“The Grand Duke”: Gilbert and Sullivan’s most underrated opera.

(Act II is here. Many thanks to YouTube user John Burrows for posting it.)

As I have mentioned before, I really like Gilbert and Sullivan’s last operetta The Grand Duke. Historically, this is the operetta most G&S enthusiasts like least. And, I suppose, they have a few points in their favor, as in the sometimes very bad rhyming on Gilbert’s part. (e.g. “chooses/shoeses”) Some of the scenes, especially in Act II, do seem like they are badly in need of editing. Also, while he is a good character, the Prince of Monte Carlo in Act II seems to arrive out of nowhere.

But Gilbert’s talent for clever, clear and witty lyrics is not entirely absent, for surely Ernest’s memorable plea

If the light of love’s lingering ember
Has faded in gloom,
You cannot neglect, O remember,
A voice from the tomb!
That stern supernatural diction
Should act as a solemn restriction,
Although by a mere legal fiction
A voice from the tomb!

must rank with Gilbert’s wittiest. And even if it is a groaner, the ingenious lines: “In the period Socratic every dining-room was Attic/(Which suggests an architecture of a topsy-turvy kind)” is probably more amusing than any of the labored puns in H.M.S. Pinafore. Even second-rate Gilbert lyrics are, after all, still very pleasing.

However, I have always felt that Gilbert showed himself off at his cleverest as a writer in Grand Duke, if not as a poet. In fact, the whole premise of the “Statutory Duel” is as good an idea as Gilbert ever had for poking fun at the legal system. If Gilbert’s lyrical talents are a ghost–or rather, “ghoest”–of what they once were, he more than makes up for it with his inventiveness in plotting (Monte Carlan antics aside) and clever dialogue. (If you want to see Gilbert really being lazy, try Utopia, Limited)

As for criticisms that the text is overlong, well, that may be the case. It is possible that Grand Duke is very difficult to perform well, but certainly its story is quite enjoyable to read. Perhaps, that is Gilbert’s major sin here; crafting a story that was, in some ways, not suitable to his medium. As we shall see, however, in many ways Gilbert uses the medium’s conventions to marry form with thematic content in a very ingenious way.

I think it is one of Gilbert’s single best comedic stories; and (contrary to what you may think) a kind of culmination of his works. It is something of an irony that Gilbert and Sullivan, renowned for their “topsy-turvy” whimsicality, should have arguably their topsy-turviest piece ranked as a failure.

One of the major themes of Gilbert’s plays and poems is his annoyance at hypocrisy and artifice. His love of legalistic quibbles is only one manifestation of this, but really it is everywhere. Certainly, a major point in all his collaborations with Sullivan often draw on the idea that “Art is wrong and Nature right”, as Utopia Ltd. put it. But never is artifice and illusion more consistently targeted than in The Grand Duke.

Everything in The Grand Duke is about illusion, from Julia’s play-acting at “loving” Ernest as per contractual obligation, to the “legal death” mandated by the statutory duel, to Ludwig’s faux-Greek court, to the commoners pretending to be Noblemen in the pay of the Prince of Monte Carlo.

In this way, The Grand Duke attacks illusion and hypocrisy in a way no other G&S operetta ever did. From a thematic point of view, it is coherent; though admittedly a different kind of coherence than one might have been expecting from Gilbert. But it marries Gilbert’s dislike of society’s hypocritical conventions with the conventions of theater itself. Having satirized everything else, Gilbert is now mocking the very medium he’s using, often by having characters break the fourth wall, as Gayden Wren thoroughly lists in A Most Ingenious Paradox.

As to the characters, is there really another female role in all of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon as funny as Julia Jellicoe? Ruthlessly ambitious, cynical, calculating and bold character who also serves to lampoon stage convention. I’d argue she’s one of the best female roles Gilbert ever wrote.

When I first heard her Act II song, “So Ends My Dream”, I thought it seemed melodramatic and over-the-top, out of place with circumstances, considering she didn’t even really want to be the Grand Duchess that much. Then I realized that’s the point. Julia is a prima donna in every sense of the word; and so she only knows how to react in a theatrical way. She could actually be a tragic character, someone who doesn’t know how to have real emotions because they are so skilled at faking them. (It’s played for humor, but Julia’s claim that her love for her and Ernest’s hypothetical children will be “a mere pretence” is pretty chilling.)

All the other characters are amusing enough–Ludwig, the amiable everyman, Ernest the theater manager and the miserly Grand Duke Rudolph all have some good songs. And even secondary characters have much to recommend them, as in the notary’s dry wit, or the costumier and his hired “peers” bantering.

The Grand Duke is probably my next favorite of their comic pieces after Ruddigore, in spite of its flaws.

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