A very model Gilbert & Sullivan

Occupying that middle area between musicals and grand opera, the works of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are just starting to show their age to the point where this invaluable guide can become an addictive pleasure. While their stories and music, as always, are light-hearted and accessible, the Victorian events and personalities that infuse the lyrics do need some explanation, and Ian Bradley’s “The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan” is the place to turn.

The book itself offers additional pleasure, since Oxford University Press decided to print the complete libretto of all 13 operas on the right-hand page, leaving the left-hand pages free for Bradley’s footnotes. This saves an enormous amount of page-flipping.

Bradley’s footnotes either clear up obscure references, or offer alternative line readings, advice from actors, commentary on stage business, who major characters were modeled on, and even songs that were added to or dropped from the production. Bradley also uses this opportunity to discuss Gilbert and Sullivan’s solo works, and how they are sometimes cannibalized for use in their operas.

Each work is prefaced with a short introduction describing the conditions under which they were created. While Gilbert and Sullivan were known to be at loggerheads through most of their collaboration, it is amazing to realize that the popularity of their operas did not reflect their distaste for the work (particularly in Sullivan’s case; he always thought of himself as a musician first, and resented having to bend his music to fit Gilbert’s words).

Although he offers suggestions for further reading, I would also suggest Martyn Green’s “Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan.” Written by an old G&S hand who apparently acted in a number of D’Oyly Carte productions, this annotation admirably complements Bradley’s guide by offering sheet music to a number of songs, and descriptions about stage business.

“The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan” is a must for any fan of the Savoy Operas, and recommended for those just starting to discover the delights of pirates, policemen and peers.