A collaboration most congenial

Operettas: Gilbert & Sullivan's didn't exactly enjoy working together.

July 12, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Poet W. S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan continue to shine in each other's reflected light. The magic in the ampersand of Gilbert & Sullivan remains undiminished. In terms of number of performances, amateur as well as professional, they are still ahead of more recent musical partnerships like Rodgers and Hammerstein or even Rice and Lloyd Webber.

"I grew up with the stuff," says Roger Brunyate, the director of the Young Victorian Theater Company's new production of G & S' "The Gondoliers," which opens today at the Bryn Mawr School. "In the house I grew up in England, we had almost every score. One of my earliest memories is playing the tunes on our piano."

When Brunyate, the artistic director of the Peabody Institute's Peabody Opera Theatre, moved to the United States in the early 1970s, he was surprised to discover that G&S were just as popular on this side of the Atlantic.

"Maybe more [popular]," he says. "In this country, there's an absolute rage for the stuff -- and they try to be more `British' than the British."

But the relationship G&S continue to enjoy with their audience is much better than the one Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan suffered through with each other.

To put it politely, they did not particularly enjoy each other's company.

Sullivan, who composed the music, called his collaborations with Gilbert "slavery," believing that his popular music for the operettas betrayed his obligations to serious music.

The more practical-minded Gilbert's chief concerns were with box-office receipts and with goading the stubborn Sullivan into yet one more collaboration.

Although their partnership lasted a few more years and produced two more operettas, "The Gondoliers," which was first performed in 1889, was the last of their great collaborations.

It was also perhaps the most congenial. Sullivan had just scratched his itch for high seriousness by working (with another librettist) on grand opera on the subject of Ivanhoe. And Gilbert, having managed to cajole Sullivan back to work, was anxious to ensure that the composer had no regrets.

He let Sullivan choose the subject of the libretto -- a sunny Venetian story about infants switched at birth instead of the grittier tale about a traveling theatrical company Gilbert himself preferred -- and there was a further olive branch in the form of an opening sequence that gives the composer 15 minutes of uninterrupted music.

"The Gondoliers" has more music and less spoken dialogue than any other G&S operetta.

Despite the limitations Gilbert set himself, he was still able to do some of his best work.

The libretto manages to pack a considerable satirical punch -- it makes fun of the late 19th-century enthusiasm for egalitarianism. And "The Gondoliers" hits its targets without the heavy hand, overt silliness or somber overtones that colored its two immediate predecessors, "The Yeomen of the Guard" and "Ruddigore."

It was not long, however, before Gilbert and Sullivan fell to quarreling again.

"Their partnership fell apart, and they never again achieved the pinnacle of optimistic pastoral they reached in `Gondoliers,' " Brunyate says.

But the initial euphoria shared by Gilbert and Sullivan in the immediate aftermath of "The Gondoliers" exquisitely defines the power in the ampersand.

"I must thank you for the magnificent effort you put into the piece," Gilbert wrote Sullivan the morning after opening night. "It gives one a chance of shining right through the 20th century with a reflected light."

Operetta

What: "The Gondoliers," presented by the Young Victorian Theater Company

Where: Centennial Hall, Bryn Mawr School, 109 W. Melrose Ave.

When: 8: 15 p.m. today and July 15-17, 3 p.m. Sunday and July 18

Tickets: $20-$25

Call: 410-323-3077

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