« The Grand Duke» est le dernier Savoy-opera écrit par le librettiste W. S. Gilbert et le compositeur Arthur Sullivan, leur quatorzième et dernier opéra ensemble. Il fut créé au Savoy Theatre le 7 mars 1896 et ne tint l’affiche que 123 représentations. Malgré une soirée d’ouverture réussie, la production a eu une durée relativement courte et a été le seul échec financier du duo, et les deux hommes n’ont plus jamais travaillé ensemble.
Dans « The Grand Duke», Gilbert et Sullivan bouclent la boucle, revenant au thème de leur première collaboration: une troupe d’acteurs prend le pouvoir politique. « The Grand Duke» souffre de de nombreux problèmes que l’on retrouvait déjà dans « Utopia Limited » — dont un livret long et décousu — et il exige pour les acteurs principaux des voix de plus grande qualité que leurs autres œuvres. Néanmoins, l’histoire contient un certain nombre de moments hilarants et de personnages drôles, les décors sont colorés et la musique est gaie et savoureuse. Certains trouvent que cet opéra est le plus sous-estimé des œuvres de Gilbert et Sullivan.
The first act takes place in the market square in the capital city, Speisesaal. Ernest Dummkopf's theatrical company, who are to open in Troilus and Cressida that night, are ready to celebrate the wedding of the troupe's leading comedian Ludwig to Lisa, a soubrette of the company. However, the marriage cannot take place yet as there are no parsons available in the city, as all clerics have been summoned to the palace by the Grand Duke to discuss his own forthcoming marriage. This is one more cause for resenting the Grand Duke, and in fact all of the company are members of a plot to blow him up and place a new man on the throne. The secret sign by which members of the conspiracy recognise each other is to eat a sausage roll — a food of which they are by now all heartily sick.
It is clear that Ernest will win the election which is to follow the coup and become Duke, which troubles Julia Jellicoe, the English comedian. As leading lady of the company, she is bound by contract to play the leading female role in any production. If Ernest, the manager, becomes the Grand Duke, she will have to be the Grand Duchess. This is a repugnant prospect to her (though a delightful one to Ernest), but she declares that she will play the part in a professional manner.
(Note: Adding to the topsy-turvy nature of the plot, Julia's dialogue is written with a German accent, whereas in the text she is the only English character in Ernest's company (the first Julia, Ilka Pálmay, was Hungarian but performed mostly in German). The dialogue for all the other characters is written with no accent, although the characters are purportedly "German." Modern productions do not always carry out this idea. For instance, in the 1976 D'Oyly Carte recording (which did not include the dialogue), the singer playing Julia did not affect a German accent.)
Meanwhile, Ludwig has met a man who returned his secret salute by eating three sausage rolls. Ludwig took him as a member of the conspiracy and told him all the details: only then did he realise that he had just revealed the entire plot to the Grand Duke's private detective. The company are aghast, believing they are doomed once the Grand Duke learns of the plot. The notary, Dr. Tannhäuser, appears and offers a solution. He explains that a century ago the Grand Duke of the time, concerned about the loss of life in duelling, had created the statutory duel: the duellers draw cards, and the one who draws the lower card loses. He becomes legally dead, and the winner takes over his position: his property, responsibilities and debts. The law regulating statutory duels, like all laws of Pfennig-Halbpfennig, lasts for one hundred years unless revived, and it is to lapse tomorrow.
Tannhäuser counsels Ernest and Ludwig to fight a statutory duel immediately: the loser will be legally dead, and the survivor can go to the Duke and confess the whole plot. As informer he will be spared, while the other party will be dead and so beyond retribution. The next day, the loser will come to life when the law lapses, but since death expunges crime, his character will be unstained. Ernest and Ludwig promptly "fight" a statutory duel: Ernest draws a king, but Ludwig draws an Ace and wins.
They leave, and the Grand Duke Rudolph appears, heralded by his corps of chamberlains, and he instructs them in the arrangements for his wedding the next day to Baroness Caroline von Krakenfeldt. She arrives, handing him a letter from his detective, and they sing about how exactly in agreement are their ideas on economy. Caroline is disconcerted that Rudolph insists on courting her here, in the market square, but he explains that he has made a law compelling couples to do any courting here in the square, so as to increase the value of his properties around the square. She approves of this example of economy.
Caroline is also upset by a newspaper article—too cheap to buy one, it came wrapped around her breakfast—which says that Rudolph was betrothed in infancy to the Princess of Monte Carlo, but he explains that it's "practically off." The betrothal lapses when the Princess reaches the age of twenty-one, which will happen tomorrow; but her father, the Prince, dares not venture out of his house for fear of being arrested by his creditors.
Once he is alone, Rudolph reads the letter, and learns about the plot against him. He fears the plot will be successful. Ludwig enters, intent on denouncing the plot to him. Before he can do so, Rudolph declares that he would give anything to avoid being blown up the next day, and Ludwig sees a way out. He patriotically volunteers to challenge Rudolph to a statutory duel. The two men will hide cards up their sleeves, guaranteeing victory to Ludwig. When the plot unfolds, Ludwig will be its victim. The next day, when the Act authorizing statutory duels expires, Rudolph can come back to life unharmed. Although Rudolph is sceptical, he accepts Ludwig's proposal.
Rudolph and Ludwig summon all the people. They stage a mock quarrel and conduct the rigged statutory duel as planned: Rudolph's King is beaten by Ludwig's Ace. Rudolph's subjects berate him with scorn, and he leaves, threatening revenge. Ludwig, now the Grand Duke, promptly extends the Act for another hundred years, thus ensuring that neither Rudolph nor Ernest can come back to life.
Suddenly Julia Jellicoe appears, and once again asserts that, as leading lady, she must take the leading role of the Grand Duchess. Lisa leaves in tears. Julia points out that if they are to occupy a Ducal court, they need to be dressed more impressively than their everyday clothes will allow. Ludwig recalls that they have a complete set of brand-new costumes for Troilus and Cressida, which they can use and "upraise the dead old days of Athens in her glory."
In a room in the Duke's palace, the new Duke, Duchess and court parade in classical costumes, and sing a Grecian chorus. Left alone, Ludwig and Julia fail to agree on how her role is to be played. Caroline von Krakenfeldt arrives for her wedding, and is startled at finding Rudolph has been replaced by Ludwig. But once she discovers that Ludwig has beaten Rudolph in a statutory duel, she points out that he must take on Rudolph's responsibilities — including his betrothal to her. So despite being already married to Julia, Ludwig goes off with Caroline to get married, and Julia is left alone to sing a lament before exiting.
Ernest, though legally dead, is desperate for news, and ventures in to try to find out what is going on. He sees the wedding procession in the distance, and assumes that Ludwig is marrying Lisa; but it cannot be so, for Lisa appears. She will not stop, but runs from him as from a ghost. He then supposes that Ludwig must be marrying his Julia — but she too appears. Though affecting to be also frightened of the "ghost", she stays and tells him what Ludwig has done.
They leave again, and the wedding party come back — Caroline is enjoying the rare pleasure of drinking "when somebody else pays the bill." Yet another unexpected visitor arrives: it is a herald, who announces that the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo are on their way. Ludwig decides to give him a theatrical welcome, and tells the company to hide.
The Prince of Monte Carlo arrives with his daughter the Princess and a retinue of supernumeraries — out-of-work actors hired from the Theatre Monaco to play the part of nobles. We gather that he has reversed his fortunes by inventing a game called roulette. He has paid off his debts, hired the supernumeraries, and brought his daughter straight to Pfennig-Halbpfennig just in time.
Ludwig and the court reappear, with a lively can-can. The Princess is shocked and downcast when she discovers that Ludwig already has three Grand Duchesses. He tells her that he defeated Rudolph in a statutory duel, and assumed all of the former Grand Duke's responsibilities. She points out that her claim predates the Baroness von Krakenfeldt's, and Ludwig is therefore obliged to marry her.
Ludwig and the Princess are about to go off to yet another wedding party, when Ernest, Rudolph and Dr Tannhäuser burst in. The Notary reveals that the Act regulating statutory duels specifically lays down that the ace shall count as lowest, so Ludwig did not win, was never Grand Duke, and cannot have revived the act. Within seconds, the Act expires, returning Ludwig to the living. All dance off to get married — Rudolph and the Princess; Ernest and Julia; and Ludwig and Lisa.