The Mountebanks

The Mountebanks

. The work has rarely been revived, although the Lyric Theatre Company of Washington D.C. recorded it in 1964.


The story of the opera revolves around a magic potion that transforms those who drink it into whoever, or whatever, they pretend to be. The idea was clearly important to Gilbert, as he repeatedly implored his famous collaborator, Arthur Sullivan, to set this story, or a similar one, to music. [Gilbert had also written an earlier travesty of Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore" called "Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack" in 1866 and a short story called "An Elixir of Love" in 1876.] Sullivan objected, both because of the story's mechanical contrivance, and because they had already written an opera with a magic potion, "The Sorcerer".

When the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership temporarily disbanded due to a quarrel over finances after the production of "The Gondoliers", Gilbert tried to find another composer who would collaborate on the idea, eventually finding a willing partner in Alfred Cellier. Cellier was a logical choice for Gilbert. The two had collaborated once before ("Topsyturveydom", 1874), and Cellier had been the music director for Gilbert and Sullivan's early operas. His comic opera "Dorothy" (1886) was a smash hit. It played for over 900 performances, more than "The Mikado", Gilbert and Sullivan's most successful piece. ("Dorothy" would hold the record for longest-running piece of musical theatre in history until the turn of the century.)

Cellier died of tuberculosis while "The Mountebanks" was still in rehearsals. The score was completed by the Lyric Theatre's musical director, Ivan Caryll, a successful composer in his own right, with Gilbert rewriting the libretto around the gaps. Gilbert wrote to Mrs. Stephenson on 7 January 1892, shortly after the premiere, "I had to make rough & ready alterations to supply gaps — musical gaps — caused by poor Cellier's inability to complete his work. It follows that Act 2 stands out as a very poor piece of dramatic construction... this is the worst libretto I have written. Perhaps I am growing old." [Quoted in Stedman, p. 283.] Nonetheless, "The Mountebanks"' initial run of 229 performances surpassed most of Gilbert's later works and even some of his collaborations with Sullivan. [Stedman, page 285.] Caryll composed the entr'acte, the song "When your clothes from your hat to your socks," and probably another number or two, and chose one of Cellier's orchestral pieces, the "Suite Symphonique" for the overture. However, the exact responsibility for other parts of the final version remains uncertain.

Roles and original cast

* Arrostino Annegato, "Captain of the Tamorras – a Secret Society" (baritone) – Frank Wyatt
* Giorgio Raviolo, "a Member of his Band" (baritone) – Arthur Playfair
* Luigi Spaghetti, "a Member of his Band" (baritone) – Charles Gilbert
* Alfredo, "a Young Peasant, loved by Ultrice, but in love with Teresa" (tenor) – J. Robertson
* Pietro, "Proprietor of a Troupe of Mountebanks" (comic baritone) – Lionel Brough
* Bartolo, "his Clown" (baritone) – Harry Monkhouse
* Elvino di Pasta, "an Innkeeper" (bass-baritone) – Furneaux Cook
* Risotto, "one of the Tamorras – just married to Minestra" (tenor) – Cecil Burt
* Beppo - A member of the Mountebanks' crew (speaking) – Gilbert Porteous
* Teresa, "a Village Beauty, loved by Alfredo, and in love with herself" (soprano) – Geraldine Ulmar
* Ultrice, "in love with, and detested by, Alfredo" (contralto) – Lucille Sanders
* Nita, "a Dancing Girl" (mezzo-soprano or soprano) – Aida Jenoure
* Minestra, "Risotto's Bride" (mezzo-soprano) – Eva Moore

* Tamorras, Monks, Village Girls.


Act I

"Scene." A mountain Inn on a picturesque Sicilian pass.

A procession of Dominican Monks passes by, singing a chorus (in Latin) about the inconveniences of monastic life. As soon as the coast is clear, the Tamorras enter. They are a secret society bent on revenge against the descendants of those who wrongly imprisoned an ancestor's friend five hundred years previously. The Tamorras tell Elvino, the innkeeper, that they are planning to get married – one man each day for the next three weeks. The first is Risotto, who is marrying Minestra that day. Elvino asks them to conduct their revels in a whisper, so as not to disturb the poor old dying alchemist who occupies the second floor of the inn.

Arrostino, the Tamorras' leader, has learned that the Duke and Duchess of Pallavicini will be passing through the village. He suggests that the Tamorras capture the monastery and disguise themselves as monks. Minestra will dress as an old woman and lure the Duke into the monastery, where he will be taken captive and held for ransom.

Alfredo, a young peasant, is in love with Teresa, the village beauty. He sings a ballad about her, but it is clear that she does not love him in return. She suggests that he marry Elvino's niece, Ultrice, who follows Alfredo everywhere, but Alfredo wants nothing to do with Ultrice. Elvino is concerned that he does not know the proper protocol for entertaining a Duke and Duchess. He suggests that Alfredo impersonate a Duke, so that he can practice his manners. Alfredo implores Teresa to impersonate the Duchess, but Teresa insists that Ultrice play the role.

A troupe of strolling players enters. Their leader, Pietro, offers the villagers a dress rehearsal of a performance to be given later to the Duke and Duchess. Among the novelties to be presented, he promises "two world-renowned life-size clock-work automata, representing Hamlet and Ophelia." Nita and Bartolo, two of the troupe's members, were formerly engaged, but Nita became disenchanted with Bartolo's inability to play tragedy, and she is now engaged to Pietro. While they are discussing this, Beppo rushes in to tell Pietro that the clock-work automata have been detained at the border. Pietro wonders how his troupe will deliver the promised performance.

Elvino and Ultice have a problem of their own. Their Alchemist tenant has blown himself up, leaving six weeks' rent unpaid. All he has left behind is a bottle of medicine with a label on it. Believing the medicine to be useless, Elvino gives it to Pietro. Pietro reads the label, and learns that the mysterious liquid "has the effect of making every one who drinks it exactly what he pretends to be." Pietro hatches the idea of administering the potion to Bartolo and Nita, who will pretend to be the clock-work Hamlet and Ophelia when the Duke and Duchess arrive. After the performance, Pietro will reverse the potion by burning the label. While preparing for the performance, Pietro accidentally drops the label, which Ultrice retrieves. Ultrice realizes that if she and Alfredo drink the potion while they are pretending to be the Duke and Duchess, Alfredo's feigned love for her will become a reality.

Teresa, meanwhile, decides that, to taunt Alfredo, she will pretend to be in love with him, only to dash his hopes later on. Alfredo, who overhears this, declares that he will pretend to reject Teresa. When she learns this, Teresa says that she will feign insanity.

By this point, all of the major characters are pretending to be something they are not. Alfredo pretends to be a Duke, married to Ultrice and indifferent to Teresa. Ultrice pretends to be Duchess, married to Alfredo. Teresa pretends to be insane with love for Alfredo. Bartolo and Nita pretend to be clock-work Hamlet and Ophelia. The Tamorras pretend to be monks. Minestra pretends to be an old lady.

Alfredo and Ultrice enter in their guise as the "faux" Duke and Duchess. He proposes a toast, drawing wine from Pietro's wine-skin. Pietro, who has put the Alchemist's potion into the wine-skin, implores Alfredo to stop, telling him it contains poison from which he is already dying. Alfredo ignores the warning, and distributes the wine to everyone assembled.

Act II

"Scene." Exterior of Monastery by moonlight.As the potion's label had predicted, everyone is now what they had pretended to be. Although Risotto and Minestra are married, he is disappointed to find that she is now an old woman of seventy-four. Teresa has gone completely mad with love for Alfredo. Bartolo and Nita are waxwork Hamlet and Ophelia, walking with mechanical gestures as if controlled by clockwork. Pietro, because he had pretended the wine was poisonous, is now dying slowly.

The Tamorras, who had pretended to be monks, have renounced their life of crime, and they no longer find the village girls attractive. They demand an explanation of Pietro, who explains that the wine was spiked. He promises to administer the antidote in an hour or two – as soon as Bartolo and Nita have performed for the Duke and Duchess. Alfredo, now pretending to be a Duke, greets the monks. They tell him that he has chosen a fortunate time for his arrival, as the Tamorras had planned to kidnap him. But now he is safe, as they are all virtuous monks.

Teresa is still crazed with love for Alfredo. He replies that, although he used to love her, he is now "married" to Ultrice and is blind to her charms. They are grateful that the charm will last for only another hour or so. Left alone, Ultrice admits that she alone has the antidote, and she has no intention of administering it.

Pietro brings on Bartolo and Nita to entertain the Duke and Duchess, but quickly recognizes that his audience is only Alfredo and Ultrice. They explain that they are victims of a potion, and Pietro realizes that the only solution to the mess is to administer the antidote. When he realizes he has lost it, everyone accuses him of being a sorcerer. Bartolo and Nita discuss what it will be like to be Hamlet and Ophelia for the rest of their lives. Pietro steals the keys, so that neither one can touch the other's clockwork.

Ultrice confronts Teresa and gloats over her triumph. However, when Teresa threatens to jump off a parapet, Ultrice relents, and admits she has the antidote. Pietro seizes the label and burns it. The potion's effects expire, and the characters resume their original personalities.

Musical Numbers

Overture: Cellier's "Suite Symphonique"

;Act I
*No. 1. "Chaunt of the Monks" and "We are members of a secret society" (Men's Chorus and Giorgio)
*No. 2. "Come, all the Maidens" (Chorus)
*No. 3. "If you please" (Minestra and Risotto)
*No. 4. "Only think, a Duke and Duchess!" (Chorus and Minestra)
*No. 5. "High Jerry Ho!" (Arrostino and Male Chorus)
*No. 6. "Teresa, Little Word" and "Bedecked in Fashion Trim" (Alfredo)
*No. 7. "It's my Opinion" (Teresa)
*No. 8. "Upon my word, Miss" (Ultrice, Teresa, Alfredo, and Elvino)
*No. 9. "Fair maid, take pity" (Alfredo, Teresa, Ultrice, and Elvino)
*No. 10. "Tabor and Drum" (Female Chorus, Pietro, Bartolo, and Nita)
*No. 11. "Those days of old" and "Allow that the plan I devise"(Nita, with Bartolo and Pietro)
*No. 12. "Oh luck unequalled" ... "I'm only joking" .... "Oh, whither, whither, whither, do you speed you?" (Ultrice, Teresa, and Alfredo)
*No. 13. "Finale Act I" (Ensemble)

;Act II
*No. 14. "Entr'acte" "(By Ivan Caryll)"

*No. 15, "I'd be a young girl if I could" (Minestra and Risotto)
*No. 16. "All alone to my eerie" (Teresa)
*No. 17. "If I can catch this jolly Jack-Patch" (Teresa and Minestra)
*No. 18. "If our action's stiff and crude" (Bartolo and Nita)
*No. 19. "Where gentlemen are eaten up with jealousy" (Bartolo, Nita, and Pietro)
*No. 20. "Time there was when earthly joy" (Chorus (with Soprano and Contralto solo), Arrostino, and Pietro)
*No. 20a. OPTIONAL SONG: "When your clothes, from your hat to your socks" (Pietro) "(By Ivan Caryll)"1
*No. 21. "The Duke and Duchess hither wend their way" (Luigi, Arrostino, Alfredo and Chorus)
*No. 22. "Willow, willow, where's my love?" (Teresa)
*No. 23. "In days gone by" (Alfredo, Teresa, and Ultrice)
*No. 24. "An hour? Nay, nay." (Ultrice)
*No. 25. "Oh, please you not to go away" (Chorus, Pietro, Elvino, Alfredo, Ultrice, Bartolo, Nita)
*No. 26. "Ophelia was a dainty little maid" (Pietro, Bartolo, and Nita)
*No. 27. "Finale" (Ensemble)

1 The placement of this song changed within the act before it was cut. "Ophelia was a dainty little maid" replaced it. However, it was included on the only commercial recording of "The Mountebanks".




External links

* [ "The Mountebanks" at The Gilbert & Sullivan Archive]
* [ "The Mountebanks" at The Gilbert & Sullivan Discography]
* [ Description of "The Mountebanks"]
* [ Interview with W. S. Gilbert about "The Mountebanks"]

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