or "The Witch's Curse"

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

Picture of first night programme

"From this date, 'First Night' programmes were often decorated with characters from previous operas"

First performed at the Savoy Theatre, London, on January 22nd, 1887

The setting is the fishing village of Rederring, in Cornwall.

A bunch of professional bridesmaids are in despair. Their's is the only village in the world that possesses such a unique group but their services have not been required for six months.

In desperation, one of the group suggests that Rose's aunt, Dame Hannah, could marry. Dame Hannah revels that, many years ago, she was to have married a handsome youth. But, she discovered, on the day fixed for their wedding, that he was really Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, one of the bad Baronets of Ruddigore. She tells the tale of the Witch's curse and how each lord of Ruddigore has to commit a crime every day of his life.

Robin Oakapple, a young Farmer, admires Rose Maybud from afar. He doesn't have the courage to tell her of his feelings.

Robin's manservant, Old Adam, arrives and reveals to the audience that Robin is in fact Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. Twenty years earlier, rather than inheriting the curse, Ruthven had fled his home and concealed himself in the village.

Robin's foster-brother, the sailor, Richard Dauntless arrives and Robin confesses that he loves Rose but is too shy to approach her. Richard agrees to plead his case for him. No problem for the tar who, guided by his heart, is equally attracted to her. However Rose's heart says that she should give it to Robin.

Robin and Rose go off in one direction and Richard, weeping, goes off in the other.

Enter the wildly dressed Mad Margaret. She is in love with Sir Despard Murgatroyd, the current inheritor of the witch's curse.

Sir Despard, himself, enters. All flee from him. Although he is doomed to commit a crime every day, he makes a practice of getting it over early in the morning and spends the rest of the day doing good.

Richard, still upset that Robin has taken Rose from him, informs Despard that his elder brother, Ruthven, is alive and living in that very village.

Robin and Rose prepare for their wedding. Sir Despard bursts in and declares that Robin is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. Rose cannot marry Robin now so pairs off with Richard. Robin falls senseless on the stage.

Act two is set in the Picture Gallery in Ruddigore Castle.

Robin and Adam are found now dressed for their new roles.

Richard and Rose arrive at the castle to ask Robin's consent, as lord of the manor, to their marriage. After a while he yields to their pleads.

Left alone Robin begs his ancestors hanging in the picture gallery to have mercy upon him. Surprise, surprise, the pictures suddenly come to life. The most recently deceased, Sir Roderic, is spokesman for all of them. Robin details his crimes for the week but his list is most unimpressive. Roderic orders him to commit the crime of carrying off a lady without delay. The ancestors disappear back into their frames and Old Adam is despatched to the village to seize a maiden.

Despard, now free of the curse, enters with Margaret. They are dressed in black and both put in the appearance of respectability. They have been married a week. Despard points out to Robin that he should be carrying the guilt of all the crimes that had been committed in his name during the last ten years. Robin decides to defy his ancestors even if it means facing death.

"My eyes are fully open to my awful situation -
I shall go at one to Roderic and make him an oration
I shall tell him I've recovered my forgotten moral senses,
And I don't care twopence-halfpenny for any consequences."

Adam bursts in. He has been successful in carrying off a maiden but she turns out to be Dame Hannah who flies at Robin with a small dagger. Robin pleads to the picture gallery to come back and help him. Sir Roderic steps from his frame and recognizes Dame Hannah as his childhood sweetheart.

All arrive for the finale. Robin points out to Roderic that a baronet of Ruddigore can die only by refusing to commit his daily crime and that such a refusal is tantamount to suicide - which is in itself a crime. So none of the ancestors needed to have died at all.

Robin embraces Rose and Roderic embraces Hannah. All rejoice.

Click here for a complete libretto to Ruddigore

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As the year 1886 drew to it's close The Golden Legend had musical England by the ears and Sullivan was sought to conduct it whilst at the same time rehearsing Ruddygore at the Savoy Theatre. The first performance was set back until January 22nd 1887. A week before this date Sullivan finished the score. On January 19th, The Mikado had its last performance and that then left the theatre free for three days of final rehearsals for Ruddygore.

Ruddigore Theatre Poster

The tricky business of bringing the portraits of the ancestors to life and the multiplicity of costumes and uniforms of the period 1810 made this opera one of the most difficult productions Gilbert ever attempted. The uniforms of twenty British regiments were represented and Gilbert had them all inspected for accuracy by Sir Arthur Herbert, Deputy Quartermaster of the British Army.

One little problem was that of making Sullivan's baton visible when the stage was blacked-out in Act 2. A glass tube baton containing a platinum wire, which glowed a dull red, was devised.

The opening performance went well up until the last twenty minutes when the audience became restless. At the fall of the curtain the first "boo" in the history of Gilbert and Sullivan opera was heard from the gallery.

The opinion of both the audience and the critics was that the new work was not half as good as The Mikado .

Many people took exception to the title.

The morning after the production the partners met at Sullivan's flat and made a number of alterations and excisions. When a play receives a mixed reception on the first night no amount of editing can make a success of it and the run of Ruddigore only just beat that of Princess Ida .

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First night critics



"Everybody who was anybody prided himself on being at the Savoy Theatre tonight. The place was simply packed with celebrities."

The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News
"It opens with an overture as varied as one of those masterpieces of the Dutch crusine in which sweets, sours, sharps, salts and spices are blended together in a way more startling than grateful to the unaccustomed palate, and peters out in a final chorus which affords a striking exemplification of the family resemblance spoken of."

"(Act One) sparkles with the flashes of Mr. Gilbert's wit and the graces of Sir Arthur Sullivan's melodiousness. One is almost at a loss what to select for quotation from an embarrassment of humorous riches."

St. James Gazette
"Number after number was rapturously encored, and every droll sally of dialogue was received with a shout of appreciative mirth."

Illustrated Sporting and dramatic News
"(Richard Dauntless' ballad, 'I shipped, d'ye see, in a revenue sloop' was) capitally sung by Mr. Lely, who immediately afterwards danced a hornpipe so skillfully that he was compelled to repeat it, on the second occasion introducing fresh steps. The greedy gods demanded another repetition, but in vain."

Illustrated Sporting and dramatic News
"The concluding portion of the (Act 1) finale was encored, all the leading artists were called before the curtain and heartily applauded, and the favourite verdict on Act 1 was unanimous."

Pall Mall Budget
"(In Act 2) Mr. Gilbert has scarcely shown his usual skill in securing a good 'curtain', but the players seemed to be nervous from the first. Miss Braham forgot her lines, and was not in voice; Mr. Grossmith was in the same plight, and did not do justice to what is, at present, certainly not too good a part. But first-night nervousness must be condoned, however much it mars the effect of the play."

"The ghost scene of the second act, representing the descent of the Murgatroyd ancestry from their picture frames, of which preliminary notices and hints of the initiated had led one to expect much, was a very tame affair. In the first instance, the stage management was not here equal to Savoy level. A set of rather ugly daubs... pulled up as you might a patent iron shutter to reveal a figure in the recess behind, can scarcely be called a good example of stage contrivance, especially when, as on Saturday night, one of these blinds or shutters comes down at an odd moment, while another refuses to move in time."

"The production of Gilbert and Sullivan's new operetta, Ruddygore, was on Saturday evening accompanied by a phenomenon never before experienced at the Savoy Theatre. With the rapturous applause of a more than sympathetic first-night audience, which called composer and author, Mr. D'Oyly Carte, the manager, and all the principals before the curtain, a small but very determined minority mingled its hisses... We have no hesitation in attributing them to the feebleness of the second act and the downright stupidity of its dénouncement."

Click here to check out the reviews for the first New Zealand production.

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Did you know?

The day after the opening Gilbert and Sullivan met to recast the second act. Gilbert rewrote one patter song completely and did a good deal of pruning. In one case the pruning was confusingly incomplete. In the original second act he had changed Adam's name to the melodramatic 'Gideon Crawle' to go with his master's new wicked identity. Revising, he cut the verse where the change was introduced but left one reference to Gideon Crawle, in the dialogue, where it remained for many years and many editions.

The resemblance between the ancestral portraits in Act 2 and the figures that step down from them was an instance where, how thoroughly, things are done at the Savoy. Each character, when his dress had been made and fitted, had a large photograph taken and the painter of the picture took this as his model and copied it.

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Behind the scenes

After the unparalleled success of The Mikado Gilbert was most anxious to maintain the Savoy standard of achievement and for that purpose he allowed certain friends to witness the later rehearsals in order that he might benefit by their criticisms. The company resented the indignity of being taught their business before people they did not know.
One day Rutland Barrington gave voice to their discontent, refusing to rehearse before a row of stalls filled with strangers.
Gilbert was naturally furious at this public rebuke and the company trembled as he worked off his emotions in appropriate speech. Eventually he realised that the actors had a reasonable grievance and the stalls were emptied of their occupants.
Gilbert did not overlook Barrington's presumption and for several days after the incident he said to any member of the company who might happen to be watching a rehearsal from the stalls:
"You mustn't sit here; Barrington won't like it."

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