Princess Ida

or "Castle Adamant"

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

Picture of first night programme

First performed at Savoy Theatre, London, on January 5th 1884

Act One. A Pavilion attached to King Hildebrand's Palace.

King Hildebrand and his followers scan the horizon for a sign of ugly, misshapen and ill-tempered King Gama. When he was one year old, Hildebrand's son, Hilarion was betrothed to Princess Ida, King Gama's daughter.

King Gama eventually arrives with his sons but not with his daughter. It seems Ida has set up a women's university and devote themselves entirely to study. No men are allowed.

Hilarian and his friends plan a campaign to enter the university, known as Castle Adamant. In the meantime Gama and his sons will be held in prison.

The second act is set in the gardens of Castle Adamant.

The women are involved in study and when they question the existence of man, Lady Psyche explains what man is.

"Man is course and Man is plain -
Man is more or less insane -
Man's a ribald - Man's a rake,
Man is Nature's sole mistake!"

The elderly Lady Blanche is prepared to deal out punishments to any of the girls who are caught with any kind of men. One girl is expelled for daring to bring a set of chessmen into the university. When alone Lady Blanche reveals that she has ambitions to one day rule the university. She leaves.

Hilarion, Cyril and Florian climb over a wall. They see some women's college robes lying around, so they decide to put them on.

Princess Ida comes across the new entrants. She agrees to accept them into the university provided that they will never marry men. The Princess leaves.

Lady Psyche enters. It turns out that she is Florian's sister so they confide in her.

Melissa, Lady Blanche's daughter arrives and agrees to keep the secret. When Lady Blanche confronts her over the very strange looking women, Melissa persuades her to play along because with the Princess out of the way she would have a better chance to become the head of the university.

Unfortunately during luncheon Cyril has a little too much wine to drink and exposes himself as a man. The three men are arrested but King Hildebrand and his army storm the walls and explains to Ida that she had been betrothed in infancy to Hilarion. A vow she must not break. However she stands firm as the act ends.

Act three is set on the outer walls and courtyard of Castle Adamant.

The girls are set ready for war but, despite their warlike manner, are far from keen on battle. The Princess is in despair over the despondent attitude.

The solders arrive. It is decided that instead of setting the troops against the women Hilarian and his friends should fight it out with Gama's sons. The battle does not last long at all.

Princess Ida agrees to resign from her post as head of the university. Lady Blanche is happy to take over.

The Princess agrees to marry Hilarion, while Psyche and Melissa settle for Cyril and Florian.

Click here for a complete libretto to Princess Ida

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Ida Theatre Poster

Fourteen years before the Savoy production of "Princess Ida", the Olympic Theatre witnessed the performance of "The Princess"; a whimsical parody of Tennyson's poem, by W.S. Gilbert. This was in the days when the rhymed, punning burlesques of Byron, Burnand, and other clever poets, still flourished. It became Gilbert's ambition to reform and raise the tone of musical plays. He wanted to put an end to the ultra-frivolous stuff and nonsense currently on stage. Gilbert admitted that some of it had actually came from his own pen.

So Gilbert turned to Tennyson and borrowed the characters and theme of the laureate's delightful poem. The outcome was a clever, playful parody in blank verse, relieved by a few light lyrics set to popular tunes from popular grand opera of the time.

Gilbert's first edition of "The Princess" failed to make an impression. He still had faith in the work and decided to resurrect the original play. Now with new music by Arthur Sullivan this could be a worthy successor to "Iolanthe".

In two notable respects "Princess Ida" marked a departure from the author's usual methods. First, the opera was in three acts instead of two; second, it was written in blank verse.

D'Oyly Carte lavished the very best onto the production. The costumes were as gorgeous in effect as they were rich in texture, exquisite in colour and design. The costly silver-gilt armour, specially designed and manufactured in Paris by the famed firm of Le Grange et Cie., excelled in brilliancy and the scenic sets were masterpieces. In short, no previous opera by Gilbert and Sullivan had involved such vast outlay and been so sumptuously placed upon the stage as "Princess Ida".

Princess Ida only lasted nine months at the Savoy. For Gilbert and Sullivan this was a disappointment. Other plays did well to last three months but the two were used to counting in years, not months.

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First night critics



"(The sets are) amongst the most beautiful pictures ever exhibited on any stage."


"The girls were dressed with a quaint richness, suggesting Portia after a visit to Swan & Edgar's."


"The Prologue, however, which is brief and to the point, is full of spirit...(It) ends as brightly as it began, and the verdict so far upon Princess Ida is wholly favourable."

Sporting Times

"It was a desperately dull performance... there was not three and a half jokes worth remembering throughout three and a half hours' misery...We are always hearing of Mr. Gilbert's wonderful stage management but the tumble of the Princess and her rescue from drowning were so ludicrously mismanaged as to evoke hisses and laughter."


"The success of the opera was never for a moment in doubt last night, and Sir Arthur Sullivan's music, whilst more ambitious in many of its elements than in his other comic operas, seems sure of gaining speedy popularity...The composer himself conducted the singularly smooth performance, and at its close acknowledged with Mr. Gilbert the unanimously favourable verdict of the audience."


"From beginning to end the instrumental parts of Princess Ida are fraught with enchanting combinations and joyful surprises. As a writer of apt and beautiful accompaniments to the voice, he is unrivalled by any living composer."

Sunday Times

"Besides its exquisite orchestration Princess Ida is rich in vocal concerted music - much more so, in fact, than in solos...Humour is almost as strong a point with Sir Arthur Sullivan as with his clever collaborator, and when attained by such legitimate means it is simply irresistible."

The Athenæum

"The gem of the opera is the duet for Lady Blanche and Melissa, with its old-world grace; but scarcely inferior are a Handelian trio for the three sons of Gama, and a sham Anacreontic song for Cyril. In the concerted music Sir Arthur Sullivan displays a serious artistic purpose, and there is nothing that is unworthy of his reputation as a leading English musician."


"The ponderous Hildebrand of Mr. Barrington contrasts most effectively with the malignant impishness of Mr. Grossmith's Gama, and neither actor misses a point that is to be made."

Sunday Times

"I have only space to add that the Savoy performance is very nearly, if not absolutely, perfect...A long and prosperous run in the case of Princess Ida may, I think, be confidently foretold."

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

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Did you know?

Sullivan was very very sick during the period of composing Princess Ida. This was the worse he had ever been. His kidney trouble gave him such pain that there were times when some doubted whether the work would be ready for the opening. With a scheduled date only four days away, Sullivan collapsed during a rehearsal. there were still two songs still to be composed. Somehow he got himself going again and finished the score in time. On opening night he was in such pain it took two injections of drugs to keep him on his feet while he conducted. When the curtain came down he collapsed again. The public was politely informed that the composer was suffering from "a muscular affection of the neck."

The title-role of Princess Ida was to have been sung by the American operetta star, Lillian Russell, whose beauty and talents were seasoned by reports of scandal off stage and on. Her career had begun, ironically enough, in one of the 'pirate' companies playing H.M.S. Pinafore in New york in 1878-9. By 1883, at the age of 21, she was a celebrity. She had eloped from new york with the English operetta composer Edward Solomon and appeared in London at the Gaiety in Solomon's Virginia and Paul in July 1883. Engaged as Princess ida, she fell foul of Gilbert by missing a rehearsal. According to Sullivan's diary, she sent an apology the next day. To no avail-she was dismissed. She then sued for breach of contract. The action was not settled until November 1884 when an out-of-court payment was made.

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Behind the scenes

In the early days of the Savoy Theatre, D'Oyly Carte introduced the queue system to theatre goers awaiting admission to the unreserved parts of the theatre. Those who were over-faithful to past traditions vowed that the public would never stand "being marshalled and driven like sheep into their pens." They were wrong.
The crowds would assemble hours before the performance, falling into the ranks of a queue and realized its advantages. Instead of the usual 'push and shove' they had been used to, here was a new rule: "first come first served."
The experiment proved so successful that the system was immediately adopted by every theatrical manager.

Princess Ida was one of the operettas where rehearsals were taking place before the music was actually written. George Grossmith in his book A Society Clown says: "We were rehearsing the whole of the concerted music of the first act. My song, 'I can't think why,' sung by King Gama, was not composed, and the whole of my share of the rehearsals was the following three bars and a half of recitative:

KING GAMA (recitative): Must we till then in prison cell be trust?
KING GAMA: This seems unnecessarily severe.

At one of the rehearsals, after singing this trifling bit of recitative, I addressed the composer and said: 'Could you tell me, Sir Arthur, what do the words "This seems unnecessarily severe" have reference to?' Sir Arthur replied: 'Beacause you are to be detained in prison, of course.' I replied: 'Thank you. I thought they were reference to my having been detained here three hours a day for the past fortnight to sing them.' The result was that Sir Arthur liberated me from the remainder of the first act rehearsals; and as I had not to put in an appearance in the second act, and had only one unwritten song in the third, I had, for a wonder, a pretty easy time of it."

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