Saturday, March 5, 2016


Gilbert and Sullivan's eighth comic opera (1884)
 London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Chorus, Alexander Faris, DVD 1982)
This comic opera requires intense concentration to catch the marvelous words, and we have it on royal authority (King Edward VII) that one act of an opera at a time is sufficient. As a compromise, we will have one and a half acts each time. And several (severe and severing) cuts were made in this production.
ACT 1  King Hildebrand, together with his son Hilarion, also Cyril and Florian (friends of the prince) and his soldiers and courtiers, are awaiting the arrival of King Gama and his daughter Princess Ida (note: they were betrothed “at the extremely early age of one”).
  If Gama does not bring Ida, that means war; Gama shall receive either “more than everything” or “less than nothing”. “We’ll shut him up in a dungeon cell, and toll his knell on a funeral bell”
   Hilarion now speaks up: “Today we’ll meet, my baby bride and I . . . Ida was a twelvemonth old, twenty years ago; I was twice her age, I’m told, twenty years ago . . .  She has gained upon me since” (she is now 21, he is barely 22). He knows that  she “has forsworn the world , and, with a band of women, shut herself within a lonely country house, and there devotes herself to stern philosophies!” (a university for celibate women, not a nunnery).
  Gama arrives at last, and introduces himself, to us: “If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am: I’m a genuine philanthropist, all other kinds are sham. Each little fault ...  in my erring fellow-creatures I endeavour to correct . . .  I do all the good I can, yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man! And I can’t think why! . . . . A charitable action I can skilfully dissect; and interèsted motives I ‘m delighted to detect; I know èvereybody’s  income and what everybody earns: and I carefully compare it with the[ir] income-tax returns ....You’ll  always find me ready with a crushing repartee .... I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute, and I do.
But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can, yet everybody says I am a disagreeable man! And I can’t think why.!”
  Gama then practises his personal relations technique on the company.
  Hildebrand finally asks where Ida is. “In Castle Adamant, one of my many country houses. There she rules a woman’s University, with full a hundred girls, who learn of her.” 
(Cyril: “A hundred girls! A hundred ecstasies!”).
  Hilarion wants to go there with his friends, and charm Ida and her ladies: “Expressive glances shall be our lances . . . . A sweet profusion of soft allusion this bold intrusion shall justify”.
   Meanwhile, King Gama and his three sons will be imprisoned as hostages.

ACT 2  At Castle Adamant, girl graduates are “discovered” at the feet of Lady Psyche. She is advising them on which authors to read for an education in Classics: Anakreon (on wine and love?!), Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Juvenal, but they should get them Bowdlerized (expurgated, removing all references to men, I presume, for she exclaims “Man is Nature’s sole mistake”).
  Lady Blanche reads Princess Idea’s list of punishments: Sacharissa is expelled, for having chess-men: “They’re men with whom you give each other mate”. Chloe had a sketch of a perambulator in her drawing-book.
  The Principal, the Princess, gives her address to the young ladies who have just joined. They begin with a hymn to Minerva (Roman goddess of wisdom, arts, and trades).
  Lady Blanche is thinking of getting promotion.
  Hilarion and Co. arrive, having endured prickly cactus, stinging nettles, bull-dogs, broken bottles, and having learned that burglary (breaking and entering)  is a science.
  Florian scoffs at the idea of a Woman’s college. Hilarion rebukes him and gives details of the projects the ladies mind. Example: they will find Perpetual Motion, if they can. “These are the phenomena, that every pretty domina is hoping we shall see at her Universiteee”.
  More idle conjecture has them supposing that the walls of the university (which they have managed to climb over) are not only for keeping men out, but for keeping the maidens in. They chance upon some “academic robes worn by the lady undergraduates when they matriculate”,  and they dress themselves up for the part. They are immediately tested by the arrival of the Princess herself. They introduce themselves as “three well-born maids of liberal estate, who wish to join the University”. She accepts them, and lays down the rules: “give the fullness of your love“ to the hundred maids within these walls (wholeheartedly!); ”never marry any man” (agreed!).
She puts it to them, ascetically: “The world is but a broken toy, its pleasures hollow, false its joy.”
   Ida goes off, but Lady Psyche (Professor of Humanities) appears. Catastrophe!  She is Florian’s sister, and she will surely recognize him; so they decide to “trust our secret to her gentle care”. She knows them all: they remember her as a precocious little phenomenon, a know-all child, who,
for example, would tell the company how the conjuror’s tricks worked before he did them.  “But, gentleman, ‘tis death to enter here.” She then expounds their teaching on the origins of the sexes, with a distorted view of Darwin’s theory:  the males of the species are apes in disguise, and known as Darwinian Man.
   Thereupon, to the consternation of all present, Melissa enters (she is the daughter [!] of Lady Blanche, Professor of Abstract Science, who aspires to the Principal’s position, we recall). Melissa finds the men interesting, and not at all like the malignant caricature she has been taught: “hideous,
idiotic, and deformed”.
   Psyche exclaims her sudden misgivings: “The woman of the wisest wit may sometimes be mistaken; in Ida’s views, I must admit, my faith is somewhat shaken”. Others express similar sentiments and join in a chorus of rejoicing: “Then jump for joy, and gaily bound, the truth is found”.
   Lady Blanche comes to quiz her daughter about the three new students; she has perceived from their singing that “two are tenors, one is a baritone! These ‘girls’ are men disguised!”. Melissa pleads for them, pointing out that Ida and Hilarion have been betrothed for twenty years already. If he takes his bride away, Blanche will move into the top position: “Now wouldn’t you like to rule the roast, and guide this university?” Blanche concurs in song.
(Nowadays ‘rule the roast’, older spelling rost or roste, has become ‘rulethe roost’, referring to a rooster and his hens; but the original idea was that the master of the house had the right to carve the roast meat.)
   Florian wants to whisk Melissa away; when the luncheon bell rings, he is happy to stay.
   Hilarian gives an account of himself (in the third person mode) telling Ida how desperate the Prince is for the love of his Princess. Cyril becomes tipsy and sings a kissing song. When he addresses the disguised Prince as Hilarion, Ida rushes from the table and falls into the stream. (Shades of Ophelia drowned here.) Hilarion rescues her, but she still has them sent to the dungeon.
    King Hildebrand arrives at the castle gates, and announces he will execute Ida’s three brothers unless she marries Hilarion by the following afternoon. Ida prepares for battle.
ACT 3  The ladies eventually confess their unfitness for fighting. King Gama and his three sons are admitted; he tells his daughter that he is a broken man: he has been treated with such courtesies and kindnesses that he has nothing to grumble about. She yields and finally agrees to accept Hilarion
and his love; Florian takes Melissa; Psyche goes with Cyril.

Douglas Fairbanks introduces the show, as a play within a play: it is performed within a garden party (so there are men in the scenes inside the college!). He says that we are getting it exactly as Gilbert and Sullivan wrote it. Wrong. Lady Blanche’s aria is omitted, for example.
   We certainly do not hear this line: “And the niggers they’ll be bleaching, by and by”. This might have been alliteratively  altered to "And the blacks they will be bleachiing".  But in 1954 it became "And they'll practice what they're preaching, by and by".

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