La huitième collaboration de Gilbert et Sullivan, "Princess Ida", ouvrit ses portes le 5 janvier 1884 au Savoy Theatre pour 246 représentations. Pour créer le livret, Gilbert s'est tourné vers une pièce qu’il avait écrite en 1870, intitulée "The Princess", et réutilisa une grande partie du dialogue de cette pièce. Il conserva sa structure en trois actes, mais il écrivit de nouvelles paroles pour Sullivan. Sullivan fournit une partie de la meilleure musique qu’il ait jamais écrite pour le Savoy.
La pièce et l’opéra s’inspirent des personnages et des incidents du poème narratif en vers vierges de Tennyson, The Princess, publié en 1847.
La pièce raconte l'histoire d'une princesse qui fonde une université pour femmes qui enseigne que les femmes sont supérieures aux hommes et qu'elles devraient diriger. Le prince avec lequel elle a été mariée de force entre avec deux de ses amis dans l'université en se déguisant en femmes. Ils sont découverts, et une véritable guerre entre les deux sexes se prépare.
Princess Ida is based on Tennyson's serio-comic narrative poem of 1847, The Princess: A Medley. Gilbert had written a blank verse musical farce burlesquing the same material in 1870 called The Princess. He reused a good deal of the dialogue from this earlier play in the libretto of Princess Ida. He also retained Tennyson's blank verse style and the basic story line about a heroic princess who runs a women's college and the prince who loves her. He and his two friends infiltrate the college disguised as female students. Gilbert wrote entirely new lyrics for Princess Ida, since the lyrics to his 1870 farce were written to previously existing music by Offenbach, Rossini and others.
Tennyson's poem was written, in part, in response to the founding of Queen's College, London, the first college of women's higher education, in 1847. When Gilbert wrote The Princess in 1870, women's higher education was still an innovative, even radical concept. Girton College, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Cambridge, was established in 1869. However, by the time Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on Princess Ida in 1883, a women's college was a more established concept. Westfield College, the first college to open with the aim of educating women for University of London degrees, had opened in Hampstead in 1882. Thus, women's higher education was in the news in London, and Westfield is cited as a model for Gilbert's Castle Adamant.
Increasingly viewing his work with Gilbert as unimportant, beneath his skills and repetitious, Sullivan had intended to resign from the partnership with Gilbert and Richard D'Oyly Carte after Iolanthe, but after a recent financial loss, he concluded that his financial needs required him to continue writing Savoy operas. Therefore, in February 1883, with Iolanthe still playing strongly at the Savoy Theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan signed a new five-year partnership agreement to create new operas for Carte upon six months' notice. He also gave his consent to Gilbert to continue with the adaptation of The Princess as the basis for their next opera. Later that spring, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria and the honour was announced in May at the opening of the Royal College of Music. Although it was the operas with Gilbert that had earned him the broadest fame, the honour was conferred for his services to serious music. The musical establishment, and many critics, believed that Sullivan's knighthood should put an end to his career as a composer of comic opera – that a musical knight should not stoop below oratorio or grand opera. Having just signed the five-year agreement, Sullivan suddenly felt trapped.
By the end of July 1883, Gilbert and Sullivan were revising drafts of the libretto for Ida. Sullivan finished some of the composition by early September when he had to begin preparations for his conducting duties at the triennial Leeds Festival, held in October. In late October, Sullivan turned his attentions back to Ida, and rehearsals began in November. Gilbert was also producing his one-act drama, Comedy and Tragedy, and keeping an eye on a revival of his Pygmalion and Galatea at the Lyceum Theatre by Mary Anderson's company. In mid-December, Sullivan bade farewell to his sister-in-law Charlotte, the widow of his brother Fred, who departed with her young family to America, never to return. Sullivan's oldest nephew, Herbert, stayed behind in England as his uncle's ward, and Sullivan threw himself into the task of orchestrating the score of Princess Ida. As he had done with Iolanthe, Sullivan wrote the overture himself, rather than assigning it to an assistant as he did in the case of most of his operas.
Princess Ida is the only Gilbert and Sullivan work with dialogue entirely in blank verse and the only one of their works in three acts (and the longest opera to that date). The piece calls for a larger cast, and the soprano title role requires a more dramatic voice than the earlier works. The American star Lillian Russell was engaged to create the title role of Princess Ida, but Gilbert did not believe that she was dedicated enough, and when she missed a rehearsal, she was dismissed. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's usual female lead, Leonora Braham, a light lyric soprano, nevertheless moved up from the part of Lady Psyche to assume the title role. Rosina Brandram got her big break when Alice Barnett became ill and left the company for a time, taking the role of Lady Blanche and becoming the company's principal contralto.
The previous Savoy opera, Iolanthe, closed after 398 performances on 1 January 1884, the same day that Sullivan composed the last of the musical numbers for Ida. Despite grueling rehearsals over the next few days, and suffering from exhaustion, Sullivan conducted the opening performance on 5 January 1884 and collapsed from exhaustion immediately afterwards. The reviewer for the Sunday Times wrote that the score of Ida was "the best in every way that Sir Arthur Sullivan has produced, apart from his serious works.... Humour is almost as strong a point with Sir Arthur... as with his clever collaborator...." The humour of the piece also drew the comment that Gilbert and Sullivan's work "has the great merit of putting everyone in a good temper." The praise for Sullivan's effort was unanimous, though Gilbert's work received some mixed notices.
Sullivan's close friend, composer Frederic Clay, had suffered a serious stroke in early December 1883 that ended his career. Sullivan, reflecting on this, his own precarious health and his desire to devote himself to more serious music, informed Richard D'Oyly Carte on 29 January 1884 that he had determined "not to write any more 'Savoy' pieces." Sullivan fled the London winter to convalesce in Monte Carlo as seven provincial tours (one with a 17-year-old Henry Lytton in the chorus) and the U.S. production of Ida set out.
As Princess Ida began to show signs of flagging early on, Carte sent notice, on 22 March 1884, to both Gilbert and Sullivan under the five-year contract, that a new opera would be required in six months' time. Sullivan replied that "it is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself." Gilbert was surprised to hear of Sullivan's hesitation and had started work on a new opera involving a plot in which people fell in love against their wills after taking a magic lozenge – a plot that Sullivan had previously rejected. Gilbert wrote to Sullivan asking him to reconsider, but the composer replied on 2 April that he had "come to the end of my tether" with the operas: “...I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one [syllable] should be lost.... I should like to set a story of human interest & probability where the humorous words would come in a humorous (not serious) situation, & where, if the situation were a tender or dramatic one the words would be of similar character."
Gilbert was much hurt, but Sullivan insisted that he could not set the "lozenge plot." In addition to the "improbability" of it, it was too similar to the plot of their 1877 opera, The Sorcerer, and was too complex a plot. Sullivan returned to London, and, as April wore on, Gilbert tried to rewrite his plot, but he could not satisfy Sullivan. The parties were at a stalemate, and Gilbert wrote, "And so ends a musical & literary association of seven years' standing – an association of exceptional reputation – an association unequalled in its monetary results, and hitherto undisturbed by a single jarring or discordant element." However, by 8 May 1884, Gilbert was ready to back down, writing, "...am I to understand that if I construct another plot in which no supernatural element occurs, you will undertake to set it? ... a consistent plot, free from anachronisms, constructed in perfect good faith & to the best of my ability." The stalemate was broken, and on 20 May, Gilbert sent Sullivan a sketch of the plot to The Mikado.
A particularly hot summer in London did not help ticket sales for Princess Ida and forced Carte to close the theatre during the heat of August. The piece ran for a comparatively short 246 performances, and for the first time since 1877, the opera closed before the next Savoy opera was ready to open. Princess Ida was not revived in London until 1919. Some of these events are dramatised in the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy.
Overture (includes "We are warriors three" and "Minerva! oh, hear me")
1. "Search throughout the panorama" (Florian and Chorus)
2. "Now hearken to my strict command" (Hildebrand and Chorus)
3. "Today we meet" (Hilarion)
4. "From the distant panorama" (Chorus)
5. "We are warriors three" (Arac, Guron, Scynthius and Chorus)
6. "If you give me your attention" (Gama)
7. Finale Act I (Gama, Hildebrand, Cyril, Hilarion, Florian and Chorus)
"P'raps if you Address the Lady"
"For a month to dwell in a dungeon cell"
8. "Towards the empyrean heights" (Lady Psyche, Melissa, Sacharissa and Chorus of Girls)
9. "Mighty maiden with a mission" (Chorus of Girls)
10. "Minerva! oh, hear me!" ... "Oh, goddess wise" (Princess)
10a."And thus to Empyrean Heights" (Princess and Chorus)
11. "Come, mighty Must" (Lady Blanche)1
12. "Gently, gently" (Cyril, Hilarion and Florian)
13. "I am a maiden, cold and stately" (Cyril, Hilarion and Florian)
14. "The world is but a broken toy" (Princess, Cyril, Hilarion and Florian)
15. "A lady fair, of lineage high" (Psyche with Cyril, Hilarion and Florian)2
16. "The woman of the wisest wit" (Psyche, Melissa, Cyril, Hilarion and Florian)
17. "Now wouldn't you like to rule the roast" (Melissa and Blanche)3
18. "Merrily ring the luncheon bell" (Blanche, Cyril and Chorus of Girls)
19. "Would you know the kind of maid?" (Cyril)
20. Finale Act II (Princess, Hildebrand, Melissa, Psyche, Blanche, Cyril, Hilarion, Florian, Arac, Guron, Scynthius and Chorus)
"Oh, joy! our chief is saved"
"Whom thou hast chained must wear his chain"
"Walls and fences scaling"
"Some years ago, no doubt you know"
"We may remark, though nothing can dismay us"
"To yield at once to such a foe with shame were rife"
1 Starting in the 1920s, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company traditionally deleted this song.
2As musical director, Harry Norris was responsible for adding prominent horn parts to the accompaniment to "A Lady Fair". They were expunged by Malcolm Sargent but subsequently restored by Royston Nash in the 1970s. These are customarily referred to as the ‘Norris’ horn parts, though they may have been written by Geoffrey Toye.
3 The first line of this song is often erroneously sung as "Now wouldn't you like to rule the roost" instead of "roast" (rhymes with "clear the coast" in the next couplet). This typographical error appeared in early vocal scores and still appears in a current Chappell vocal score edition, although some scores have corrected it.
21. "Death to the invader" (Melissa and Chorus of Girls)
22. "Whene'er I spoke" (King Gama with Chorus of Girls)4
23. "I built upon a rock" (Princess)
24. "When anger spreads his wing" (Chorus of Girls and Soldiers)
25. "This helmet, I suppose" (Arac with Guron, Scynthius and Chorus)
26. Chorus during the fight, "This is our duty plain" (Chorus)
27. "With joy abiding" [Reprise of "Expressive glances"] (Ensemble)
King Hildebrand (bass-baritone)
Hilarion, King Hildebrand's Son (tenor)
Cyril, Hilarion's Friend (tenor)
Florian, Hilarion's Friend (lyric baritone)
King Gama (comic baritone)
Arac, King Gama's Son (bass-baritone)
Guron, King Gama's Son (bass-baritone)
Scynthius, King Gama's Son (bass)
Princess Ida, King Gama's Daughter (soprano)
Lady Blanche, Professor of Abstract Science (contralto)
Lady Psyche, Professor of Humanities (soprano)
Melissa, Lady Blanche's Daughter (mezzo-soprano)
Sacharissa, Girl Graduate (soprano)
Chloe, Girl Graduate (speaking role/chorus)
Ada, Girl Graduate (speaking role/chorus)
Chorus of Soldiers, Courtiers, "Girl Graduates", "Daughters of the Plough", etc.
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