The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel, was the final Savoy Opera written by librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, their fourteenth and last opera together. It premiered at the Savoy Theatre on March 7, 1896, and ran for 123 performances. The production was the partnership's only financial failure, and the two men never worked together again.
In The Grand Duke, Gilbert and Sullivan come full circle, back to the theme of their first collaboration, Thespis: a troupe of actors taking political power. The plot hinges on the mis-interpretation of a 100 year-old law regarding statutory duels (decided by drawing cards). The baffled central character, Ludwig, becomes engaged to four different women before the plot is resolved. The frugality and phoniness of the wealthy classes and the nobility is lampooned — once again, as in Princess Ida, The Mikado, The Gondoliers, and Utopia, Limited, the foreign setting emboldened Gilbert to use some particularly pointed satire here.
During the production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1889 comic opera, The Gondoliers, Gilbert became embroiled in a legal dispute with producer Richard D'Oyly Carte over the cost of a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre and, more generally, over the accounting for expenses of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Sullivan sided with Carte (who was about to produce Sullivan's grand opera, Ivanhoe), and the partnership disbanded. After The Gondoliers closed in 1891, Gilbert withdrew the performance rights to his libretti and vowed to write no more operas for the Savoy. The lawsuit left Gilbert and Sullivan somewhat embittered, and though they finally collaborated on two more works, these suffered from a less collegial working relationship than the two men had typically enjoyed while writing earlier operas.
Gilbert and Sullivan's penultimate opera, Utopia, Limited (1893), was a very modest success compared with their earlier collaborations. It introduced Gilbert's last protégée, Nancy McIntosh, as the heroine, who received generally unfavourable press. Sullivan refused to write another piece if she was to take part in it. Discussions over her playing the role of Yum-Yum in a proposed revival of The Mikado led to another row between Gilbert and Sullivan that prevented the revival, and Gilbert's insistence upon her appearing in his 1894 opera, His Excellency, caused Sullivan to refuse to set the piece. After His Excellency closed in April 1885, McIntosh wrote to Sullivan informing him that she planned to return to concert singing, and so the obstacle to his further collaboration with Gilbert was removed. Meanwhile, Sullivan had written a comic opera for the Savoy Theatre with F. C. Burnand, The Chieftain, but that had closed in March 1895.
Gilbert had begun working on the story of The Grand Duke in late 1894. Elements of the plot were based on several antecedents including "The Duke's Dilemma" (1853), a short story by Tom Taylor, published in Blackwood's Magazine, about a poor duke who hires French actors to play courtiers to impress his rich fiancee. The story also contains the germ of the character of Ernest. In 1888, "The Duke's Dilemma" was adapted as The Prima Donna, a comic opera by H. B. Farnie that contains other details seen in The Grand Duke, including the Shakespearean costumes, a prince and princess who make a theatrical entrance. In addition, the plot shows similarities with the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Thespis, in which a company of actors gain political power. Gilbert read a sketch of the plot to Sullivan on 8 August 1895, and Sullivan wrote on 11 August to say that he would be pleased to write the music, calling Gilbert's plot sketch "as clear and bright as possible". The theme of Ernest (and then Rudolph) being legally dead while still physically alive was used in earlier works by Gilbert and, separately by Sullivan, for example Tom Cobb (1875) and Cox and Box (1867). Gilbert sold the libretto of the new piece to Carte and Sullivan for £5,000, and so he took no risk as to the whether or not it would succeed.
Mr. and Mrs. Carte hired a new soprano, the Hungarian Ilka Palmay, who had recently arrived in England and quickly made a favourable impression on London audiences and critics with her charming personality. Gilbert devised a new plot line revolving around Palmay, making her character an English actress among a company of German actors, with the topsy-turvy conceit that her "strong English accent" was forgiven by her audiences because of her great dramatic artistry. Rutland Barrington's role, Ludwig, became the leading comedian of the theatrical company and the central role in the opera. Gilbert had paired the title character with contralto Rosina Brandram, causing Sullivan to suggest some different pairings of the characters, but Gilbert and the Cartes disagreed; Mrs. Carte went so far as to caution Sullivan that his ideas would upset the casting. Unhappily for Gilbert, three of his usual principal players, George Grossmith, Richard Temple and Jessie Bond, who he had originally thought would play the title character, the prince and the princess, all left the company before rehearsals began for The Grand Duke, and so he reduced the size of these roles, further changing his original conception.
While Gilbert and Sullivan finished writing the show, the Cartes produced a revival of The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre, opening on 6 November 1895. Rehearsals for The Grand Duke began in January. Sullivan wrote the overture himself, effectively weaving together some of the best melodies in the opera. Gilbert made a few additional changes to the libretto shortly before opening night to avoid giving offense to Kaiser Wilhelm, possibly at the request of Sullivan, who valued the Kaiser's friendship. These included changing the name of the title character from Wilhelm to Rudolph.
The opera premiered on 7 March 1896, and Sullivan conducted the orchestra, as he always did on opening nights. The opening night was a decided success, and the critics praised Gilbert's direction, Palmay's singing and acting, Passmore and the cast in general. There were some reservations, however. The Times's review of the opening night's performance said:
|“||The Grand Duke is not by any means another Mikado, and, though it is far from being the least attractive of the series, signs are not wanting that the rich vein which the collaborators and their various followers have worked for so many years is at last dangerously near exhaustion. This time the libretto is very conspicuously inferior to the music. There are still a number of excellent songs, but the dialogue seems to have lost much of its crispness, the turning-point of what plot there is requires considerable intellectual application before it can be thoroughly grasped, and some of the jests are beaten out terribly thin.||”|
The reviewer stated that the jokes might be funnier if the dialogue between them were "compressed". The Manchester Guardian concurred: "Mr. Gilbert's tendency to over-elaboration has nowhere shown itself so obtrusively.... Mr. Gilbert has introduced too many whimsical ideas which practically bear no relation to the story proper". Although the audience greeted the new piece enthusiastically, neither partner was satisfied. Sullivan wrote in his diary, "Parts of it dragged a little – dialogue too redundant but success great and genuine I think.... Thank God opera is finished & out." Gilbert wrote to his friend, Mrs. Bram Stoker: "I'm not at all a proud Mother, and I never want to see this ugly misshapen little brat again."
After the opening night, Sullivan left to recuperate in Monte Carlo. Gilbert reacted to the reviews by making cuts in the opera. These included three songs in Act II, and commentators have questioned the wisdom of these particular cuts, especially the Baroness's drinking song and the Prince's roulette song. The Grand Duke closed after 123 performances, Gilbert and Sullivan's only financial failure. It toured the British provinces for a year and was produced in Germany on 20 May 1996 at the Unter den Linden Theatre in Berlin and on a D'Oyly Carte tour of South Africa the same year. After this, it disappeared from the professional repertory, although Gilbert considered reviving it in 1909.
The Grand Duke is longer than most of the earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and more of the libretto is devoted to dialogue. Gilbert did cut parts of the opera after the opening night, but it still had a shorter run than any of the earlier collaborations since Trial by Jury. In addition to whatever weaknesses the show had, as compared with earlier Gilbert and Sullivan pieces, the taste of the London theatregoing public had shifted away from comic opera to musical comedies, such as A Gaiety Girl (1893), The Shop Girl (1894) and An Artist's Model (1895), which were to dominate the London stage through World War I. One of the most successful musical comedies of the 1890s, The Geisha (1896), competed directly against The Grand Duke and was by far the greater success.
After its original production, The Grand Duke was not revived by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company until 1975 (and then only in concert), and performances by other companies have been less frequent than most of the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Critics of the 20th century dismissed the work. For example, H. M. Walbrook wrote in 1921, "It reads like the work of a tired man.... There is his manner but not his wit, his lyrical fluency but not his charm.... [For] the most part, the lyrics were uninspiring and the melodies uninspired. Of Gilbert's work in the opera, Isaac Goldberg opined, "the old self-censorship has relaxed", and of Sullivan's he concludes, "his grip upon the text was relaxing; he pays less attention to the words, setting them with less regard than formerly to their natural rhythms".
In the first half of the 20th century, The Grand Duke was produced occasionally by amateur companies, including the Savoy Company of Philadelphia and the Blue Hill Troupe of New York City, who prided themselves on producing all of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Finally, in America, it was mounted by professional companies, including the American Savoyards, beginning in 1959, and the Light Opera of Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s. Of a 1962 production by The Lyric Theater Company of Washington, D. C., The Washington Post wrote, "the difficulties were worth surmounting, for the work is a delight.... Throughout the work are echoes of their earlier and more successful collaborations, but Pfennig Halbpfennig retains a flavor all its own." The BBC assembled a cast to broadcast the opera (together with the rest of the Gilbert and Sullivan series) in 1966 (led by former D'Oyly Carte comic Peter Pratt) and again in 1989.
After the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company released its recording of the piece in 1976, the opera was produced more frequently. As Gilbert expert Jane Stedman notes, "the twentieth century has proved that The Grand Duke is by no means unplayable". Marc Shepherd concludes, "while the work is undoubtedly too long if performed without cuts, it is full of bright comic situations and Gilbert's characteristic topsy-turvy wit. Sullivan's contribution has been considered first-rate from the beginning. The opera shows him branching out into a more harmonically adventurous Continental operetta style.
The original and 1975 principal cast were as follows:
|Rudolph, Grand Duke of Pfennig-Halbpfennig||Walter Passmore||John Reed|
|Ernest Dummkopf, a Theatrical Manager||Charles Kenningham||Colin Wright|
|Ludwig, his Leading Comedian||Rutland Barrington||Kenneth Sandford|
|Dr. Tannhäuser, a Notary||Scott Russell||Michael Rayner|
|The Prince of Monte Carlo||R. Scott Fishe||John Ayldon|
|Viscount Mentone||E. Carlton||Jeffrey Cresswell|
|Ben Hashbaz, a costumier||C. H. Workman||Jon Ellison|
|Herald||Jones Hewson||John Broad|
|The Princess of Monte Carlo, betrothed to Rudolph||Emmie Owen||Pamela Field|
|The Baroness von Krakenfeldt, betrothed to Rudolph||Rosina Brandram||Lyndsie Holland|
|Julia Jellicoe, an English Comedienne||Ilka Pálmay||Julia Goss|
|Lisa, a Soubrette||Florence Perry||Judi Merri|
|Members of Ernest Dummkopf's Company:
|Gretchen||Ruth Vincent||Anne Egglestone|
|Bertha||Jessie Rose||Beti Lloyd-Jones|
|Elsa||Ethel Wilson||Patricia Leonard|
|Martha||Beatrice Perry||Rosalind Griffiths|
|Chorus of Chamberlains, Nobles, Actors, Actresses, etc.|
The Grand Duke is set in the Grand Duchy of Pfennig-Halbpfennig, in 1750.
The first act takes place in the market square in the capital city, Speisesaal. Ernest Dummkopf's theatrical company, who are to open in Troilus and Cressida that night, are ready to celebrate the wedding of the troupe's leading comedian Ludwig to Lisa, a soubrette of the company. However, the marriage cannot take place yet as there are no parsons available in the city, as all clerics have been summoned to the palace by the Grand Duke to discuss his own forthcoming marriage. This is one more cause for resenting the Grand Duke, and in fact all of the company are members of a plot to blow him up and place a new man on the throne. The secret sign by which members of the conspiracy recognise each other is to eat a sausage roll — a food of which they are by now all heartily sick.
It is clear that Ernest will win the election which is to follow the coup and become Duke, which troubles Julia Jellicoe, the English comedienne. As leading lady of the company, she is bound by contract to play the leading female role in any production. If Ernest, the manager, becomes the Grand Duke, she will have to be the Grand Duchess. This is a repugnant prospect to her (though a delightful one to Ernest), but she declares that she will play the part in a professional manner.
Meanwhile, Ludwig has met a man who returned his secret salute by eating three sausage rolls. Ludwig took him as a member of the conspiracy and told him all the details: only then did he realise that he had just revealed the entire plot to the Grand Duke's private detective. The company are aghast, believing they are doomed once the Grand Duke learns of the plot. The notary, Dr. Tannhäuser, appears and offers a solution. He explains that a century ago the Grand Duke of the time, concerned about the loss of life in duelling, had created the statutory duel: the duellers draw cards, and the one who draws the lower card loses. He becomes legally dead, and the winner takes over his position: his property, responsibilities and debts. The law regulating statutory duels, like all laws of Pfennig-Halbpfennig, lasts for one hundred years unless revived, and it is to lapse tomorrow.
Tannhäuser counsels Ernest and Ludwig to fight a statutory duel immediately: the loser will be legally dead, and the survivor can go to the Duke and confess the whole plot. As informer he will be spared, while the other party will be dead and so beyond retribution. The next day, the loser will come to life when the law lapses, but since death expunges crime, his character will be unstained. Ernest and Ludwig promptly "fight" a statutory duel: Ernest draws a king, but Ludwig draws an Ace and wins.
They leave, and the Grand Duke Rudolph appears, heralded by his corps of chamberlains, and he instructs them in the arrangements for his wedding the next day to Baroness Caroline von Krakenfeldt. She arrives, handing him a letter from his detective, and they sing about how exactly in agreement are their ideas on economy. Caroline is disconcerted that Rudolph insists on courting her here, in the market square, but he explains that he has made a law compelling couples to do any courting here in the square, so as to increase the value of his properties around the square. She approves of this example of economy.
Caroline is also upset by a newspaper article—too cheap to buy one, it came wrapped around her breakfast—which says that Rudolph was betrothed in infancy to the Princess of Monte Carlo, but he explains that it's "practically off." The betrothal lapses when the Princess reaches the age of twenty-one, which will happen tomorrow; but her father, the Prince, dares not venture out of his house for fear of being arrested by his creditors.
Once he is alone, Rudolph reads the letter, and learns about the plot against him. He fears the plot will be successful. Ludwig enters, intent on denouncing the plot to him. Before he can do so, Rudolph declares that he would give anything to avoid being blown up the next day, and Ludwig sees a way out. He patriotically volunteers to challenge Rudolph to a statutory duel. The two men will hide cards up their sleeves, guaranteeing victory to Ludwig. When the plot unfolds, Ludwig will be its victim. The next day, when the Act authorizing statutory duels expires, Rudolph can come back to life unharmed. Although Rudolph is sceptical, he accepts Ludwig's proposal.
Rudolph and Ludwig summon all the people. They stage a mock quarrel and conduct the rigged statutory duel as planned: Rudolph's King is beaten by Ludwig's Ace. Rudolph's subjects berate him with scorn, and he leaves, threatening revenge. Ludwig, now the Grand Duke, promptly extends the Act for another hundred years, thus ensuring that neither Rudolph nor Ernest can come back to life.
Suddenly Julia Jellicoe appears, and once again asserts that, as leading lady, she must take the leading role of the Grand Duchess. Lisa leaves in tears. Julia points out that if they are to occupy a Ducal court, they need to be dressed more impressively than their everyday clothes will allow. Ludwig recalls that they have a complete set of brand-new costumes for Troilus and Cressida, which they can use and "upraise the dead old days of Athens in her glory."
In a room in the Duke's palace, the new Duke, Duchess and court parade in classical costumes, and sing a Grecian chorus. Left alone, Ludwig and Julia fail to agree on how her role is to be played. Caroline von Krakenfeldt arrives for her wedding, and is startled at finding Rudolph has been replaced by Ludwig. But once she discovers that Ludwig has beaten Rudolph in a statutory duel, she points out that he must take on Rudolph's responsibilities — including his betrothal to her. So despite being already married to Julia, Ludwig goes off with Caroline to get married, and Julia is left alone to sing a lament before exiting.
Ernest, though legally dead, is desperate for news, and ventures in to try and find out what is going on. He sees the wedding procession in the distance, and assumes that Ludwig is marrying Lisa; but it cannot be so, for Lisa appears. She will not stop, but runs from him as from a ghost. He then supposes that Ludwig must be marrying his Julia — but she too appears. Though affecting to be also frightened of the "ghost", she stays and tells him what Ludwig has done.
They leave again, and the wedding party come back — Caroline is enjoying the rare pleasure of drinking "when somebody else pays the bill." Yet another unexpected visitor arrives: it is a herald, who announces that the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo are on their way. Ludwig decides to give him a theatrical welcome, and tells the company to hide.
The Prince of Monte Carlo arrives with his daughter the Princess and a retinue of supernumeraries — out-of-work actors hired from the Theatre Monaco to play the part of nobles. We gather that he has reversed his fortunes by inventing a game called roulette. He has paid off his debts, hired the supernumeraries, and brought his daughter straight to Pfennig-Halbpfennig just in time.
Ludwig and the court reappear, with a lively can-can. The Princess is shocked and downcast when she discovers that Ludwig already has three Grand Duchesses. He tells her that he defeated Rudolph in a statutory duel, and assumed all of the former Grand Duke's responsibilities. She points out that her claim predates the Baroness von Krakenfeldt's, and Ludwig is therefore obliged to marry her.
Ludwig and the Princess are about to go off to yet another wedding party, when Ernest, Rudolph and Dr Tannhäuser burst in. The Notary reveals that the Act regulating statutory duels specifically lays down that the ace shall count as lowest, so Ludwig did not win, was never Grand Duke, and cannot have revived the act. Within seconds, the Act expires, returning Ludwig to the living. All dance off to get married — Rudolph and the Princess; Ernest and Julia; and Ludwig and Lisa.
The published vocal score for The Grand Duke was available within days of opening night, and it included all of the music performed at the premiere. Shortly thereafter, there were a number of substantial cuts, which were reflected in the published libretto. It is uncertain whether Sullivan (who was travelling abroad) agreed with these cuts, but the published vocal score was never revised. The libretto and vocal score have thus remained in disagreement.
The cuts involving the music included:
There is no standard performing version of The Grand Duke. While most companies that have produced The Grand Duke agree that the first-night version is too long, there is no established tradition about which cuts to make, if any, and most productions have attempted some reorganization or rewriting.
The 1976 D'Oyly Carte recording observed the original cuts in Act I, but restored the three deleted numbers from Act II.
Until the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company recorded this opera in 1976, it was unfamiliar to most fans of Gilbert and Sullivan. While the 1976 recording has been well-received, the 1973 recording by UMGASS, though an amateur recording, including dialogue, is admired. The BBC had broadcast the opera with an excellent cast and including dialogue in 1966, but they have never released the recording.