Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Savoy Operas by Sir WS Gilbert

This is a bit of an odd one to review. It's not a novel by any means—it's a collection of librettos. And librettos without their music! It's a testament to Gilbert's skill that they still manage to be readable.
The operettas produced by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan at the Savoy Theatre in London between 1875 and 1896 were sparkling comic gems set to unforgettable tunes. It wasn't a perfect partnership—Gilbert and Sullivan didn't get on, and Sullivan's real ambition was always to compose real masterpieces, not frothy comic operettas. Yet their names, now almost inseperable, have come to mean something really important, both culturally and artistically. You see, the Savoy operas were good as well as popular.
Sullivan's undeniable musical genius was of course a large part of the partnership's success. But as that doesn't lend itself well to being read out of book for fun and profit on a Sunday afternoon, this review is going to focus on Gilbert. Like so many of the great men of letters, Gilbert was in fact a lawyer before he turned his hand to writing. Like so many lawyer-writers, he then became extremely good at it, in a distinctively legal manner. Indeed he could rightly be dubbed the poet laureate of the legal profession. His songs are peppered with legal jokes, and usually there's a plot twist that depends on some kind of legal quibble. There's plenty of satire, plenty of obscure cultural references, and plenty of daft British humour.
Most of Gilbert's librettos were collected in one volume under the name of “The Savoy Operas” in 1926 and are, I believe, still in print. It contains thirteen operas, containing all the lyrics and hilarious banter, of which the most famous are HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, and The Mikado. The plots are really not important, generally involving obstacles thrown up in the path of true love by the zany supporting cast. For example, in Iolanthe, the half-fairy hero's engagement is disrupted by the attentions of the entire House of Lords, the fact that she's a ward of Chancery, and the fact that she witnessed him kissing his mother, who as a fairy appears to be a pretty girl of about nineteen. Or in The Mikado, where Prince Nanki-Poo's grand love for Yum-Yum appears to be hopeless, seeing that her guardian Ko-Ko (Lord High Executioner) intends to marry her himself, and that the fearsome lady Katisha intends to marry Nanki-Poo. Shenanigans, naturally, result.
This book is a must-have for any fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and not a bad investment for just about anyone else who likes good music and a bit of a laugh.

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