost), at least four – The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and The Gondoliers – are firmly lodged in our everyday culture.

Whether the term ‘short sharp shock’ (taken from The Mikado), or ‘Three Little Girls’ (Mikado again), or the patter song ‘I am the very model of a modern major general’ (Pirates of Penzance), hardly a day goes by without some reference or allusion.

But how well do you know these shows? And are there any which deserve more of the limelight? Here is an attempt to list a top ten of G&S shows, in ascending order, with a frank assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Do join the conversation – we’d be very interested to see your thoughts either on Facebook or Twitter.

Which are the best Gilbert and Sullivan operettas?

10. The Yeomen of the Guard – or The Merryman and his Maid

In 10th place is The Yeomen of the Guard. Both Gilbert and Sullivan are said to have rated this the most highly of their shows, and G&S fans even claim it comes close to opera in its style and depth of characterisation. They may have a point – in Jack Point, the strolling jester who is cheated out of his beloved companion, Elsie, and ends the show with a broken-hearted rendition of their song ‘The Merryman and his Maid’.

Yeoman’s premiere in 1888 was a huge success, its Victorian audience loving the more serious and ‘elevated’ plane of the story, effectively reflected in Sullivan’s music. But as opera, it’s frankly a poor specimen, most especially since Verdi’s Otello had premiered just the previous year, at one stroke totally overthrowing the tired conventions which G&S had so successfully lampooned in their previous shows. Yeoman, by contrast, is just a poor imitation of opera, grand or otherwise, though it has its modest moments, perhaps at its best with the gently melancholic ensemble ‘When a wooer goes a wooing’.

09. Iolanthe – or The Peer and the Peri

A typical Victorian piece of whimsy – a shepherd who is half mortal and half fairy falls in love with a girl who is a Ward in Chancery, leading to a clash of cultures between fairies and the House of Lords. Yet Iolanthe was also for its time a bit of cutting-edge theatre. It was the first show to be premiered (in 1882) at the Savoy Theatre, equipped with electric lighting which enabled all sorts of special stage effects. Its satire, too, was far more cutting than either press or general public expected from G&S – two of the songs were cut after the scathing reception they were given on the first night.

Today, the show – notwithstanding its satirising of British politics and the House of Lords in particular – seems terribly dated and is carried mostly by the music, which noticeably improves in inspiration with Act II – highlights are the Nightmare Song sung by the Lord Chancellor, and the cheerful trio ‘If you go in’ which remains a sure-fire success.

Act I has rather too much sub-Mendelssohn for the fairies, but enjoys one rousing march, to which the Peers process singing the taunt ‘Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes! Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow ye masses!’ It’s magnificent, yet it rather feeds the perception that G&S made, and continues to make, the less attractive features of the ruling classes appear endearing rather than reprehensible. And, one might ask, would the barb nowadays be aimed principally at the House of Lords…?

08. Trial by Jury

Trial by Jury is eighth. The second of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations resulted in this ever-green one-act operetta. It can hardly be said to be a timeless story, as English law has changed considerably since the 1870s when it was created (the concept of ‘breach of promise’ as common law has fallen largely into disuse with changed societal expectations). But its portrayal of a corrupt and distracted judge and hypocritical jurors – let alone the foibles of the defendant! – are still telling, and Sullivan’s music heightens the humour and light-hearted charm of Gilbert’s libretto to the extent that the quality of their partnership was universally recognised by the critics at its premiere in 1875. True, it has none of the ear worms or showstopping melodies of their later shows, but it is always a pleasure to see this highly effective if relatively short piece.

07. The Sorcerer

Gilbert and Sullivan’s next show after Trial was this now relatively little-known gem, premiered in 1877. In an apparently unassuming English village in their own time lives Alexis, the son of a local baronet. Alexis is an ideologue of a type all too recognisable in recent history. Convinced that he can better his fellow men with a social experiment to be imposed on all – regardless of their personal circumstances and desires – during his own wedding, he commissions a local jobbing sorcerer to spike the tea to be served to the wedding guests, including the local villagers, with a love potion which will make them feel ‘the love that loves for love alone’: in short, fall in love with the first adult person of the opposite gender they see, regardless of age or status.

Highlights include the title role’s tongue-twisting song, ‘My name is John Wellington Wells’; the duet between Alexis father, Sir Marmaduke, and his beloved but unavailable Lady Sangazure (in which their true feelings explode as rapid-fire asides in the midst of a stately melody in the style of a gavotte); and the splendidly silly chorus in anticipation of a feast of ‘The eggs and the ham, and the strawberry jam! The rollicking bun, and the gay Sally Lunn!’.

06. HMS Pinafore – or The Lass that Loved a Sailor

The popular HMS Pinafore is in sixth place. Written in 1878 just as the British prime minister, Disraeli, was meeting apparent Russian threat by dispatching the British fleet to Constantinople, Gilbert and Sullivan’s first great hit is also their most overtly patriotic. It remains one of the most quoted and referenced of their shows. The tub thumping patriotism of ‘A British Tar’ has been sung with enthusiasm by Jean-Luc Picard in Insurrection and by Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and ‘For he is an Englishman’ inevitably featured in Chariots of Fire.

Yet these songs give a misleading snapshot of the show – let alone the remaining 80 per cent of G&S’s output. In subsequent shows, Gilbert would never essay such straightforward patriotism again: starting with HMS Pinafore’s sequel, Pirates of Penzance, he offered increasingly ludicrous representations of monarchist sentiment and patriotic fealty.

What Pinafore in fact centres on is Josephine, the daughter of a naval officer, Captain Corcoran; she foils his attempt to marry her to a foolish and jumped-up First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter (widely thought to be based on the real life WH Smith, who despite having neither military nor nautical experience had recently been promoted to that post), since she loves ordinary seaman Ralph Rackstraw.

Admittedly, several of the characters are archetypes – most obviously the young lovers, and the universally detested stage villain Dick Deadeye: yet even these confound expectations. Dick Deadeye, though the bearer of downbeat and unwelcome observations, is invariably honest if cynical. And what does one make of the young heroine, Josephine, as she contrasts the comforts of her present ‘luxurious home’ with the potentially miserable future she fears with Rackstraw of the ‘dark and dingy room’ with ‘one cracked looking glass to see your face in, And dinner served up in a pudding basin!’? Set as it is by Sullivan to the ripest Verdi-style melodrama, is it meant to be absurdly comic (cosy middle-class lady imagining the horrors of working class life as depicted by Dickens); or is it a shaft of reality which suddenly makes Josephine all the more real and admirable for throwing her lot with the humble sailor?

All that aside, there are plenty of lively numbers to set against the stirring patriotic highlights – the rollicking choruses (such as ‘We sail the ocean blue’), the splendidly absurd trio ‘Never mind the where and wherefore’, and the immortal exchange during Captain Corcoran’s introductory song when the crew question his claim to be ‘never, never sick at sea’.

More like this

05. The Mikado – or The Town of Titipu

Though nominally set in Japan in the fictitious town of Titipu, the foibles displayed in this, the most internationally successful of G&S shows (as recently as 2001 a Japanese production, first staged in Chichibu, transferred to Tokyo and then toured to England), are clearly those of the English establishment. Take Pooh-Bah, a self-important nobleman who has become the head of several offices since no one else can be persuaded to assume them under the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko: GK Chesterton observed that in England ‘Pooh-Bah is something more than satire; he is the truth’ – which might be thought even truer of English politics of the last 25 years. Indeed, Jonathan Miller’s famous 1986 production for English National Opera – with Eric Idle as Ko-Ko – dispensed with the Japanese setting altogether, placing the action in a high-class 1920s English seaside hotel.

The Mikado is famous for such set pieces as ‘Three little maids from school’ and ‘I’ve got a little list’ (Family Guy’s Stewie gave a wickedly suitable update) – and I’m one of those people who actually has a soft spot for that Marmite moment, Yum-Yum’s self-admiring aria ‘The sun’s whose rays’. But the prize, surely, should go to ‘A more humane Mikado’ sung by the title character, with its wonderfully inventive descriptions of punishments that ‘fit the crime’ – a pity that so many singers don’t trust in delivering the words and tend to throw in the all-too-predictable and mannered ‘blood curdling’ laugh.

04. The Pirates of Penzance – or The Slave of Duty

In fourth place is The Pirates of Penzance. This was a more than worthy successor to G&S’s first big hit, HMS Pinafore. Pirates has none of Pinafore’s moments of semi-serious patriotic posturing, and the idea of duty – let alone patriotic duty – is made to look ridiculous, even being turned on its head. The pirates, having thoroughly and swiftly thrashed the local police force sent to apprehend them, then capitulate purely on the Sergeant of Police’s appeal that they should ‘yield in Queen Victoria’s name’!

One senses that Gilbert and Sullivan are far more relaxed in this work, and inspiration flows more naturally than in Pinafore to create several surefire hits. There’s the aria ‘Poor wand’ring one’, sung by the leading young lady, Mabel; though this famous aria is in admonishment to her sisters, who have rejected the blandishments of the young pirate, Frederic, there’s just enough spice in the chromaticism in the orchestra’s accompaniment and allure in her coloratura to confirm her sisters’ suspicion she is swayed by his physical assets. A perfect complement to this is the Sergeant of Police’s splendidly lugubrious ‘When a felon is engaged in his employment’ – Sullivan by his own admission inspired in part by the worthy members of Cottage Row Police Station, who supplied the much needed tenors and basses for a local church choir he conducted in the 1860s.

03. The Gondoliers – or The King of Barataria

Premiered in 1889, this was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last enduring hit, and perhaps the closest Sullivan came to writing a successful opera. Not counting the overture, the first 20 minutes unfolds – including several plot points – entirely through singing, whether in choruses, songs or recitative. And in those first few numbers there are already some sure-fire hits such as the rollicking ‘For the merriest fellows are we’, and the enchanting song shared by the two leading ladies, ‘Thank you gallant gondolieri’.

Such were the singing standards Sullivan could count upon that none of the principal roles are a pushover, let alone that of the two happy-go-lucky male leads, the brothers Giuseppe and Marco (the latter singing the famous aria ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’ in Act II).

Set in Venice, the operetta finds Sullivan at his sunniest – and yet his music here nudges fairly close to the kind of sentiment one would expect more from Austrian or German light opera. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but something of the piquancy one hears in the best of Pirates or Mikado is missing from this otherwise charming operetta, which perhaps tries a little too hard to have the subtlety of Patience, that earlier operetta being more understated yet as a result more potent in its charm.

02. Ruddigore – or The Witch’s Curse

In second place is Ruddigore. The show that followed The Mikado is arguably even richer and more memorable. A curse has been placed on the noble Murgatroyd family, compelling the latest bearer of the baronetcy to commit at least one crime a day or else die in agony. The latest heir to that title, Sir Ruthven, manages to escape that fate by faking his own death and living incognito as a humble farmer, Robin, in love with local beauty and do-gooder Rose Maybud (a young lady who proves to be both foolish and feckless). Meanwhile his younger brother has been forced to take on the title, and naturally takes a keen interest when told by Ruthven’s supposed close buddy, Richard Dauntless – who happens to be also smitten by Rose Maybud’s charms – of his ‘late’ brother’s true situation. An idyllic wedding scene, in which ‘Robin’ appears to be about to wed his beloved Rosed (a scene painted with poignancy by Sullivan’s too-blissful-to-last music), is devastated by the arrival of Ruthven’s vengeful brother who reveals his terrible secret, Rose promptly dropping the deceptive bridegroom and settling for Dauntless. And we haven’t even started on Act II…

Here Gilbert and Sullivan reached something of a turning point. On one hand, they start in this show to pointedly send up not merely the conventions of bel canto and Italian opera, but the memes associated with their own shows: the giggly girl choruses established from HMS Pinafore onwards are deliberately transformed here into an irritating bridal chorus; and the supposed patriotic streak widely associated (however misleadingly) with G&S shows is made to appear absurd as the now ‘evil’ Ruthven cowers while his sometime ‘friend’ Dauntless boldly brandishes a flag at him (‘foiled, and by a Union Jack!’). Another convention turned on its head is when the chief of Ruthven’s ghostly tormentors in Act II, Sir Roderic Murgatroyd – is unexpectedly reunited with his long-lost love, Dame Hannah (Rose’s aunt); where Gilbert has so often made lovelorn maidens past the age of 45 seem ridiculous figures of fun, here – reinforced by Sullivan’s tender yet understated music – he effects a heartfelt reconciliation and loving reunion, while the young protagonists appear ridiculous and superficial. And that’s not to mention Roderic’s showstopping aria ‘When the night wind howls’…

01. Patience – or Bunthorne’s Bride

And the winner is ...(drum roll please)... Patience.

In this operetta, premiered in 1881, two absurdly pretentious poets vie for the adoring attentions of ‘the young ladies’. Gilbert was lampooning the then fashionable ‘aesthetic’ movement. Though its most famous and most talented exponent was Oscar Wilde, Gilbert’s real target was the less talented but even more pretentious Algernon Swinburne, a poet who liked to spread scandalous and even repulsive rumours about himself; according to one story, he’d had sex with a monkey and then eaten it. Gilbert (as did Wilde) thought Swinburne a charlatan, and effectively used him as the basis for the ‘fleshly poet’ Reginald Bunthorne. For Bunthorne’s ostensibly naïve and ‘worthy’ rival, Gilbert created the handsome Archibald Grosvenor, adored by the ladies for his masculine beauty yet prone to write banal platitudes as ‘poetry’.

In short, this is a plot which can so easily be updated (might a latter-day Sting type suit Grosvenor?) and deserves to be far better known. And Sullivan is really at the top of his game, writing music that is charming, charismatic, and sometimes surprisingly moving. He generally plays the comedy straight, none of the characters aware of how ridiculous their behaviour is. This is particularly evident in the central ensemble, ‘I hear the soft note’, sung in the final scene of Act I by three Dragoon officers reunited with their fiancées, who together swear ‘never, oh never, our hearts will range / From that old, old love again!’ Such is the sense of homecoming, and the touching simplicity and apparent sincerity of their music, that we are all the more appalled and amused when the next moment Grosvenor makes his first appearance, the ladies being instantly distracted from the men to whom they have just declared undying love.

Advertisement

In contrast to the poets and their swooning fans, there is a genuine and engaging swagger about the Dragoon Guards – both the chorus, and their Colonel’s splendidly rollicking first song (so redolent of the ‘popular tune’ he extols that one can easily overlook the fact it is a patter song). And the ending is one of the most satisfying and least contrived of any of the G&S shows.

Authors

daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.