Roles

The opera is set on tower green in the Tower of London at around the time of Henry 8th. The curtain rises on one Phoebe Meryll at her spinning wheel, singing sadly to herself, as she broods over the forthcoming execution of the young and handsome Colonel Fairfax. He is said to have had dealings with the devil.

The head jailer, Wilfred Shadbolt comes on and she mocks him about his appearance - a little like a humpless Quasimodo. The last time we did this, he was played as a sort of manic Eccles. Fairfax is in prison for sorcery, but Phoebe insists he is only a student of alchemy, and begins a tirade against the tower's bloodthirstiness. Dame Carruthers springs to its defence. Sergeant Meryll, together with Phoebe, awaits the return of his son Leonard, who has been appointed as a tower warder. Leonard comes with a despatch giving no reprieve for Fairfax. Meryll, who reveals that Fairfax saved his life suggests that as no-one has seen Leonard, why not exchange places with Fairfax, get Fairfax's beard shaved off, and present HIM as his son Leonard - because nobody would then recognise him...

Now Fairfax has to marry, because as he has had a charge of Sorcery brought against him by a kinsman, the kinsman would get all his property if he does not wed. Enter Jack Point, a strolling jester, his companion Elsie Maynard and the chorus. The Lieutenant of the tower comes to ask if Jack Point and Elsie are married, and on finding they are not, asks if Elsie would marry Fairfax - after all he is to die in a month or so. They agree.

Phoebe now has to get the keys from Wilfred to effect the exchange and does so in a song. The next event is the execution of Fairfax. He is sent for and the prisoner's cell is found to be empty. Wilfred is arrested, Elsie wonders what she has let herself in for. A reward of 100 crowns is offered and amid confusion, the first Act ends.

Act two is the same scene with Dame C berating the warders for letting the prisoner go, and still not finding him. They go for another look. Point now thinks of a plan to make Elsie appear free; he persuades Wilfred that, in return for jesting lessons, Wilfred can claim to have shot Fairfax when trying to escape. point will back up the story.

Enter Fairfax, who when joined by Dame C., Kate, her niece, and Serg Meryll learns that the girl he married was in fact Elsie. So he decides to woo her as if he were Leonard Meryll, A chorus interlude as Point and Wilfred tell the crowd what they did and Wilfred is carried off shoulder-high. Jack Point now wants to woo Elsie and as he is unaccomplished in the art he gets Fairfax to do it for him

This upsets Phoebe who bursts into tears and is found crying by Wilfred. She reveals the plot and Wilfred threatens to tell, but she reminds him that he has already sworn to killing Fairfax. As she has lost Fairfax, she agrees to marry Wilfred. The real Leonard arrives with news of Fairfax' reprieve, Phoebe tells her father about Wilfred and Dame C overhears all this. To keep her quiet, Serg Meryll agrees to marry her. The opera goes quickly to its end now, Elsie discovers the man she loves is really the man she married. Jack Point is very dejected, and at the close everybody is paired off except him, and he falls insensible at Elsie's feet.

Now pick the bones out of that!

This opera is the closest that G&S got to Grand opera, and as such requires a fair amount of acting ability, as well as good singers - probably better singers than we would get, although we could do it if we set our minds to it, we've done it several times in the past. This show really requires a double chorus - for 'Tower Warders' at least, and we may be short of men, for both the citizens, and the warders. If we get reasonable singers, we can split the men. It can (and has) been done with about three citizens - there are one liners for them to say - and the rest Warders, but the opening chorus has to be rejigged to accommodate this. Although there are tiny parts, such as 1st 2nd 3rd 4th Yeomen, the 3rd and 4th yeomen can be cut, as they only repeat what the 1st and 2nd have sung.

There have been two songs cut from the opera, one for Wilfred, and one for Colonel Fairfax, as well as an alternative setting of 'Is life a boon' (genuine Sullivan). Yes we have copies.

The Yeomen of the Guard is the 11th opera written by Gilbert & Sullivan, and was first performed at the Savoy theatre on the 3rd October 1888. It is somewhat of a departure from their usual style: The previous opera 'Ruddigore' had not lived up to expectations and as there was not a new opera, the public had to be content with a revival of HMS Pinafore. As usual, Gilbert was trying to get Sullivan to set a variant on his 'magic lozenge' plot, and Sullivan was adamant in refusing to set 'the old story again'. At this moment in Savoy opera history - which could well have seen the permanent break up of the partnership, with the last four operas never to be written, it was Gilbert himself who swallowed his own lozenge plot. The idea for 'Yeomen' apparently came from Gilbert when he was waiting on the underground for a train, and his eye caught a poster (advertising of all things a furniture removal firm) with the picture of the Tower of London and a Beefeater on it.

He very quickly had a rough plot ready for the other two, and one this time that was not set in any topsy-turvy world that had come his trademark. There was no butt for ridicule and with characters that were more real than most of the stereotypes that had already been developed by the company.

Gilbert did everything he could to please Sullivan, even offering him different versions of the songs. There is one still in existence is 'Is Life a Boon?', and it can be obtained as a 'bonus' song on some recordings. It has a certain charm, but we are performing the more well known, preferred version. Perhaps the most popular song in the show is 'I have a song to sing, Oh', and Sullivan could not get the metre of it (the song is unusual in that it gets longer by two lines each verse) and he had to ask Gilbert if there was something at the back of his mind which had given him the original idea. Gilbert hummed a couple of lines and Sullivan took it from there.

Unusually for a G&S premiere, the opera opened on a Wednesday night, rather than the customary Saturday. It was still the glittering affair that the public had come to expect. Gilbert came backstage and 'had a word' with as many of the cast he could find; this was unsettling, as nobody from the cast could be at ease on an opening night, and the author's worries unnerved everyone. Now Yeomen is the only opera to begin with a solitary figure on the stage, rather than an opening chorus, and Jessie Bond, the actress playing Phoebe, was trying to compose herself for the opening number. It was she who finally had to tell him to "Please go, Mr Gilbert, please go!". Gilbert left, walked over to the Drury Lane theatre, and spent the rest of the evening sitting in the darkness at somebody else's play until his was over. When he finally returned, he found that 'Yeomen' had proved itself: it was a success, with 9 encores that night.

This opera is the closest that G&S got to Grand opera, and Sullivan added two more instruments in his orchestra for this - a second bassoon and a third trombone. These extra instruments were also kept for the subsequent operas, ie 'The Gondoliers', 'Utopia Ltd', and 'The Grand Duke'.

We have reinserted the two songs, one for Wilfred, and one for Colonel Fairfax, that were cut from performances early in the original production run.

MAH.Feb 1994.