"The Gondoliers"

or "The King of Barataria"

Potted Plot | History | First Night Critics | Did You Know? | Behind the Scenes | Original Cast

Picture of first night programme

First performed at the Savoy Theatre, London, December 7th 1889

The first setting is the Piazzetta, Venice, close to the Ducal Palace.

Twenty Four contadine are sighing for the two most eligible gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri. The two duly arrive to choose their brides. They are blindfolded and prepare to play a game of blind-man's bluff. They undertake to marry the first two contadine they catch. Eventually they manage to catch Gianetta and Tessa. They all dance off.

A gondola arrives, bearing the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, their daughter, Casilda, and their attendant, Luiz. They are dressed in pompous but old and faded clothes.

They are depressed by the absence of pomp and ceremony heralding their arrival. While Luiz goes off to inform the Grand Inquisitor of their arrival the Duke lets his daughter into a secret. A secret, which, for State reasons, it was necessary to preserve for twenty years. When she was six months old she was married by proxy to the infant son of the King of Barataria. The reason for their visit to Venice is to ascertain her husband's whereabouts and to hail Casilda as the reigning Queen of Barataria.

Casilda points out that she has nothing to wear as they are penniless. The Duke reveals that he is turning himself into a limited company. Casilda is concerned that she may be witness to father's eventual liquidation.

The Duke and Duchess disappear into the Ducal Palace and when alone it is revealed that Casilda and Luiz are, in fact, in love with each other. She tells Luiz that she was wed in babyhood to the infant son of the King of Barataria. The child had been stolen shortly afterwards and nobody knows his whereabouts. Luiz's mother was the nurse with whose charge the future King had been entrusted.

The Duke and Duchess return with Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. He tells them all that the King is in Venice working as a gondolier. The Inquisitor tells the tale of how he had brought the infant Prince to Venice, had left him to be raised with a respectable gondolier along with his own son. However....

"That highly respectable gondolier
Could never declare with a mind sincere
Which if the two was his offspring dear,
And which the Royal stripling."

Casilda is obviously very concerned that she is married to one of two gondoliers and it is impossible to say which. Don Alhambra assures her that Luiz's mother will be brought in to establish the King's identity.

They leave and the recently married gondoliers and contadina arrive. Don Alhambra enters and his shocked to learn that they are married as he explains that one of the two brothers is, in fact, the King of Barataria. He proposes that until it is settled which is which they should both reign jointly. Marco and Giuseppe agree, though the girls are distressed that initially they won't be able to accompany their husbands.

Without even packing an overnight bag the men board a small craft and set sail to Barataria.

Act two is set in the court of Barataria. All the gondoliers are discovered dressed as courtiers, officers, soldiers and servants without reference to social distinctions.

Everything is amiable except that they miss their wives whom they had left three months prior.

However, just then, their wives all arrive. As the question of who is the real king cannot yet be answered they all decide to hold a banquet and a dance.

Don Alhambra arrives and is shaken by the sight of servants dancing with the kings. They surely should be in the servant's halls. He is shocked to learn that the servant's halls are now the Royal Apartments.

Don Alhambra then goes on to explain the story of the infant marriage which, of course, freaks out Tessa and Gianetta. The situation is very very complicated.

Eventually the infant Prince's foster mother arrives who gives them all the truth and solves all their problems. When traitors came to steal the Prince she substituted her own son, Luiz.

Luiz and Casilda are now crowned the king and Queen of Barataria. All rejoice and burst into a dance.

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In May, 1889, Gilbert and Sullivan met in London to discuss work on the next Savoy Opera. The months preceding this meeting had been immersed in one of many bitter quarrels between the two. Different personal characteristics would make them fly off the handle at any given time. But there was also a strong magnetic force which held them together. Some may think that they knew where the money lay but both did have a genuine appreciation of each other's talent.

Gondoliers Theatre Poster

For five months Gilbert worked on the libretto, sending the songs as each was completed to Sullivan. Both of them were out of town, Gilbert at Uxbridge, Sullivan at Grove House, Weymouth, and their correspondence during this period was of the friendliest description.

George Grossmith left the Savoy during the run of The Yeomen, and Rutland Barrington returned for The Gondoliers after a couple of years trying his hand at 'straight' plays.

As Gilbert had experienced trouble with leading artists, all of whom had asked for a rise in salary commensurate with their rise in fame, he decided to have no "star" parts in his new opera. Jessie Bond, however, declined to appear unless her salary was raised from twenty pounds to thirty pounds a week. Gilbert would not consent to the extra ten pounds. Jessie persisted. Sullivan and Carte supported her. Gilbert had to give in. From then on he never spoke to her at rehearsals, only acknowledging her presence as she came on stage with the remark:
"Make way for the high-salaried artiste".

Rehearsals began in the middle of October, and all through November Sullivan worked hard every night. He could not stand interruption when seriously at work and therefore preferred to write at night time.

The opening performance, on December 7th, was the most brilliant of all their first-nights. It was, with The Mikado, the greatest success of their joint career.

In writing to Sullivan for the splendid work he had done, Gilbert said:
"In gives one the chance of shining right through the twentieth century with reflected light." "Don't talk of reflected light," Sullivan answered. "In such a perfect book as The Gondoliers you shine with an individual brilliancy which no other writer can hope to attain."

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First night critics


Sunday Times

"A verdict of emphatic and unanimous approval was passed last night by a brilliant house upon Mr. W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan's new comic opera...That verdict was never for a moment in doubt. From the time the curtain rose...there reigned in the Savoy Theatre but one steady, undisturbed atmosphere of contentment - contentment with the music, the dances, the piece, the scenery, the dresses, and not the least of all, with the talented and loyal members of Mr. D'Oyly Carte's company."


"Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan's Gondoliers deserves to rank immediately after The Mikado and Pinafore bracketed. The mise-en-scène is in every way about as perfect as it is possible to be...There are evre so many good things in the Opera...The piece is so brilliant to the eye and ear, that there is never a dull moment on the stage or off it. It is just one of those simple Bab-Ballady stories which... may, especially on account of the music, be safely put down on the playgoer's list for 'a second hearing'."

Sunday Times

"Sir Arthur, as is his wont on first performances, himself takes the baton in hand, and he is received on entering the orchestra with a prolonged round of applause. The Gondoliers does not, like the Yeomen of the Guard, boast a regular overture in classical form; simply the old style of introduction, bringing in two or three tunes to be heard later on, that is all. But the tunes serve their purpose.
When the curtain rises it reveals the Piazzetta at Venice as it might have looked somewhere about the middle of last century. It is a glorious picture - one of Mr. Hawes Craven's masterpieces of colour and perspective."

Sunday Times

"Miss Geraldine Ulmar and Miss Jessie Bond have never looked more charming than in these Venetian costumes, designed, like all the others, by that skillful genius Mr. Percy Anderson."

Morning Advertiser

"(The first act had been prolonged) beyond the ordinary limit of time (by the encoring of almost everything sung)."

Topical Times

"The attractions of The Gondoliers are numerous. To begin with, the chorus wore comparatively short skirts for the first time, and the gratifying fact is revealed to a curious world that the Savoy chorus are a very well-legged lot."

Evening News

"Sir Arthur Sullivan makes no secret of the fact that The Gondoliers has given him more trouble to compose than any of his previous works. The cause of this was his very natural anxiety to keep the work strung up to a prescribed pitch of brilliancy."

Click here to check out the reviews for the first Australia production.

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Did you know?

Things were beginning to happen to the Opera Company Grossmith had left hoping to make more money at his old trade as a club entertainer. Some of the remaining members were beginning to think their longevity entitled them to special treatment. Gilbert, who knew that the precision and style of D'Oyly Carte productions was created and could be maintained only by full cooperation among all concerned, constructed the plot of The Gondoliers in such manner that there is no one star. Thus he managed to bring the company back together for one further success.

Although successful in England the operetta fared less well in New York. It opened at the New Park Theatre on 7 January 1890 and was immediately panned by the critics. Carte himself came to New York to investigate, brought in replacements for several of the cast, and remounted the production at a new theatre. The new production struggled and only ran for three months.

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Behind the scenes

When the score of The Gondoliers was published by Chappell & Co., twelve men were kept packing the score from morning till night.
On the first day 20,000 copies (11 wagon loads) of the vocal score alone were dispatched. But the printing-machines were still kept going at high pressure, and the first order executed by the publishers, including the piano score, the vocal score, the dance, and other arrangements reached over 70,000 copies.

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