La Vivandière (Gilbert)

La Vivandière; or, True to the Corps! is a burlesque by W. S. Gilbert, described by the author as “An Operatic Extravaganza Founded on Donizetti‘s opera, La figlia del regimento.”[1] In the French or other continental armies a vivandière was a woman who supplied food and drink to troops in the field.[2]

Programme for the 1868 London production

The piece was first produced at St. James’s Hall, Liverpool, on 15 June 1867.[3] It was then presented in London, with a mostly new cast, at the Queen’s Theatre, Long Acre, opening on 22 January 1868. It was part of a series of operatic burlesques and other broad comic pieces that Gilbert wrote in the late 1860s near the beginning of his playwriting career. It was modestly successful and introduced some themes and satiric techniques that Gilbert would later employ in his famous Savoy operas.[4]

. . . La Vivandière (Gilbert) . . .

Gilbert’s first operatic burlesque, Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack, had been successful enough to encourage him to write another. It had run for 120 nights, from Christmas 1866 to Easter 1867, a good run for the London theatre of that time.[5] As with Dulcamara, Gilbert based La Vivandière on a comic opera by Donizetti, using the composer’s tunes, and those of other composers, and fitting new words to them.

Advertisement for the Liverpool premiere

The work was premiered in Liverpool, by Maria Simpson’s Opera Company, billed as “The new, original, and brilliant Operatic Extravaganza … from the pen of W. S. Gilbert, Esq.” The Gilbert scholar Jane Stedman writes that the subtitle was a topical allusion to a popular melodrama, True to the Core; A Story of the Armada.[5] In the Victorian era theatre managers normally bought or licensed plays from authors, and the authors had nothing to do with the staging of the works. Like his mentor Tom Robertson, however, Gilbert was not content to be merely the author, but sought to influence the staging of his works as much as a playwright was allowed to do. The press announcements for the Liverpool production stated that the piece was being staged under the author’s “immediate superintendence”.[6] Once established, Gilbert would stage direct nearly all of his own shows. It is not clear how much the Liverpool and London productions differed. Stedman notes that Gilbert made a number of changes to the libretto for the London production. The staging of the two productions was in wholly different hands: W. H. Montgomery and George Vinning, respectively musical director and scene painter in Liverpool, were replaced by Mr. Wallerstein and T. Grieve in London, and an almost completely new cast was selected.[7]

Gilbert generally followed the plot originally written for Donizetti by his librettists, Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard, but allowed himself some variations. In the opera, the Marchioness’s husband does not appear, but Gilbert presented him as a glum figure played by Charles Wyndham in Liverpool and Lionel Brough in London. The hero, Tonio, is not an Alpine guide in the original, and, as Gilbert made plain in the libretto, Lord Margate, the noisome English tourist, was a character “unknown to Donizetti, one of the many liberties taken by the Author with the original story.”[8] One reviewer noted that “the story … acquires a new aspect from the circumstance that all the soldiers are converted into gorgeously attired Zouaves, and all the peasants into picturesque mountaineers.[9]

Among the stock devices of Victorian burlesque, such as rhymed couplets, contrived puns and other word-play, mistaken identities, and women playing male roles en travesti, La Vivandière contains the first example of what was to become one of Gilbert’s trademarks: the ageing woman whose looks, if any, are fading.[6] Gilbert later renounced breeches roles and revealing dresses on his actresses, and made publicly known his disapproval of them.[10] In his choice of music, Gilbert ranged less widely than he had done with Dulcamara, which drew not only on music by operatic composers including Bellini, Flotow and Offenbach, but also on a great number of music hall and other popular songs, such as “Champagne Charlie” and “The Frog in Yellow.” For La Vivandière, he drew almost entirely on the music of Donizetti’s original or Offenbach’s similarly military operetta, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein.[11]

Gilbert and his wife, Lucy, in 1867

Gilbert married in 1867 amid one of his most productive periods. In addition to his other writing activities during the late 1860s, Dulcamara and La Vivandière were part of a series of about a dozen early comic stage works, including opera burlesques, pantomimes and farces. These were full of awful puns and jokes as was traditional in similar pieces of the period.[12] For instance, in La Vivandière Gilbert included this joke on a Darwinian theme:

That men were monkeys once to that I bow;
(looking at Lord Margate) I know one who’s less man than monkey, now;
That monkeys once were men, peers, statesmen, flunkies
That’s rather hard on unoffending monkeys![13]

Nevertheless, Gilbert’s burlesques were considered unusually tasteful compared to the others on the London stage.[4]The Times wrote: “The chief care of Mr. Gilbert has been to make his dialogue as perfect a specimen as possible of smooth verse, and to stud it profusely with elaborate puns of unquestionable originality. … Mr. Gilbert shows a power of detecting phonetic affinities … in which perhaps he excels all his contemporaries. … [S]eldom have mere verbal pleasantries provoked such frequent laughter and applause as those in La Vivandière … an extravaganza more elegant in its tone than the generality of burlesques”[9] The new piece ran for a total of 120 performances.[14][15]

Gilbert’s early pokes at grand opera show signs of the satire that would later be a defining part of his work. He would depart even further from the burlesque style from about 1869 with plays containing original plots and fewer puns.[4][16] The most successful of Gilbert’s opera parodies, Robert the Devil, opened in December 1868. These 1860s pieces led to Gilbert’s more mature “fairy comedies”, such as The Palace of Truth (1870) and Pygmalion and Galatea (1871), and to his German Reed Entertainments, which in turn led to the famous Gilbert and Sullivan operas.[16][17]

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. . . La Vivandière (Gilbert) . . .