Strange adventure! Maiden wedded to a groom she's never seen ... Groom about to be beheaded in an hour on Tower Green."
That, in a nutshell, explains the setup of Gilbert and Sullivan's 11th collaboration out of a remarkable 14 operettas, The Yeomen of the Guard, which is being revived by the Young Victorian Theatre Company for its 33rd season over the next two weekends. The plot, however, only begins to explain this work and its attractions.
G&S; aficionados have always ranked Yeomen among the best of the lot, though it is the least typical, largely eschewing the musical and theatrical slapstick that spark H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado. Here, Gilbert's rhymes offer not just color and cleverness, but an extra layer of warmth and sensitivity. And Sullivan, who always aspired to high-art status as a composer, spun out some of his most lyrical, sophisticated and atmospheric music to fit and enhance those words. Instead of imitating (or parodying) Verdi and other Italian composers, as he often did in his operettas, Sullivan's Yeoman music achieves, in its own way, genuine grand-opera weight.
Not long after composing Yeomen in 1888, Sullivan did write a full-scale, grand opera, Ivanhoe. But, plagued by a weak libretto (not by Gilbert) and hampered by a score of inconsistent distinction, that 1891 work quickly faded from view. This left Yeomen to represent Sullivan's most "serious" venture for the stage.
Of course, there's still plenty of humor in this piece, along with the familiar kind of bouncy tunes. But just about everything here has an underlying tone that differs from the other G&S; operettas -- a little less caricature in the characters, a little less formulaic brightness in the music. Most significantly, the piece does not end with universal rejoicing. There's a striking note of unhappiness in the air, particularly for one figure, and probably a couple of others as well.
Yeomen might never have emerged at all were it not for a late train. It appears that the inspiration for the story came to Gilbert while he was waiting one evening in a suburban London station. Whiling away the time, he spotted an advertisement for the Tower Furnishing Company, which featured a drawing of the Tower of London and one of its famous guards, popularly known as a Beefeater (also called a yeoman).
In short order, the setting for a new stage work was in Gilbert's head -- the grounds of the tower, during the 16th century. A plot quickly materialized, too (perhaps a little too quickly, since it bore pronounced similarities to a popular operetta from the 1840s, Vincent Wallace's Maritana). Sullivan took an instant liking to the proposed libretto and fashioned a score in a few weeks. The premiere received "the usual enthusiastic reception," the composer wrote in his diary. "I think its success is even greater than The Mikado."
Unrequited love drives Yeomen. Phoebe, daughter of Sergeant Meryll, pines for a prisoner in the tower, Colonel Fairfax, who is about to be beheaded. Wilfred, "Head Jailer and Assistant Tormentor" at the tower, pines for Phoebe. Dame Carruthers, housekeeper at the tower, pines for Sergeant Meryll. Jack Point, a jester who comes along, pines for Elsie, a street singer, who performs with him.
There's a scheme to prevent a wicked cousin from inheriting Fairfax's estate and another to help Fairfax sneak out of his cell and impersonate a yeoman. When everything gets sorted out, Fairfax and Elsie are united, leaving Phoebe and Point crushed. The latter, according to the stage directions, "falls insensible" as the curtain descends. That instruction is often interpreted to mean that Point dies of a broken heart, not the sort of conclusion one expects at a G&S; show.
Making that finale all the more striking is the reprise of the number that Point and Elsie sing when they enter the picture back in the first act -- I have a song to sing, O! This duet must count among the most masterful of Sullivan's efforts with Gilbert. Fittingly, the librettist had a hand in its development. His lyrics follow an unusual pattern that has each stanza getting longer than the one before. Sullivan, stumped, asked for help from Gilbert, who had been thinking of an old sea chantey when he penned the words. By humming a few bars of the tune he had in mind, Gilbert gave Sullivan the spark he needed to fashion a melody of his own.
There is a true folk-song-like quality to the finished product, but considerable elegance, too, which combines to unexpectedly poignant effect when the music returns for that final scene. Whether Point actually expires or merely faints as he "sighs for the love of a lady," this jester, unable to feign laughter, gains our sympathy in a way no other G&S; figure ever does. His plight, rather than all the diverting, entangled doings in the operetta, provides the real Point of Yeomen of the Guard.
For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 43.
Yeomen of the Guard
Where: Alumni Auditorium, Gilman School, 5407 Roland Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. July 17-19
Tickets: $20 (children 12 and under) and $27