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A Grand Duke Review

by PAUL McSHANE
Sydney, Australia


The Grand Duke had its premiere in London on 7 March, 1896 — the year in which Gilbert turned 60 (Sullivan was 53). It was their last opera together, although both produced pieces with other collaborators in later years. Sullivan's diary entry on the night of the premiere noted that "parts of it dragged a little, dialogue too redundant, but success great and genuine I think". The London press, not noted for its gratuitous kindness to performances of lesser merit, received it well. It ran to packed houses initially, but the crowds dwindled away, and the show closed after "only" 123 performances - the shortest run of any Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Its relative failure must have been due to its shortcomings, to the public's changing taste, or to both.

Rutland Barrington as Ludwig

In my salad days, I performed in two Grand Duke productions of much enthusiasm but dubious quality, cast variously as Ludwig and the Herald. In the latter part, I recall wearing a costume that made me look like a cross between the White Rabbit and the Jack of Diamonds. I enjoyed myself immensely in both roles, but this of course is a long way from saying that either the opera, the productions or my performances were at all meritorious.

Many critics consider The Grand Duke to have been a failure, and the least worthy of all the surviving G&S operas. A recent reviewer (Peter Duffy, in Paradox, July-August 1995), choosing his words carefully, opined that the plot is puerile, the words are pathetic and it contains no spontaneously attractive music. Can Gilbert and Sullivan really have produced something this bad? Let us try to reach some conclusions....

The opera takes place in Speisesäal, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Pfennig Halbpfennig, and takes place in 1750, the same year in which The Gondoliers was set. Many of its characters have solid central European surnames such as von Krakenfeldt, Tannhäuser and Dummkopf. One can hardly fault Gilbert in setting the scene. In common with most other G & S operas, The Grand Duke has a convoluted plot. Although many readers will be familiar with the plot, some may not have had the opportunity to see this opera, so I shall give a short summary for their benefit; the others may allow their attention to wander if they like.

Ludwig, on the verge of marrying his sweetheart Lisa, is a member of Ernest Dummkopf's theatrical troupe, which is conspiring to dethrone the unpopular Grand Duke Rudolph. The Grand Duchy's laws include the concept of a statutory duel, in which the duellists draw cards from a pack; the loser is legally dead, and the winner takes his place, adopting all his functions and responsibilities. Ludwig challenges first Ernest, then Rudolph to such a duel, drawing an ace to the other's king on each occasion. Having thus become the Grand Duke, Ludwig renews the Statutory Duel Act that was about to expire, ensuring that the losers remain legally dead. However, he promptly finds that he has been promised by default to the troupe's Julia Jellicoe, who was to have married Ernest. Next, the Baroness von Krakenfeldt, who was about to marry Rudolph, claims Ludwig. Finally, the Prince of Monte Carlo arrives with his daughter, who was engaged to Rudolph at an early age, to claim the Grand Duke's hand in marriage for her. At this point, with Ludwig nonplussed at his fourth fiancée in 24 hours, the opera achieves its Gilbertian denouement by the discovery that the Statutory Duel Act specified that an ace shall count as lowest, not highest. Consequently, Ernest and Rudolph never really died, Ludwig's renewal of the Act was invalid, and since the Act just expired, Ludwig is not legally dead either and can marry Lisa after all.

Complicated and Gilbertian? Yes. "Puerile"? Not really — no more so than the plots of The Mikado and The Gondoliers.

Turning to the characters in the opera, three of them really come to life -- Rudolph, Ludwig and Julia. Rudolph has a lot in common with King Gama, but is more snobbish, less assertive and less misanthropic. His stingyness gives him a unique place in the list of Gilbertian characters. Ludwig is over-exposed in the opera (like Frederick in Pirates), but is a cheerful, likeable and personable individual, with plenty of ideas and views of his own. Julia, the English (i.e. foreign) theatrical "star", has more passion and fire than any other Gilbertian female apart from Katisha, and is possibly the best dramatic soprano creation in the G & S repertoire. The other characters, however, are relatively uninspiring. Ernest is a fairly average tenor part (although he has some good moments in the First Act, and is not nearly as insipid as Alexis, for instance). The Baroness puffs and blows like a typical Gilbertian contralto, but her character is forgettable. Lisa is the most miserable leading lady in G&S. Others, led by the Notary, have some good dialogue, but their personalities do not impress themselves on us. There are many Gilbertian inventions in the plot, demonstrating that the old master was not devoid of new ideas. These include the sausage-roll theme and its development, the statutory duels, Rudolph's miserly entourage, the Greek chorus, the Monte Carlo theme (a shot at Sullivan and his gambling?) and unusual cameos by the Herald and Ben Hashbaz. All of these are good for a chuckle or two, if not a full-bellied laugh.

The dialogue - well, it's not Gilbert's best. Look at these examples:

Ludwig: "..I should hesitate to enrol any baboon who couldn't produce satisfactory credentials from his last Zoological Gardens."

Julia: "..I'm a light-hearted girl, but I don't chaff bogies."

Lisa: "Oh, here's another - here's another! (Weeping.)"

Rudolph: "As lowest-lowest-lowest! So you're the ghoest-ghoest-ghoest!"

Prince: "Two little doddle doddles!"

Although there is not a lot of good stuff to offset this drivel, a few quotable gems are present, e.g.


"It is always amusing to the legal mind to see a parcel of laymen bothering themselves about a matter which to a trained lawyer presents no difficulty whatsoever."

"...the Acting Temporary Sub-Deputy Assistant Vice-Chamberlain will sing comic songs in the Market-place from noon to nightfall."

"I daresay being blown up is not nearly as unpleasant as one would think."

"Oh, I wouldn't stab her. It's been done to death."

"It's so difficult being a lady when one isn't born to it."

One point worth mentioning is Gilbert's classicism in Act II, where he uses the excuse of the theatrical troupe's Troilus and Cressida production to dress them up accordingly, and have them shout "Opoponax! Eloia!". Ludwig's following song amplifies the theme, and bombards the audience with words such as "hyporchematic", "Dithyramb", "Corybantian", "Diergeticon" and "periphrastic". If that was not enough, Ludwig throws in some Latin ("choreutæ", "choregus", "drachmæ") and even Greek ("ariston", "trepestai pros ton poton"). This is all very clever, no doubt, but way over the heads of the audience.

Now we come to the songs, and here we have a mixed bunch:

  1. A sparkling opening chorus, with clever musical allusions, which can take its place with the best G&S full chorus openings (Trial by Jury and Sorcerer).

  2. A forgettable duet for Ludwig and Lisa with poor lyrics ("...Am I quite the dashing sposo.." rhyming with "..Perhaps you think I'm only so-so") and a blah waltz tempo that seems out of place.

  3. A memorable, jolly sausage-roll song.

  4. Ernest's theatrical manager song, with good lyrics containing the best satire in the piece and a mostly restrained accompaniment that jumps into life at the end of each verse.

  5. Julia's ballad, which is analogous to Mad Margaret's song, the impact depending on the performer's histrionic skills. Good material from both partners, but the song is a bit lengthy.

  6. Chorus and song from Ludwig — one verse too long and not the best set of lyrics for a narrative-type song. Sullivan did as well he could with Gilbert's material.

  7. The Notary's statutory duel song, which is necessary for the plot, but contains neither Gilbert's nor Sullivan's best efforts.

  8. Madrigal — good lyrics and music, deserving more exposure.

  9. The playing card song, for trio and chorus - well written and has a swinging tune.

  10. The Chamberlains' chorus, which is short, with good lyrics. Gilbert may have expected Sullivan to produce something scintillating like the Peers' Chorus, but would have felt disappointed with what he got.

  11. Rudolph's self-introduction, which has some good lines, but a poor rhyme pattern in the first verse and is a bit stilted. This time, it was Gilbert who let the side down.

  12. A stodgy duet for Rudolph and Baroness, in which neither partner was able to capture anything like the magic of the Plaza-Toros' duet, which was set in comparable circumstances.

  13. Gilbert's least enjoyable patter song — it was impossible for Sullivan to turn these lyrics into the familiar encore number, but he scored a plus with the sewing-machine effect in the orchestration.

  14. The Act I finale, comprising:
    • Some good recitative and chorus work surrounding the Rudolph-Ludwig Duel;
    • A fair song for Ludwig, followed by a disjointed song for Julia;
    • A cloying duet for Lisa and Julia;
    • A dreadful aria for Lisa, and
    • A rollicking ending.

      Half of the finale is up to the usual high standard, but the rest is not.

  15. The Greek chorus at the beginning of Act II, which is similar in style to, and better than, "Let the merry cymbals sound", from Patience.

  16. Ludwig's classical song, which could have been a masterpiece. The first two-thirds of each verse are brilliant, although partially incomprehensible for a first-time audience; Sullivan was wise enough to let the music sit in the background for the number. Unfortunately, the last part of each verse (with references to"erudition sham") is unnecessary and distracting, and makes the number too long.

  17. Lisa's song — a quite forgettable moment, containing nothing of consequence in either words or music. (Poor Lisa!)

  18. Ludwig and Julia's duet, which is another good number, letting Julia engage in histrionics. It is better and shorter than Julia's ballad in Act I, but very similar in style; the problem is that one such number in an opera is ample.

  19. Chorus and entrance of Baroness — the music is good enough, but Gilbert's lyrics are terrible, e.g. "I've come here to be matrimonially matrimonified"; "With a hurly-burly and a hubble-bubble"; "Tol the riddle lol".

  20. The short "summon the charioteers" verse for Baroness and chorus (reprised later in the Act), followed by a good recitative and song for Julia. Again, Julia gets the best of author's and composer's offerings to their female cast.

  21. The "spectre" duet for Ernest and Julia - musically sound, but unnecessary, and the lyrics are silly.

  22. The wedding procession and song for Baroness — a good number; the "Pommery seventy-four" line lingers in the memory.

  23. Jones Hewson as the Herald and C. H. Workman as Ben Hashbaz
    The Herald's song was a show-stopper at the premiere of The Grand Duke. The Herald (who makes his first appearance in the show, sings his number and departs forever) arrives unexpectedly and delivers some good lyrics and a great tune.

  24. The duet for the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo contains another of Gilbert's low moments ("They're very, very rich, And accordingly, as sich, To the Peerage elevated"). The music is not much, either.

  25. The roulette song is a great one - perhaps the best in the show. The lyrics are excellent, and Sullivan's music (simulating the whirl of the roulette wheel during the verses and the bouncing ball in the chorus) is very clever as well as catchy. This song can hold its own with the best from the other operas. Macmillan's publications of the Savoy Operas surprisingly omitted (expurgated?) this number.

  26. The opera closes with a reprise of the Act I opening chorus. (To digress, have you ever noticed how uninventive G & S were with their final act finales? The exceptions were possibly Trial by Jury and Iolanthe, Ruddigore - the original Act 2 finale - and Utopia). In summary, I enjoy unreservedly 12 of the 25 musical numbers shown above, viz. 1, 3, 4 (not 5 because we're keeping 18), 8, 9, 15, 16 (despite its flaws), 18, 20, 22, 23 and 25, and parts of the Act I finale. At the other end of the scale, I would discard numbers 2, 12, 13, 17 and 24, plus other parts of the Act I finale, without any grief whatsoever. The remaining seven numbers are like the curate's egg.

From this critical examination of the opera, we have seen that its setting is good, its characterisations OK, its plot typically Gilbertian, its dialogue uninspiring, and its lyrics and music varying from brilliant to dreadful. Could we say the same thing about other G&S operas? To some extent, yes, but on the whole, The Grand Duke adds up to something less than most of its predecessors. I rate it as a tie with The Sorcerer for last place. This does not mean, of course, that we should consign the opera to the scrap heap. Few of us have seen what a professional production could make of it. Upgrading The Grand Duke (particularly the second act) with elaborate costumes and staging could work wonders - unfortunately, most of us are unlikely to see this happening. If an amateur production comes along, do try to see it. It isn't The Mikado, but it's Gilbert and Sullivan - not in their prime, but with several glorious examples of their old magic.



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