Some things are much greater than the sum of their parts. For example, you really can’t separate Gilbert and Sullivan — go ahead, name one of either man’s solo productions. Although by all accounts their working relationship was as stormy as we’ve grown to expect from any pair of geniuses, Gilbert’s words paired with Sullivan’s music are a combination that lock unforgettably in the brain, and have caused generations of sane people to get all silly without warning. But it’s fair to say that some of their collaborations showcase one man’s talents more thoroughly than the other’s. For example, in Pirates of Penzance, what people remember are Gilbert’s witty lyrics (“I am the very model of a modern major-general”).
But for their twelfth opera The Gondoliers, a veritable tiramisu of a light opera now getting a loving staging by the Lamplighters, the focus is squarely on Sullivan from the very beginning, and an overture that pulls themes from both the Italianate first act and the Spanish-tinged second. This one he wrote completely by himself; as he noted in an interview in the Pall Mall Gazette in December of 1889 as Gondoliers was being prepared to open at the Savoy, he’d had the help of Hamilton Clarke on other overtures when he was pressed for time. For example, on The Mikado, Sullivan wrote the arrangement and then handed it over to Clarke, who “wrote the whole thing in a very few hours: in fact, he made it almost too elaborate, for I had to cut it down a little.”
It’s a good thing Clarke was in Australia in ’89, and Sullivan was forced to work alone on getting that overture finished as his actors learned their parts. Because the overture for Gondoliers is light and fluffy and perfect at laying out what the audience can expect for the rest of the night: a cheery love story — in fact, several of them — unusually set outside of Britain and only lightly touched by tension.
This isn’t the Mikado, where a character faces beheading for being a flirt, or the heavier Yeomen of the Guard, the G&S show which preceded The Gondoliers and centers on the death sentence of handsome Colonel Fairfax, locked in the Tower of London. The worst thing that can happen to people in Gondoliers is that they turn out not to be married after all. True to form, there’s social commentary, this time on snobbishness and class distinctions, but it’s muted compared to some of the other works, and not all that titillating to a modern audience. The plot also is not nearly as complicated as others in the canon, although it employs the usual “topsy-turvy” twist ending. In other words, this one is pretty and sweet — and a bit dull.
Eighteenth-century Venice is so full of beautiful women in bright primary-colored dresses that the handsome and sought-after Palmieri brothers, cleaving to their republican (small r) ideals that everyone is equal, decide that instead of making an active choice in wife selection they will blindfold themselves and have the girls run around them, explaining that “we undertake to marry any two of you we catch.” While this is bound to disappoint the other young ladies (“We are four and twenty, and they are only two!”), there are plenty of other strapping gondoliers to go around.
What the Palmieris don’t know is that one of them is secretly the King of Barataria (a Don Quixote reference; in Cervantes’ novel, Barataria was the island city that Sancho Panza was given to rule). Stolen away from Barataria as a babe by the Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra del Bolero (a delightfully cadaverous William Neil) to be kept safe and raised as a gondolier, it is time for the now-grown king to trade his pole for the scepter and return to his homeland to rule. But which Palmieri is it — brazen blond Giuseppe or dark-haired, diplomatic Marco?
And of course there’s another catch; the lovely and disdainful Casilda, daughter of the down-at-the-heels Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro. All three have made the sea-crossing to Venice so that Casilda can meet her husband, the king of Barataria, to whom she was wed by proxy as an infant. However, Casilda loves another, and is quite put out to discover twenty years after the fact that her parents already have married her off.
You see the problem. Two husbands, three wives, one kingship. And a grand inquisitor who hasn’t exactly been straight with everyone about what’s going on. At the end of the first act, he hustles the brothers Palmieri off to Barataria to rule jointly until the nurse who raised the real king can be found and interrogated, without mentioning the whole Casilda angle. In the second act, the wives (all three of ’em) show up in Barataria to claim their husbands, “whichever you are,” the newly-flush Plaza-Toros arrive in fabulous Aubrey Beardsley-inspired black-and-white ensembles to sing about the joys of corporate sponsorship (the duke, who has become a limited partnership, is “blazing in the luster of unexpected pocket money”), there’s a charmingly asymmetrical big dance number based on Spanish folk dances, and at the last possible moment all is made right.
The singing, sets, and costumes are gorgeous, and watching the brothers get an education in proper kingship is a hoot. They really don’t have the concept down, having brought along all their gondolier friends and given them high offices so they can loll about a dreamy Moorish palace playing dice and bocce and juggling fruit while the kings polish their regalia. In “Of Happiness the Very Pith” the brothers sing of the joys of being rulers, that you get to wake up first and polish the silverware and run little errands for the ministers of state and so forth. There are beautiful moments: Jennifer Ashworth as Gianetta singing the sentimental “Kind Sir, You Cannot Have the Heart” (“A woman’s heart is one with a woman’s hand”), Casilda and Luiz’ sad duet “There Was a Time,” the playful “To Help Unhappy Commoners,” where the duke and duchess explain why it’s worth paying them to endorse a product. But while this is one of the prettier G&S works, and the Lamplighters do a bang-up job, it’s not as satisfying or complex a romp as some.