Gilbert and Sullivan’s final collaboration, “The Grand Duke,” was created in less than the best of circumstances. Earlier, Gilbert had taken Sullivan and their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte to court (!) over some financial matters that included the cost of a new carpet in their Savoy Theater. When the three were reunited with “Utopia, Ltd.,” it was clear that Sullivan was starting to repeat himself. In “The Grand Duke,” the plot is the most complicated and surely the silliest of any of their former efforts; and the score shows strong evidence that Sullivan was pretty burned out.
On the other hand, Gilbert seems to have “fallen” for the Hungarian soprano cast to play Julia and compromised his libretto by building up her part to more than it could hold. (He did the same with another soprano in “Utopia, Ltd,” and ultimately adopted her!)
I saw a production in New York that cut the text heavily and actually added a scene created by someone who thought Act II needed improvement. The songs are for the most part jolly but not particularly memorable. There is a beautiful ensemble in Act I that recalls the madrigal in “The Mikado” and offers a sort of oasis from the (I hate to say it) pedestrian tunes around it. Indeed, two or three of Sullivan’s worst efforts are found in this score; and I thought it is no wonder that it ran only 123 performances.
On repeated hearings, however, I am getting to like many of the numbers through familiarity. Also, I realize I am consciously or not comparing the score with the ones I grew up with, and this is not nice.
However, the intrepid Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, true to its mission of producing and committing to video all of the Savoy operettas, did a very complete version of the original “Grand Duke” script and score in 1999. It makes, amazingly, a good case for the work. Granted that the dialogue does go on far too long in many spots, director Hal Ryder accepted the work as written–no current joking references–and managed to bring life into it with a cast that takes the silliness and spotty score and makes it sound good for the most part.
Set in the 1930s (an updating departure for the Seattle group), the plot unfolds showing a theatrical group who is plotting to overthrow the Grand Duke and take over the government. There is much ado about eating sausage rolls, statutory duels fought with a deck of cards, and one character finding himself engaged to four women at the same time. The overly long first act is divided into two acts—a very wise choice. The voices are a bit removed from the overhanging microphones, and a copy of the text would help during the musical numbers, as indeed with any operetta. Two of the songs in what is Act III in this production are not found in the standard text.
I had the pleasure of watching our local Moving Company perform a non-musical version I had prepared for them—and the Keene Sentinel compared it to a Monty Python sketch. Once again, Gilbert was there first! In fact, this DVD has no competition at all. Both Gilbert and Sullivan fans and theatre historians will surely want to own the Seattle “Grand Duke.” It can be purchased through their website at www.pattersong.org.