- Robert the Devil (Gilbert)
"Robert the Devil, or The Nun, the Dun, and the Son of a Gun" is an operatic parody by
W. S. Gilbertof Giacomo Meyerbeer's romantic opera "Robert le diable", which was named after, but bears little resemblance to, the medieval French legend of the same name. Gilbert set new lyrics to Meyerbeer's melodies and also included tunes by Hérold, Bellini, Hervé, and Offenbach, arranged by Mr. Kettenus, the theatre's music director. [http://books.google.com/books?id=0GwMZT6Mp3gC&pg=PA5&lpg=PA5&dq=%22Robert+the+Devil%22+Kettenus&source=web&ots=u-svs5x8O1&sig=PKw-n-hjFHBooWEocrIFFrzN_MM&hl=en#PPA5,M1 Hollingshead, John. "My Lifetime" (1895) S. Low, Marston] ]
"Robert the Devil" was part of a triple bill that opened
John Hollingshead's new Gaiety Theatre in London on 21 December 1868. Also on the programme, preceding Gilbert's piece, were a one-act adaptation by Gilbert Arthur à Beckettof a French operetta by Émile Jonas, called "The Two Harlequins", and a three-act parody of "L'Escamoteur" by Paulin Meunier, adapted by Alfred Thompson, called "On the Cards". All three of these were parodies of operas written between 1830 and 1840. [http://www.smerus.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/nundungun.htm "'The Nun, The Dun and the Son of a Gun', A burlesque of Scribe and Meyerbeer's "Robert the Devil", by W. S. Gilbert" in "Jewry in Music"] ] Alfred Thompson also designed the sets of the triple bill. "Robert the Devil" was Gilbert's biggest success to date, running for over 100 nights and playing continuously in the provinces for three years thereafter. It was an extravaganzaplayed on a very large scale.Stedman, p. 62] By 29 March 1869, it was preceded by T. W. Robertson's play "Dreams" and "The Two Harlequins" and sometimes ran with "Letty the Basketmaker", an obscure opera by Michael Balfe. The work was revived at the Gaiety Theatre several times over the next few years, and a tenth anniversary revival was staged at the Gaiety in 1878. [http://www.c20th.com/GSarchive.htm Information about "Robert the Devil" from the c20th.com website] ]
The piece starred "
Nellie Farren" in the title role and featured women as Ferdinando, Bertuccio and Albert and Constance Loseby (as Rainbault), making five actresses in male roles, [ [http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/other_gilbert/rob_devil.doc Cast list] ] a practice that Gilbert would later disclaim. The piece also featured Selina Dolaroas Princess Isabella. The principal dancer was Anna Bossi, from the Opera-house, St Petersburg (dancing the "indecent" role of the Lady Abess), and the pantomimists (playing mysterious fiddlers who accompany Bertram) were Messrs. John D' Auban (who was later Gilbert's choreographer) and Warde, who had previously worked with Hollingshead at the Alhambra Theatre.
"Robert the Devil" was part of a series of five operatic burlesques written early in Gilbert's career. The first was "
Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack" an 1866 musical spoof of Donizetti's " L'elisir d'amore". The second was "La Vivandière; or, True to the Corps!", a parody of Donizetti's "La fille du Régiment" (1867). [Traubner, Richard. "Operetta: A Theatrical History", p. 150 (2003) Routledge ISBN 0415966418] The others were "The Merry Zingara; or, the Tipsy Gipsy and the Pipsy Wipsy" ( Royalty Theatre, 1868), a burlesque of Balfe's " The Bohemian Girl" and "The Pretty Druidess; or, the Mother, the Maid, and the Mistletoe Bough" (Charing Cross Theatre, 1869), a burlesque of Bellini's "Norma".
The libretto of "Robert the Devil" is set in rhyming couplets, as are the other Gilbert burlesques. The opening night performance was under-rehearsed, partly because the new Gaiety Theatre was not finished until the last moment, leaving no time for rehearsal on its stage. Therefore, the evening's entertainments received mixed reviews, except for the uniformly enthusiastic reviews of Nellie Farren. However, "
The Times" noted that "Like the other extravaganzas from the same pen, "Robert the Devil" shows an endeavour to avoid the ordinary vulgarities of grotesque drama, and bring its most elegant contingencies into the foreground.... The burlesque has been received with a storm of approbation." [Ainger, p. 80]
The success of "Robert" and "Dulcamara" showed that Gilbert could write entertainingly in this form and, together with his early
pantomimes and farces, full of awful puns (traditional in burlesques of the period), though they do, at times, show signs of the satire that would later be a defining part of his work. [ [http://www.bartelby.net/223/0815.html See "The Cambridge History of English and American Literature", Volume XIII, Chapter VIII, Section 15 (1907–21)] and [http://diamond.boisestate.edu/gas/html/gilbert_l.html Crowther, Andrew, "The Life of W. S. Gilbert"] .] These led to Gilbert's more mature "fairy comedies", such as " The Palace of Truth" (1870) and " Pygmalion and Galatea" (1871), [ [http://web.ukonline.co.uk/ajcrowth/wsglife.htm Article by Andrew Crowther] .] which in turn led to the famous Gilbert and Sullivanoperas. Although Gilbert gave up direct parodies of opera after "Robert", his satiric pokes at grand operacontinued to be seen in the Savoy operas. The title character, a "trouser role", was played as an insouciant "swell" by Nellie Farren, who became famous as the theatre's "principal boy." [ [http://books.google.com/books?id=5O4nicVDWcAC&pg=PA45&lpg=PA45&dq=%22Robert+the+Devil%22+%22W.+S.+Gilbert%22&source=web&ots=y7i7SAhDkT&sig=84nia9pQeYcLRLuaURmMNT1_PoM&hl=en#PPA20,M1 Crowther, p. 20] ]
In the port of Palermo, the crowd are watching Robert,
Duke of Normandy, consuming an enormous meal and smoking cigarettes (a cheeky piece of business, as Robert was played by a woman), accompanied by a sinister companion, Bertram. The crowd expresses their doubts about Robert's creditworthiness (to the tune of Meyerbeer's opening brindisi). Among them is Albert, the Prince of Granada. Robert leaves the bill for Bertram to pay. Bertram, a "devil by compulsion" says that he is the "Town traveller for the Gentleman Below" and must 'secure one victim every day'. He asks for a volunteer. Of course, no one steps forward. Rambaldo, a minstrel, arrives and offers to sing about Robert. He circulates his cap. Then he sings a catalogue of Robert's misdeeds, much to the annoyance of Robert and Bertram. Rambaldo also has "a work in verse, three volumes long" about Robert's "latest scandals". The saintly Alice then arrives, whom Robert claims as his foster-sister.
Bertram advises Robert to steal a magic branch that will give him great powers. All Robert has to do is sign an indenture for his soul. This branch turns out to be in a Chamber of Horrors in
Madame Tussaud's wax museum. A chorus of wax figures of famous dead people come to life at midnight and sing about being wax works (to the tune of "A fosco cielo" from Bellini's " La sonnambula"). The magic branch turns out to be a policeman's staff with a scroll attached, stating that the staff can grant the bearer invisibility and freezes people in their places (including politicians). Robert, Bertram and Bertram's henchman, Gobetto, conspire.
Before Robert can seize the branch, Bertram insists that he sign the contract. Robert agrees. The wax works perform a naughty ballet recalling the ballet in a "cloister by moonlight" of faithless, deceased nuns that created a sensation at the time of the Myerbeer opera including, according to the stage directions, "the usual business between Robert and the Lady Abbess". Robert wishes to use the power of the branch to marry, against Bertram's wishes. Bertram reveals that he is Robert's father. Robert says, "My father? Then of course I must submit! But are you sure?" Bertram points out that a note from his mother confirms the fact. However, the wax-works reappear to drag Bertram, not down to Hell as in Meyerbeer's opera, but instead to a worse fate, to become an exhibit at Madame Tussaud's. A terrified Bertram pleads desperately to escape this, asking that one of the other wax works be disguised as him. But his appeals are in vain, and everyone tells him that he can't do "much more harm" in "the waxworks of Tussaud."
* Hollingshead, John. "Gaiety Chronicles" (1898) A. Constable & co.: London (available online [http://books.google.com/books?id=CzgOAAAAIAAJ&dq=john+hollingshead+gaiety+chronicles here]
* [http://www.smerus.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/nundungun.htm "The Nun, The Dun and the Son of a Gun, A burlesque of Scribe and Meyerbeer's 'Robert the Devil', by W. S. Gilbert"] in "Jewry in Music"
* [http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/other_gilbert/rob_devil.doc Libretto of "Robert the Devil"]
* [http://www.c20th.com/GSarchive.htm Images from three different programmes at the Gaiety including "Robert the Devil"]
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