About The Grand Duke by Michael Gilmartin

It might be a surprise to discover that one of the few established Gilbert & Sullivan performing groups outside the English-speaking world is located right here in Rome. Founded in 1980, The Rome Savoyards have produced a different G & S comic opera nearly every year, and are celebrating their 23rd anniversary in the renovated theatre of St. Stephen's School with a February production of The Grand Duke, Gilbert and Sullivan's last collaboration.
"This show is a lost masterpiece," says Sandra Provost, the group's founder and director. "For pure entertainment, it ranks right up there with The Mikado and Pirates. I only discovered this opera myself a few years ago, and what struck me first was the brilliance of the music. This is the mature Sullivan, master of his art. All the old sparkle is still there, but there is a new warmth and richness, maybe more than in any earlier work. Sullivan was actually as much a comic genius as Gilbert, and his humor bubbles and sparkles from every page of the score. It's time more people knew about this opera."
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 with great enthusiasm. It ran to packed houses initially, but soon the crowds dwindled, and the show closed after "only" 123 performances. This was the shortest run of any Gilbert & Sullivan opera, and it was unceremoniously dropped from the D'Oyly Carte repertoire, which is why Provost calls it a "lost masterpiece". It has been suggested that by the mid nineties the public's tastes had changed, and that, as impressario Richard D'Oyly Carte put it, writing to Gilbert in 1894, "...what the people want now is simply 'fun' and little else." But if this were true, how to explain the wildly successful revivals of The Mikado and Yeomen of the Guard that followed The Grand Duke at the Savoy? If the public still loved the "old" Gilbert and Sullivan, what was new about The Grand Duke that was putting people off?
Taking a lead from Sullivan's diary entry, The Rome Savoyards have streamlined the libretto and eliminated the "parts [that] dragged", but it is doubtful that any amount of cutting would have turned The Grand Duke into a hit in 1896. It was not so much the audience that had changed as Gilbert himself. Back in the 1880s Gilbert had caused a sensation with comic satire. Now, a decade later, he was breaking new ground with musical comedy of a type that would have been right at home in the Hollywood of the twenties and thirties. The plot of The Grand Duke is so intricate as to be almost a parody of earlier Gilbert & Sullivan. The opera is such unadulterated Gilbert that its role in the G & S canon is similar to that of Duck Soup in the work of the Marx Brothers - over the top, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, his Late Victorian audience was "not amused".
Any doubts that Gilbert was ahead of his time should be dispelled by the central plot device - the takeover of the government by actors. Sound familiar? In this case, the scene is not California, but a tiny country somewhere in Central Europe, where the local Shakespearean theatre company is putting the finishing touches not only on their upcoming production of Troilus and Cressida but also on their secret project to seize control of the government. Their plan is to assassinate the detested and miserly hypochondriac Grand Duke Rudolph and to share out all the important government positions among themselves. As a secret sign to recognize other conspirators without arousing suspicion, in the place of a password or handshake the plotters conspicuously eat greasy sausage rolls. Any stranger who manages to eat one in response is presumed to be in on the conspiracy. This works fine until they run into the disguised head of Grand Duke Rudolph's Secret Service who, suffering from a pathological fondness for sausage rolls, inadvertently gives the correct countersign and is taken into the conspiracy. Disoriented by sausage roll overconsumption and helpless with laughter, he fails to arrest anyone. But the actors know he will go straight to the Grand Duke and, facing execution for treason, they frantically contact their lawyer, the eminent Dr. Tannhauser.
Now it is true that at least since Shakespeare's time, and not without justification, lawyers have commonly been compared unfavorably with rats and cockroaches, but Gilbert himself was trained as a lawyer, and if there ever was a man to have on your side in a tight spot, it would be this Dr. T.
The key, he explains, is a century-old law regulating the practice of dueling. Fighting duels with actual weapons has been outlawed and replaced by the drawing of playing cards. In this "statutory duel" the combatant who picks the higher card takes on all the obligations and responsibilities of the loser, who becomes legally dead on the spot. What is more, he tells them, the law contains a "sunset" clause stipulating that it automatically lapses after 100 years unless specifically extended, and (wait for it) it is set to expire at 3 p.m. the next day. Dr. Tannhauser advises Ernest Dummkopf, the theatre manager and chief conspirator, to fight such a Statutory Duel with Ludwig, one of the actors. Whoever wins must then turn King's evidence, cop a plea, and blame the whole thing on the loser, who will be dead and thus beyond prosecution. Awed by his genius, they gratefully agree.
Unbeknownst to the actors, however, Grand Duke Rudolph has problems of his own. His engagement to the fabulously wealthy Baroness Caroline von Krankenfeldt has been complicated by the revelation of his betrothal many years before to the infant daughter of the Prince of Monte Carlo. By the terms of this agreement the Princess must show up and claim him in person before reaching the age of 21 or the deal is off. Since the Monte Carlos are desperately poor and besieged in their own palace by creditors, and since the next day is the Princess's 21st birthday, the Duke is certain he will soon be free, and has scheduled his marriage with the Baroness for the following day. But now Grand Duke Rudolph learns from his belching Secret Service chief that he is to be assassinated by the conspirators on the very day of his wedding!
Meanwhile, having killed Ernest in their statutory duel, Ludwig hurries to the Grand Duke to confess and pin the whole thing on the dead theatre manager. He finds Rudolph deeply depressed and looking for some way, any way, to escape assassination. Ludwig realizes in a flash that he can give the Grand Duke exactly what he wants and at the same time catapult the whole theatre company into the driver's seat just by beating Rudolph in a statutory duel! Not knowing who Ludwig is, Rudolph jumps at the chance - as far as he can see, Ludwig will be in power just long enough to be assassinated, and when the law expires, Rudolph will resume his throne. So they put cards up their sleeves - ace for Ludwig, king for Rudolph - stage an exchange of insults, and "draw" the cards, at which point Rudolph perishes and Ludwig accedes to the throne. His first act as Grand Duke is - did you guess it? - to renew the dueling law for another century. This means that Rudolph will stay dead and the actors will take over for real, and with Ludwig as leader in the place of their now-defunct theatre manager, they don their Troilus and Cressida costumes and embark on their new career in government.
Along with Ernest's other obligations, Ludwig has also inherited Ernest's fiancée, Julia Jellicoe, the company's leading lady, and although he detests her, Ludwig, as the new Grand Duke, must drop his sweetheart Lisa and marry Julia instead.
But this is just the first of Ludwig's headaches - Ernest's obligations are one thing, but along with the Ducal throne Ludwig has inherited Rudolph's as well. The complications increase exponentially reaching a typically absurd Gilbertian climax, but now we're talking about act two, and if you want to find out how it all comes out and have an evening of laughs and fine music in the bargain, you'll just have to come and see the show.