A meandering evening drive through the snow-covered woods of Lincoln and Sudbury provided the perfect preamble to this weekend’s opening performances of The Grand Duke, presented by the Sudbury Savoyards. This production, filled with the quirky lyrics of the William S. Gilbert, comic turns of phrase and harmony by Arthur Sullivan, a lavish recreation of Oberammergau, Bavaria, and humorous, colorful costumes, is the first fully-staged production of the company since 2020. [BMInt review HERE]
Set in the fictional German Grand Duchy of Pfennig-Halbpfennig (German for 1½ cents), a cast of 22 soloists, 23 choristers, and a full orchestra of 26, briskly conducted by Aldo Fabrizi, brought Gilbert and Sullivan’s final comic opera to life. Fabrizi will lead two further performances this weekend [March 3rd at 8pm and March 4th at 2pm, Info HERE], and then stage direct/conduct A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder for the Greater Worcester Opera in June, featuring some of the same soloists heard in Sudbury.
A RARE OPPORTUNITY
This Grand Duke, the last collaboration of the G&S canon, had originally been auditioned, cast, and rehearsed in Fall 2021. Graham Daley, Chair of the SS Board of Trustees, remarked that it was postponed for two years “due to the Omicron variant. We are, as you can imagine, overjoyed to ‘sing choruses in public’ again together, and to share our love and laughter with you, finally.” Even the most die-hard of operetta lovers may never have had the chance to grapple with this “rarest” of G&S works: this production is only Sudbury Savoyards second Duke since their founding in 1961.
WHY IS The Grand Duke SO RARE?
Sir Arthur Sullivan’s church music, such as his hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1871) was popular. William Schwenck Gilbert & Sullivan had experienced international success with hits including H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885). Profits from G&S operas funded British impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte’s new Savoy Theater in 1880-81 in the heart of London’s theater district and established a professional stock company. Gilbert’s prompting books survive for most of his operas, so we can see the direct influence many stars of the day had on the development of characters and storylines. [More HERE] On December 28, 1881, it became the first public building in the world to be lit entirely with electricity from 1,200 Swan incandescent lamps, backed up by rarely-used gaslights [Original photos HERE]. Carte also introduced several innovations at the Savoy including free program booklets and cloakrooms, numbered seating, and the “queue” system for the pit and gallery (an American idea).
After the collaborators fell out in 1890 over business and artistic differences, Sullivan’s grand opera Ivanhoe (1891) succeeded in a new house designed specifically for it by Carte (now the Palace Theater, at Cambridge Circus). But then they quarreled again: this time over Gilbert’s American protégé Nancy McIntosh, a soprano from Pittsburgh. In 1891-92, Gilbert and his wife heard her perform in the Crystal Palace and with the London Symphony Orchestra, so he invited her to audition for Sullivan (his letters include hilarious comments like “she sings up to a C, whatever that means” and “no appreciable American twang.” McIntosh became “an adopted daughter” of the Gilberts: she even succeeded Lady Gilbert in the 1930s as Vice-President of the G&S Society in London and inherited Gilbert’s entire estate, including the Garrick Theatre [More HERE]. G&S reunited successfully for Utopia, Limited (1893), which enjoyed the longest run at the Savoy in the 1890s. Over the composer’s concerns, McIntosh starred in Utopia, as Princess Zara, but then Sullivan refused to work with her again. Then in 1895, another soprano emerged.
A GERMAN-ENGLISH HYBRID
Ilka Pálmay (1859-1945), was a Hungarian-born operatic soprano who starred in productions in Budapest and at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in the early 1890s. After marrying Count Eugen Kinsky in 1893, she performed in London for three seasons. Knowing that Gilbert had started to develop a libretto for The Grand Duke, the Cartes hired her, and Gilbert crafted the unique role of Julia Jellicoe around her strengths. Pálmay had been successful in European operetta productions, including the tenor role of Nanki-Poo (in German 1893 Mikado, in drag), Yum-Yum (also from Mikado), and the title roles in Offenbach’s La belle Hélène and The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. However, she had a very strong Germanic accent, so Julia is still performed today as an unusual German-accented character in a sea of British voices: the character is repeatedly identified as “an English comedienne,” so Gilbert’s complex joke relies on the audience understanding that most of the (German) characters speak perfect English, while the English actress has a middle-European accent. This challenging cross between Katisha (from Mikado), Mad Margaret (from Ruddigore), and Gilbert himself (she provides running commentary on the dramatic action and describes elements essential to her own character development) was ably interpreted by Elaine Crane. This virtuoso performance alone was reason enough to make the trek out to Sudbury.
The Grand Duke premiered at the Savoy on March 7, 1896, and ran for 123 performances [opening night program HERE]. Sullivan then wrote and confessed to his diary: “Began new opera “Grand Duke” at ¼ past eight – usual reception. Opera went well; over at 11:15. Parts of it dragged a little, dialogue too redundant, but success great and genuine, I think. Thank God opera is finished and out.” The Sudbury Savoyards performance took these comments to heart, presenting a special 45-minutes-shorter edition. Stage director Matt Tragert describes its origins: “the SS made extensive revisions when they first mounted the production in 2006. Our musical director at the time, Steve Malionek, carefully and thoughtfully edited and cut some musical numbers and Stage Director Paula Moravek re-worked some ponderous dialogue, creating the version of The Grand Duke we present to you today.” From the beginning, many G&S companies donated a large amount of their proceeds to charity: Sudbury Savoyards have donated more than a quarter million dollars to world hunger relief in the past three decades, collaborating locally with the Wayside Inn and Natick’s A Place to Turn.
The opera featured the type of English aristocrats mocked in London’s most popular comedy rag Punch, combined with contemporary British commentary on continental politics, sweet melodies by Arthur Sullivan (recently knighted by Queen Victoria), a successful satire of the French operetta form, and hilarious new rhymes from William S. Gilbert. The first night cast received positive reviews for their performances [original performer names HERE], while the pacing and structure of the plot was criticized.
Like some of the main characters in the Act II finale, Sullivan left for Monte Carlo immediately after the premiere; this left all cuts and supervision of the production in Gilbert’s hands. John Wolfson’s book Final Curtain is the most complete study of the writing, production and disappearance of Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke [further discussion HERE]. Publicity photos of early leads in costume survive [Images HERE]. Dan Rothermel, Music Director of the Savoy Company of Philadelphia, argues in “Swan Song: The Music of The Grand Duke” that this last G&S collaboration contains some of Sullivan’s best music [essay HERE]. To mention two of the most beautiful moments, Sullivan’s overture sparkled with Mahlerian harmonic extensions of Mendelssohnian tropes; and the haunting clarinet cadenza, masterfully played by Michelle Markus in Sullivan’s Overture and repeated before one of Julia Jellicoe’s arias, recalled some of Rimsky Korsakov’s and Rossini’s the best woodwind writing.
While the story is convoluted and has not held up as well as other G&S classics, the absurd plot was ably set in motion by Brad Amidon’s Dr. Tannhäuser, Notary of the town of Spiesesaal (German for dining hall). A popular presence in Boston’s theater scene and member of the Tanglewood Chorus, his clear diction and impeccable comic timing improved upon Gilbert’s challenging patter. Many of The Grand Duke’s characters mock those of Offenbach’s spectacularly successful Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1867); Gilbert was certainly familiar with Offenbach’s plots and language due to his English translations of French operettas [review of an excellent Gilbert & Offenbach recording HERE]. The plot is so complex and dense that this review required more than an hour of post-performance discussion, and for those seeking similar clarity, I defer to David Ben Leavitt’s exhaustive summary.
The Sudbury Savoyards are both an auditioned company (for leading roles) and an un-auditioned company (for their community-based chorus). This approach combines the charm of local-based theatrics with excellent singing from the other leading players. Both soprano ingenues Lisa (the young company soubrette who ends up with Ludwig) and the Princess of Monte Carlo were charmingly depicted and heartfelt. Sara DeLong’s sweet farewell aria in Act II (“Take care of him – he’s much too good to live,” sung by Lisa to Ludwig) featured her clear, legato approach to one of Sullivan’s most moving ballads. Lindsey Soboleski’s Princess and Santo Mammone’s Prince of Monte Carlo (her baritone father), were highlights of Act II. Their beautiful duet, supported by a complex quartet of four Nobles with perfect intonation (Kirsten Chetwynd, Frank Harrigan, Kim Kapner, and Larry Milner) was the choral zenith of the show.
Debuting as company choreographer, Kai Fay brought a balletic elegance to the production through thoughtful poses for all the solo ladies, simple elegance in their role of Deputy Chamberlain, and a one-night-only appearance in the scene-stealing role of the Costumier, replacing Jon Saul (who returned on Sunday as Costumier and Detective). The choral dances for two numbers, the jolly “sausage roll” Chorus from Act I and the hilarious Act II opening, featuring “fake Greek” sung in full togas, had the mostly-masked audience wheezing with laughter.
A final special mention should be included for Carolyn Kelly Schwartz’s interpretation of the difficult contralto role of Baroness von Krakenfeldt. The baroness is introduced as the fiancée of the first Grand Duke (“As o’er our penny roll, we sing”), then becomes attached to the second Grand Duke (“Now away to the wedding we go”), and finally marries the Prince of Monaco in one of Gilbert’s longest finales, with four couples united by the closing bar.
LOCAL BOSTON IMPACTS OF G&S
From the beginning, many G&S companies donated a large amount of their proceeds to charity: the Sudbury Savoyards have donated more than a quarter million dollars to world hunger relief in the past three decades, collaborating locally with the Wayside Inn and Natick’s A Place to Turn.
The MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players offered excellent fully staged productions from 1988-2018; this group has evolved into the community-based Savoyards of Boston, offering a “Sing-thru” of Pirates in October 2021, their first since Ruddigore and Pinafore in 2019. The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players has been presenting two full productions per year since 1956: their March 2023 show will be The Sorcerer. The Yale Gilbert & Sullivan Society was founded in 1971 (David Hyde Pierce ’81 and Victoria Clark ’82 were alums), and then re-founded in 1988 by students, many of whom are now active in the Boston musical community; it presented semi-annual shows until 2013. Twenty years of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s diaries are held by Yale’s Beinecke Library.
Other Local Community Troupes:
New England supports several excellent community-based companies focusing on the Savoy operas, and NEGASS (the New England Society of Gilbert & Sullivan) acts as a clearinghouse for local performances. They publish a newsletter up to six times per year, run educational programs for the Greater Worcester Opera, organize G&S singalongs, and maintain Facebook page of Boston-area events. The Savoyard Light Opera Company (based in Carlisle, MA since 1988) produces an annual mainstage show (50% G&S, 50% Broadway musicals). Valley Light Opera (based in Amherst, MA since 1975) produces 2-4 annual mainstage shows (80% G&S, 20% Broadway musicals). Both groups use elaborate sets and costumes accompanied by a full orchestra.
Boston’s new Yorick Ensemble presented a scaled-down version of Pirates for its inaugural production in Fall 2019. The Connecticut Gilbert & Sullivan Society (based in Middletown, CT, founded in 1980) presented Thespis in 2019 and their most recent production was H.M.S. Pinafore in October 2022. The Simsbury Light Opera Company is the oldest Gilbert & Sullivan Society in New England; they will present a double bill of Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer in April 2023. Cambridge’s Spectrum Singers presented a concert version of Trial by Jury in 2014 [BMInt review HERE], using Steven Ledbetter new critical edition, and Boston Odyssey Opera staged Patience at Boston University Theater in 2017 [Program notes HERE; BMInt review HERE]. Further afield, the professional Ohio Light Opera presents annual summer seasons with roughly two of the seven summer productions coming from the G&S canon. The massive 29th Annual International G&S Festival will take place from July 29th-August 12th, 2023, in Buxton Opera House, in Derbyshire, England.
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