La Vivandière (Gilbert)

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Programme for the 1868 London production Vivandiere-gilbert.jpg
Programme for the 1868 London production

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]

Victorian burlesque theatrical genre

Victorian burlesque, sometimes known as travesty or extravaganza, is a genre of theatrical entertainment that was popular in Victorian England and in the New York theatre of the mid 19th century. It is a form of parody in which a well-known opera or piece of classical theatre or ballet is adapted into a broad comic play, usually a musical play, usually risqué in style, mocking the theatrical and musical conventions and styles of the original work, and often quoting or pastiching text or music from the original work. Victorian burlesque is one of several forms of burlesque.

W. S. Gilbert English librettist of the Gilbert & Sullivan duo

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas continue to be frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.

Gaetano Donizetti 19th-century Italian opera composer

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti was an Italian composer. Along with Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini, Donizetti was a leading composer of the bel canto opera style during the first half of the nineteenth century. Donizetti's close association with the bel canto style was undoubtedly an influence on other composers such as Giuseppe Verdi.


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]

Liverpool City and metropolitan borough in England

Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough in North West England, with an estimated population of 491,500. Its metropolitan area is the fifth-largest in the UK, with a population of 2.24 million in 2011. The local authority is Liverpool City Council, the most populous local government district in the metropolitan county of Merseyside and the largest in the Liverpool City Region.

Queens Theatre, Long Acre former theatre in London (1847-1878)

The Queen's Theatre in London was established in 1867 as a theatre on the site of St Martin's Hall, a large concert room that had opened in 1850. It stood on the corner of Long Acre and Endell Street, with entrances in Wilson Street and Long Acre. The site is within the modern Camden, part of Covent Garden.

Savoy opera Opera genre

Savoy opera was a style of comic opera that developed in Victorian England in the late 19th century, with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan as the original and most successful practitioners. The name is derived from the Savoy Theatre, which impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte built to house the Gilbert and Sullivan pieces, and later, those by other composer–librettist teams. The great bulk of the non-G&S Savoy Operas either failed to achieve a foothold in the standard repertory, or have faded over the years, leaving the term "Savoy Opera" as practically synonymous with Gilbert and Sullivan. The Savoy operas were seminal influences on the creation of the modern musical.

Background and analysis

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.

<i>Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack</i> musical

Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack, is one of the earliest plays written by W.S. Gilbert, his first solo stage success. The work is a musical burlesque of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, and the music was arranged by Mr. Van Hamme. It opened at the St James's Theatre on 29 December 1866, the last item in a long evening, following a farce and Dion Boucicault's new play Hunted Down. Dulcamara ran for a successful 120 nights.

Advertisement for the Liverpool premiere Vivandiere-liverpool.jpg
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]

Victorian era Period of British history encompassing Queen Victorias reign

In the history of the United Kingdom, the Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign, from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period, and its later half overlaps with the first part of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe. In terms of moral sensibilities and political reforms, this period began with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. There was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards led by the nonconformist churches, such as the Methodist, and the Evangelical wing of the established Church of England. Britain's relations with the other Great Powers were driven by the colonial antagonism of the Great Game with Russia, climaxing during the Crimean War; a Pax Britannica of international free trade was maintained by the country's naval and industrial supremacy. Britain embarked on global imperial expansion, particularly in Asia and Africa, which made the British Empire the largest empire in history. National self-confidence peaked.

Thomas William Robertson English dramatist and innovative stage director

Thomas William Robertson, usually known professionally as T. W. Robertson, was an English dramatist and innovative stage director best known for a series of realistic or naturalistic plays produced in London in the 1860s that broke new ground and inspired playwrights such as W.S. Gilbert and George Bernard Shaw.

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]

Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges French librettist

Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, French playwright, was born and died in Paris. He was one of the most prolific librettists of the 19th century, often working in collaboration with others.

Jean-François Bayard French playwright

Jean-François Alfred Bayard was a French playwright. He was the nephew of fellow playwright Eugène Scribe.

Charles Wyndham (actor) English actor-manager

Sir Charles Wyndham was an English actor-manager, born as Charles Culverwell in Liverpool, the only son of a doctor, Robert James Culverwell, M.R.C.S. He was educated in Germany, at King's College London and at the College of Surgeons and the Peter Street Anatomical School, Dublin. He took the degree of M.R.C.S. in 1857 and that of L.M. in 1858.

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]

Breeches role stage role representing a male character played by a female actor

A breeches role is a role in which an actress appears in male clothing. Breeches, tight-fitting knee-length pants, were the standard male garment at the time breeches roles were introduced.

Vincenzo Bellini Italian opera composer

Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini was an Italian opera composer, who was known for his long-flowing melodic lines for which he was named "the Swan of Catania". Many years later, in 1898, Giuseppe Verdi "praised the broad curves of Bellini's melody: 'there are extremely long melodies as no-one else had ever made before'."

Friedrich von Flotow German composer

Friedrich Adolf Ferdinand, Freiherr von Flotow /flo:to/ was a German composer. He is chiefly remembered for his opera Martha, which was popular in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th.

Gilbert and his wife, Lucy, in 1867 Gilberts1867.gif
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]


The original Liverpool and London casts were as follows:

RoleDescriptionLiverpool [18] London
Count RobertoHusband of the Marchioness of Birkenfelt, disguised as Manfred, [19]
and living on Mont Blanc.
Charles Wyndham Lionel Brough
TonioAn Alpine guide, sprung from a well-known Alpen-stockMiss M. BrennanMiss P. Markham
The Earl of MargateA British tourist unknown to Donizetti Bella Goodall Fanny Addison [14]
Lord PentonvilleHis companion, man of small Parts.Miss DeaneMiss Jordan
Sir Peckham RyeHis companion, man of small Parts.Miss ArmstrongMiss Montgomery
The Marquis of Cranbourne AlleyHis companion, man of small Parts.Miss ViningMiss Sylvia
PumpernickelSteward to the Marchioness, in love with everybody.E. NewboundMr. Sanger
Sergeant SulpizioPaymaster sergeant, risen from the ranks to the ranksJ. D. Stoyle J. L. Toole
CospettoSoldierMiss ChesterMiss F. Heath
OrtensioSoldierMiss J. GunnissMiss Maxse
NotaryHis motto is deeds, not wordsA. BrownMr. Fotheringham
MariaSupposedly the child of the Regiment; in reality, Roberto's daughterMaria Simpson Henrietta Hodson
Marchioness of BirkenfeltHer Mother Harriet Everard Harriet Everard
CocotteHer MaidMiss E. SeymourMiss Turner
Guests, Happy Peasants, Soldiers, and others, by a host of unrecognised Siddonses and Kembles


Scene I – Grands Mulets on Mont Blanc. Sunset.

Lord Margate and his five companions are discovered at luncheon. They compliment themselves on their rudeness to foreigners and their contempt for any but English culture. Intrigued by a stranger, Roberto, and his unkempt appearance, they demand to know his name and history. He tells them that he has become a hermit to escape his domineering wife. He was mistakenly reported killed in battle and has remained officially dead ever since. Margate correctly deduces that Roberto must be the husband of the Marchioness of Birkenfelt; he maliciously plans to reunite the couple. He and his friends invite Roberto to abandon the hermitage and join their party. Roberto, tired of his austere existence, accepts. They meet Maria and demand a kiss. She fends them off and calls for help from Tonio, who rushes in to rescue her. The English party, unabashed, sing a snobbish song in their own praise.

Scene II – Interior of Guardroom.

The soldiers Cospetto and Ortensio discuss their sergeant's concern about Maria. She is the adopted daughter of the whole regiment, and all the soldiers care about her. The sergeant, Sulpizio, joins them and frets about Maria's absence on the mountains. She enters and reassures him that she is safe and well. He reveals to her that although she is adopted by the regiment, she is the daughter of its former captain, who, mortally wounded, gave her as a baby, wrapped in his favourite handkerchief, to Sulpizio to look after. They leave her alone, and Tonio comes in. Maria tells him that he will need the regiment's consent before he can marry her. Sulpizio, entering suddenly, finds them embracing and tells them that the regiment will consent to their marriage only if Tonio becomes a soldier. He agrees to do so.

Scene III – Exterior of Marchioness of Birkenfelt's Chateau, in Chamouni.

Festivities are under way for the Marchioness's twenty-first birthday. Margate scoffingly tells his cronies that she is at least 47. When the Marchioness appears, Margate indulges in cryptic insults about her age and appearance, which she does not seem to notice. She goes into the house, and Roberto joins Margate and the rest. He expresses his dislike of parties and socialising. They leave. The soldiers come in, lamenting their forthcoming loss of their beloved Maria. The Marchioness re-enters to reproach them for being sorrowful on her birthday, and they dry their tears. The Marchioness recognises Sulpizio's handkerchief as one belonging to her late husband. She recalls how he refused to be parted from their daughter and took her into battle with him, where they were both killed. Sulpizio tells her that though the father was killed, the baby was not, and introduces her to Maria. Margate acidly observes that the supposedly 21-year-old Marchioness must have become a mother at the age of two. The Marchioness reclaims Maria as her daughter, to the desolation of the soldiers.

Scene IV – Interior of Guard Room

Tonio, now a soldier, learns from Maria of her changed status in life, and that she cannot marry him. Sulpizio joins them in a song about her grand new lifestyle. The Marchioness arrives and takes Maria away, to the despair of Tonio and his comrades.

Scene V. – Gardens attached to the Marchioness's house

Cocott tells Pumpernickel that Maria is to marry Lord Margate. He is distressed, as he too, loves her, though he admits that he also loves the Marchioness and Cocott. At the betrothal ceremony the Marchioness and Roberto come face to face and recognise each other. She reclaims him as her husband, to his dismay. Maria refuses to enter into the engagement with Margate without her father's consent. Tonio demands entry and claims her. Sulpizio disproves Margate's title to the earldom because he has several "strawberry" birthmarks, and "no peer of Margate, young, old, short, or tall, / Had ever any strawberry marks at all." [18] Tonio exclaims, "I have no strawberry marks," [18] and is hailed as the true Earl of Margate. He is, in addition, instantly appointed to a large number of important local posts and titles. The Marchioness consents to his marriage to Maria.

Musical numbers

The following is the list of musical numbers printed in the Liverpool libretto, followed by the name of the original number pastiched. The lyrics were evidently revised for the London libretto. As none of the music was original, no vocal score was published.

Critical reception

The Liverpool press was no more than moderately impressed by the piece, judging it "no better and no worse" than other burlesques staged locally. [20] The London critics were much more favourable. The consensus was that Gilbert had avoided the vulgarity of most burlesques, choosing good music and writing ingenious and literate words. The Pall Mall Gazette complimented Gilbert on his good taste which was "deserving of compliment and imitation." [21] The Standard agreed, praising Gilbert's verbal dexterity: "Up to the present, Mr. H. J. Byron has been unsurpassed in the humorous extravagance of his verbal jokes, but in True to the Corps Mr. Gilbert fairly out-Byrons Byron." The reviewer wondered if some of Gilbert's plays on words were too clever for the audience. [22] The Morning Post began a long review thus:

The so-called "operatic extravaganza" produced last night under the title "La Vivandière; or, True to the Corps," does not, as one might at first suppose, belong to the same class of works as Mr. Sullivan's burlesque operas "Cox and Box" and the "Contrabandista." In "La Vivandière", the descriptive title, "operatic extravaganza," is justified only by the fact that the work is based on the libretto of an opera. It was a daring thing to attempt to make fun of "La Fille du Régiment," for the simple reason that the piece is of a serio-comic nature in its original form ... we should have thought it about as hopeful an enterprise as to parody a comic song. However, we must judge by results. Mr. W. S. Gilbert has already shown, in "Dulcamara," that he could produce an effective travesty of a comic opera, and he has given us a fresh and still more brilliant proof of that power in his happily named "True to the Corps."


  1. It was the fashion in the mid-19th century to give Italian titles to operas not written in Italian: the opera burlesqued by Gilbert was written in French as La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment). In the same month that Gilbert's burlesque opened, another adaptation closer to the original was playing in London, described as "founded, of course, on Donizetti's opera La figlia del regimento."
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, "vivandière".
  3. "Dramatic and Musical Chronology", The Era, 5 January 1868, p. 10
  4. 1 2 3 Crowther, Andrew. The Life of W. S. Gilbert Archived 13 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine . The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
  5. 1 2 Stedman, p. 38
  6. 1 2 Stedman, p. 39
  7. See images of London programme and Liverpool advertisement
  8. Gilbert (1867), p. 1
  9. 1 2 "New Queen's Theatre" Archived 13 September 2010 at the Wayback Machine . The Times, 24 January 1868; reprinted at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, accessed 10 December 2010
  10. In January 1885, John Hollingshead wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette , "Mr. Gilbert is somewhat severe on a style of burlesque which he did much to popularise in the old days before he invented what I may call burlesque in long clothes." Correspondence, The Pall Mall Gazette, 26 January 1885, p. 4
  11. "Queen's Theatre", The Morning Post 23 January 1868, p. 5. This review was of the London production. The list of numbers in the Liverpool score shows that Donizetti and Offenbach were less generously represented in the original production.
  12. Stedman, pp. 30–62
  13. These lines were added for the London production and do not appear in the published libretto of the Liverpool version
  14. 1 2 Dark and Grey, p. 42
  15. Ainger, p. 77
  16. 1 2 The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume XIII, Chapter VIII, Section 15, (1907–21) (referring to Pygmalion and Galatea , The Cambridge History states: "The satire is shrewd, but not profound; the young author is apt to sneer, and he has by no means learned to make the best use of his curiously logical fancy. That he occasionally degrades high and beautiful themes is not surprising. To do so had been the regular proceeding in burlesque, and the age almost expected it; but Gilbert's is not the then usual hearty cockney vulgarity."
  17. Crowther, Contradiction Contradicted, p. 20
  18. 1 2 3 Gilbert (1867)
  19. Jane Stedman, p. 39, says that this was "an amusing parody" of Manfred as played by Samuel Phelps.
  20. Stedman, p. 40
  21. The Pall Mall Gazette, 28 January 1868, p. 11
  22. "Queen's Theatre", The Standard, 23 January 1868, p. 8

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