by Alan D. Craxford
The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are much loved and treasured musical gems from a bygone era. They remain as popular now as they ever were when written over a century ago - as can be seen by the clamour for tickets, the enthusiasm of audiences and the dedication of amateur societies in London, the provinces and around the world. Themes from these operas still have the effect of getting toes tapping and promoting whistling whenever they are played.
Coming from the twilight years of the partnership “Utopia Limited” was performed in London in 1894. After that initial run it was confined to the archives. Indeed the sleeve notes to this CD album confirm that there had been no further professional performances of this opera until 1975 when the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company revived it for their Centenary Season at the Savoy Theatre.
I came to this review with some trepidation. I had never heard anything from the operetta and there is no video performance. My CD recording excludes the spoken dialogue. So, I have pieced it together myself, stopping the CD at the end of each song and reading the plot from my copy of the libretto.
It is a great pity that “Utopia Limited” is not better known. It does not quite reach the triumphant peaks musically of others in the catalogue. However it is as topical, witty and incisive about matter of every day politics, politicians and business today as it was when written over a century ago. Please Sir Michael, please Denis - won’t one of you give us a treat and revive this slumbering gem.**
The action of the opera takes place on the South Sea island of Utopia. The laid-back populace are ruled by King Paramount, an absolute but kindly monarch whose powers are held in check by two Wise Men (Scaphio and Phantis). One ruse is that Paramount continues to write exposés of the excesses of the Monarchy under a pseudonym which are then published in a scurrilous newspaper (the “Palace Peeper”). Any breach of protocol would lead Paramount to be denounced to Tarara (the Public Exploder who carries out executions with dynamite). Phantis secretly idolises Zara and seeks Scaphio’s help in demanding her hand from Paramount. Paramount is an enthusiastic devotee of the Great British way of life. Everyone must now speak English and Utopian has been banned. He sent his eldest daughter (Zara) away to be taught at Girton and Cambridge. He intends to replace his despotic regime with one based on the British Constitution. His younger 15 year old twin daughters (Nekaya and Kalyba) are being schooled by the Lady Sophy - an English governess “of mature years”. Paramount is secretly in love with Lady Sophy and she with him; but she has been scandalised by what she has read in the “Peeper”.
Princess Zara returns in the company of Captain Fitzbattleaxe (with whom she has fallen in love) and a troop of Life Guards. She has also brought with her other representatives of English culture (the Flowers of Progress). These include a Lord High Chamberlain, a Member of Parliament, a County Councillor, a ship’s captain and a Company Director. Phantis sees Zara in this company and at the same time Scaphio declares his own interest. Paramount suggests they should settle the dispute the English way by a duel and in the mean time she should be left in Fitzbattleaxe’s capable hands. While this is going on, the Flowers of Progress announce their plans to revolutionise Utopia which will culminate setting it up as a limited company. Mr Goldbury describes at length how a Limited Company is set up, can trade and make profits and be responsible only for its declared capital. Scaphio and Phantis realise that their influence on the King will be ended as Paramount would only be liable for the amount of his declared capital.
Act II takes place in the throne room of King Paramount’s Palace. Some months have passed and the reforms are well underway. Not everyone is happy. Scaphio reports that the neighbouring countries have all disarmed and there are no wars for the Armed Forces to pursue. Improved sanitation has cut disease leaving doctors to starve and die. Revised laws have abolished crime and litigation so lawyers starve and jails have been converted into dwellings for the working classes. Libel laws stop editors publishing scurrilous articles. The economy is stagnating. Even divorce is in danger of being outlawed. Zara comes forward with the solution realising that she has omitted one of the stalwarts of English society “Government by Party”. She points out that “No political measures will endure, because one party will assuredly undo all that the other party has done and legislative action will be at a standstill. Then there will be sickness in plenty, endless lawsuits, crowded jails, interminable confusion in the Army and Navy – in other words general and unexampled prosperity”.
This change is accepted. Utopia will no longer be a Monarchy (Limited) but will be a Limited Monarchy. Scaphio and Phantis admit defeat. This leaves her free to be with Captain Fitzbattleaxe. King Paramount is able to come to terms with Lady Sophy.
“The Gondoliers” opened to critical acclaim in 1889 and it appeared that there was a new concord between librettist and composer. However, while the opening run was still at its height, the peace was shattered by a new row which came to be known as the Carpet Quarrel. The expenses of the production costs and running of the Savoy Theatre were set against the gross profits of the performance. Gilbert accused D’Oyly Carte of overcharging for a new carpet for the foyer and front of the theatre. When Sullivan appeared to take Carte’s side relations sank to an even lower pitch and the row was taken to Court.
“The Gondoliers” ran for 554 performances but by the middle of 1891 there was no prospect of a successor. Sullivan was heavily committed with his classical activities including his opera “Ivanhoe”. He sent Gilbert tickets for the opening night but they were not used. It proved a non-event and lasted for 155 performances. Carte’s Grand Opera House was also an anti-climax and was sold for use as a Music Hall (It is now the Palace Theatre, London). During this time a command performance of “The Gondoliers” was staged for Queen Victoria at Windsor.
In the intervening period Gilbert had been associated with composer Alfred Cellier writing “The Mountebanks” which used his long term theme of the Magic Lozenge. Sullivan set “Haddon Hall” by Sydney Grundy to music. Suggestions were also made for collaborations on themes by Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie. None of these have survived.
A reconciliation did eventually come but was punctuated by episodes of poor health on both parts (Sullivan with kidney stones; Gilbert with gout). “Utopia Limited” opened late in 1893 and ran for 245 performances.
“Utopia Limited” is perhaps Gilbert’s most savage tilt against the establishment of Britain. This time it is not couched in the disguise of a Japanese village as it was in “The Mikado”. Its barbs are aimed directly at politicians and Party Politics, companies and business methods, the Law and censorship, the Press. In the first scene the fabled Britain is described as the most powerful and wisest country in the world. Utopians (guess who) are characterised as “having no need to think because our monarch anticipates all our wants and our political opinions are formed for us by the journals to which we subscribe.”
Gilbert used his knowledge of the current corporation law in describing the setting up of a Limited Company. This is derived from the Companies Act 1862. A limited liability joint-stock company combined the ideas that it could be treated as an artificial person with the same abilities to do business as a person, it could issue tradable shares to investors and that it has limited liability. The Act and its concepts are explored in depth in the recent book “The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea” by Mickelthwait and Woodbridge.
There are descriptions of characters amongst the politicians which would be absolutely apposite today. Which present day worthies might you attribute the following two verses?
Gilbert even uses a modern day buzz word “Make the money-spinner SPIN: for you only stand to win!!”
Page added - December 23rd 2005
Last updated - April 16th 2012
The first orchestral theme is labelled “Introduction” rather than Overture and lasts a mere three minutes. The overall tone of the music is distinctly Savoyard. Themes come into earshot, reminding of other operettas (the tone is Iolanthe or Princess Ida) but the entry marches do perhaps lack the full splendour and the love songs the tenderness of other works. “Utopia Limited” also lacks that one “Whistle Test” tune of some of the more popular operas – and this is brought home very forcefully when one of the songs lapses into the main theme of HMS Pinafore (sung by Captain Corcoran – also the name of the Captain of that ship)
Proportionately there is more sung and less spoken text in this opera. The finale of Act I runs for an unbroken 17 minutes.
Songs of particular note are:
“Oh Make Way For The Wise Men” – Male chorus including a duet between Scaphio and Phantis
“First You’re Born” – Paramount, Scaphio and Phantis (the closest to a patter song)
“Oh Admirable Art” – Zara and Fitzbattleaxe (Love song)
“Although Your Royal Summons To Appear” – includes Zara’s solo introducing the Flowers of Progress
“Society Has Quite Forsaken” – Paramount with the Flowers of Progress
“A Wonderful Joy Our Eyes To Bless” – Mr Goldbury (the Company Director)
The words and music of these songs are to be found on the Web Opera Pages of the
Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
(Clicking on the midi file on that page should open your media player and start the melody. To return here close the media player and then press the [BACK] button of your browser)
After its original run there were no further professional performances of 'Utopia Limited' until the specially produced version for this CD collection. There have been sporadic amateur presentations.
I went to see an amateur performance of “Ruddigore” by the Tynemouth Gilbert & Sullivan Society last month. The programme listed their productions back to 1948. They have staged “Utopia Limited” once in that time (1968).
This two-disc box CD set is part of the complete set of operas recorded by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and released by DECCA originally on vinyl in the 1960s and early 1970s. This recording is without the spoken dialogue. The cast is somewhat transitional freaturing some of the stalwarts of the Company from the earlier decade. John Reed has a relatively small part (Scaphio); Kenneth Sandford is a suitably downtrodden despotic monarch. The relatively large number of soloists are generally in good voice and the orchestra is in its usual sparkling form.
This tightly packed musical set has a total running time of 139 minutes. It is completed with four of Sullivan’s orchestral pieces. “Imperial March” - written in 1893 to commemorative the opening of the Imperial Institute by Queen Victoria – is used as a preface to the operetta in lieu of an overture. The overture “MacBeth” (1888) was composed as incidental music for a production of the Shakespeare play by Sir Henry Irving. Sullivan composed a ballet in 1897 as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. “Victoria and Merrie England” was made up of seven scenes depicting British life through the ages. It was later reworked into three musical suites. Suite 1 (recorded here) features the life of the Druids. The Overture “Marmion” dates from 1867. It is a working of the poem by Sir Walter Scott which describes the treachery of a nobleman at the court of Henry VIII who is finally killed at the Battle of Flodden Field.
UTOPIA LIMITED - Gilbert & Sullivan (1975)
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Conducted by Royston Nash
Soloists: John Reed (Scaphio); John Ayldon (Phantis)
Jon Ellison (Tarara); Michael Buchan (Calynx)
Pamela Field (Princess Zara); Meston Reid (Captain Fitzbattleaxe)
Kenneth Sandford (King Paramount); Lyndsie Holland (Lady Sophy)
CD: LONDON 436816-2 (£19.99)
I bought mine from Windows of the Arcade, Newcastle upon Tyne at a special offer price of £10.99
Utopia Ltd or The Flowers Of Progress
International Music Publications Ltd. £ 4.99
The song “Society has quite forsaken” was staged in the fashion of the Christy Minstrels. Founded by Edwin P. Christy in 1846 they first performed in New York. This troupe brought the phrase "Christy Minstrels" into the language to mean any black-face minstrel show. After they disbanded various other groups formed and took over the name. One of these, formed in Dublin, opened at Chester in November, 1864, coming to London at the Standard Theatre, Shoreditch in 1865 and after three months moved to St. James's Hall, Piccadilly.
They inspired such more recent troupes as the Black and White Minstrels which were part of BBC television in the 1960s. They also were the inspiration for the pop group, the "New Christy Minstrels", in the US.
At the time of writing, Sir Michael Bishop (then chairman of British Midland) was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company; Denis Healy was Patron of the Carl Rosa Opera Company
The first version of this article originally appeared on CIAO on April 2nd 2003. You can see what other CIAO readers
thought about it on the following page:
COMMENTS on 'Utopia Limited'
1. Sir Arthur Sullivan (detail of a portrait by John Millais, 1888; National Portrait Gallery, London): Student Britannica
2. W.S. Gilbert: The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
3. Original costume design for King Paramount by Percy Anderson (1893): The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
4. Original costume design for Scaphio or Phantis by Percy Anderson (1893): The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
5. The Minstrel scene as performed by D'Oyly Carte's "D" Company which toured the opera 1893-4 :
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
6. First Production Poster: Savoy Theatre, London, December 7th 1889:
"Gilbert and Sullivan Down Under": Mel's Gilbert and Sullivan Site
7. “The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea” by Mickelthwait and Woodbridge.: Amazon.co.uk
8. Laurence Gridley plays Captain Corcoran: Original production 1893: The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
9. Meston Reid - 1975 production: The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
10. Kenneth Sandford - 1975 production: The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
11. A Circular of Edwin P. Christy And His Minstrels: Stephen Collins Foster: A pictorial Biography
12. Sir Michael Bishop, patron of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company: Birmingham Post
13. Lord Denis Healey, patron of the Carl Rosa Opera Company: The Carl Rosa Opera Company: Patrons