Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers"
an annotated plot summary

by Brian Kunde

Note: This article was originally written about 1990 as part of a letter to a person who was not familiar with the operetta. It remedies the prime defect of most plot summaries of the Savoy Operas (and indeed most printed playscripts), by providing convenient citations to Sullivan's musical pieces at the points they appear in the production. It also remedies a defect in the published scores by citing them separately (Sullivan tended to string successive pieces together under an overall title as if one were merely a continuation of another). The partnership was, after all, Gilbert and Sullivan, as you will experience in a live performance, not all Gilbert, as in the playscripts, or nearly all Sullivan (with Gilbert's lyrics), as in the scores.

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The Characters (in order of appearance):

  • Fiametta, Vittoria, Giulia, Tessa, and Gianetta, Venetian contadine.
  • Francesco, Antonio, Giorgio, and Anibale, Venetian gondolieri.
  • Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri, twin brothers and Venetian gondolieri.
  • The Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, Spanish nobility.
  • Casilda, their daughter, and Luiz, the duke's attendant, two lovers.
  • Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor.
  • Inez, former nurse of the infant Prince of Barataria.
  • Chorus of additional gondoliers, contadine, men-at-arms, heralds, and pages.

Act 1: The Piazzetta, Venice, 1750.

     The scene opens to twenty-four Venetian contadine (young maidens) binding white and red roses in posies to give to Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri, two gondoliers whom they all love. They explain why in the opening song, "List and learn" their unwritten law forbids them to speak of love to the objects of their passion, so the flowers must do their pleading for them.1
     Two dozen gondoliers (not the right ones) approach the girls singing "Good morrow, pretty maids" and ask them who the flowers are for. The contadine tell them, adding that they have heard that the Palmieris, finally ready to marry, are coming to select two of them as their brides. But the other gondoliers also love the girls; what, they ask, are they to do? Wait and take whoever is left, as there will still be plenty to go around!2
     The gondoliers gladly agree to this condition, "For the merriest fellows are we!" They occupy the next few minutes puffing themselves up in this song. Then the contadine spy the Palmieris approaching, and cry "See, see, at last they come to make their choice!" They acclaim them as the two approach.
     The Palmieris greet the girls: "Buon' giorno, signorine!" Who are the flowers for? For them, of course. The Palmieris and their admirers trade compliments back and forth, and then Marco and Giuseppe explain their romantic philosophy in "We're called Gondolieri."
     "And Now to Choose Our Brides!" say the Palmieris. Being republicans, and hence3 egalitarians, they will leave their choice to impartial fate, by chasing the girls blindfolded and marrying the ones they catch. Their eyes are duly bound. Fiametta and Vittoria, the two most prominent contadine (that is, the ones who have been doing most of the non-chorus singing), suspiciously ask "Are you peeping?" They are, and the girls protest.
     The contadine and gondolieri spin the two men about to the ditty "My papa, he keeps three horses" to ensure the courses they take will be entirely random just as in Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
     Marco and Giuseppe soon get their girls, exclaiming "I've at length achieved a capture!" The captures are Tessa and Gianetta, two previously anonymous contadine, who now take over the starring roles among the women. That will teach Fiametta and Vittoria to insist on fairness! The Palmieris, still impartial, each offer to trade girls, if the other prefers. Tessa and Gianetta are quite scandalized, and say so. But they immediately proceed to "Thank you, gallant gondolieri" for having chosen them.
     Everyone happily acclaims the resolution of the matter, singing "Fate in this has put his finger" and let's get to the altar, already! Exit gondolieri and contadine.4

     Enter the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, their daughter Casilda, and attendant Luiz (who beats a mean drum), all quite seasick following their sea voyage from Spain, as they inform us in the next piece, "From the sunny Spanish shore." They have come to visit the Grand Inquisitor, who is presently living in the Doge's Palace. After quarreling with each other a bit, they send Luiz in to demand an audience.
     While Luiz is gone, the Duke tells Casilda why they need to see the Inquisitor. As a baby, she was married by proxy to the infant prince of Barataria. The king, his father, subsequently became a Methodist, to the alarm of the established church (which was, of course Catholic). The Grand Inquisitor, thinking quickly, stole the prince and took him to Venice, where he would be ensured of a more traditional upbringing.5 Now the Methodist monarch has been killed in an insurrection, and the prince (and Catholicism) can be restored to the throne. The Duke, none too wealthy, wants to be sure that the prince's wife, his daughter, is remembered and will get in on this lucrative deal. Just so we can all be sure what kind of scoundrel the Duke is he goes on to emphasize it in "In enterprise of martial kind."
     Luiz returns from his errand, and the Duke and Duchess exit into the palace. As soon as they are gone, Luiz and Casilda rush to each other's arms and declare their mutual love, in "O rapture, when alone together." Casilda has concealed their attachment from her parents by pretending to disdain the lowly retainer in public. In the wake of the rapture, the girl belatedly remembers she has just been told she is married. She explains to Luiz, and they sadly agree to part, mourning their frustrated ardor in a sappy love song, "There was a time."
     Re-enter the Duke and Duchess in the company of Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor. He is delighted to further their designs, but admits to a hitch in "I stole the prince." When he brought the prince to Venice, he gave him to Baptisto Palmieri, a gondolier, to raise with Baptisto's own son. But the gondolier promptly got the children mixed up and then died, leaving no one to tell which Palmieri brother was originally the prince. 6
     Fortunately, the Inquisitor has a solution. He plans to fetch the prince's former nurse, now the wife of a brigand in the mountains near Cordova, who will be able to establish the King's identity beyond all question.7 He is cheerfully willing to torture her until she supplies the desired information.8 The nurse, by the way, is also the mother of Luiz, the attendant.9
     Casilda confesses to a justified confusion, while Don Alhambra advises her that that's life, in "But bless my heart." This is the lead-in for everyone to confess their confusion and sing about life's complexity in "Try we life-long." Exit all, heads a-whirl.

     Re-enter the contadine and gondoliers, followed by Marco, Gianetta, Giuseppe, and Tessa, dreamily congratulating themselves on being "Bridegroom and bride." This piece is actually a lead-in for another,10 "When a merry maiden marries." One presumes from all of this that the other gondoliers too have made (and married) their second choices among the contadine as previously invited.11
     Don Alhambra approaches the crowd. They assume he is an undertaker who has mistaken the occasion (a bad omen), and all but the Palmieris and their brides soon leave. Their impression of him is heightened by his discomfiture on discovering that the brothers are married (rather, they presume, than someone being dead and needing his services). Giuseppe dismisses him, and Alhambra bridles at the liberty. At this the Palmieris declare their egalitarianism. He can expect no deference from them: they are republicans heart and soul. Oh, how unfortunate, he remarks, because one of them is a king!
     An interesting scene follows as the Inquisitor explains everything except the married-as-a-baby bit. The Palmieris are convinced to go to Barataria and reign jointly until one of them is identified as the actual king. They gleefully plan to give offices to all their friends (as is traditional in any government). Then the Inquisitor drops his bombshell their wives can't go. Later, perhaps. He doesn't say why, leaving the impression that it is due to the insurrection the Palmieris must put down. We, of course, know better.
     This is the signal for the finale of Act I, a succession of songs beginning with "Kind sir, you cannot have the heart."12 In it, Gianetta and Tessa plead with Don Alhambra not to separate them from their newly-weds. He assures them that it will not be for long, and that they will be reunited, in "Do not give way to this uncalled-for grief." Hitherto he had avoided prevarication; now he takes the plunge. All swallow his line, declaring: "Viva! His argument is strong." Exit Don Alhambra.
     Gianetta and Tessa indulge in a silly flight of fancy, aided and abetted by their husbands, as they anticipate how "Then one of us will be a queen."
     The gondoliers and contadine re-enter and ask "Now pray, what is the cause of this remarkable hilarity?" Marco and Giuseppe together explain their sudden elevation, in their new persona of joint king: "Replying, we sing as one individual." They assure their friends that despite being royal they will respect their republican fallacies. How? their friends wonder. "For ev'ry one who feels inclined" they will provide an office and everyone will be equal! "Then hail, o king!" exclaim the gondoliers enthusiastically.
     The Palmieris bid their brides farewell, and the women abjure them not to forget them, in "Come, let's away." All finish with "Then away they go to an island fair" and the act closes.

Act 2: Pavilion in the Court of Barataria, three months later.

     Everything's gone swimmingly. The insurrection has been ended, assisted, no doubt, by the people's expectation that the Palmieris would establish a constitutional government. Marco and Giuseppe occupy the thrones of Barataria (having sensibly had a duplicate made), and we find them seated thereon in full regalia, engaged in cleaning the crown and scepter. About them are arrayed the other gondoliers, dressed as courtiers, officers, soldiers and servants of various degrees, all enjoying themselves without reference to social distinctions. Some are playing cards, others throwing dice, reading, and so on. None are doing anything productive. Everyone sings "Of happiness the very pith," extolling their republican-tempered monarchy and its monarchs, who are earning their keep by doing all they can to please their subjects.
     Following this, however, their majesties dare to venture a small complaint. Their followers, suspicious of anything reeking of the assertion of royal prerogative, react angrily, and the Kings hasten to assure them it's only a little one. In their character of one joint monarch they have been receiving only one ration, and they want two! After some discussion of the legal niceties, the request is granted. The other gondoliers then adjure them to work all the harder. The Kings agree, feeling that in return for the forms and show of royalty they are permitted it is the least they can do to make themselves useful about the palace.
     Marco and Giuseppe go on to outline their typical day as Kings, providing a picture of how their system of government works, in "Rising early in the morning."13 The gondoliers kibitz in their character of chorus, and exit at the end of the song, leaving the Kings to themselves.
     The Kings express their satisfaction to each other about how pleasant everything is and how generous their subjects are acting. There is only one thing missing to make their happiness complete. They miss their wives. Marco immediately launches into a paean to women, "Take a pair of sparkling eyes," the most saccharine and chauvinistic ditty in all of Gilbert and Sullivan.14
     As if in answer, in rush the chorus of contadine, led by Fiametta and Vittoria.15 They are welcomed heartily by all the ex-gondoliers.16 The contadine exclaim "Here we are, at the risk" of their lives. They have come a long way, they've brought the Kings their spouses, and they're not going back, buster! Fiametta and Vittoria explain how impatient and bored they had gotten, waiting in Venice, and the others then repeat the opening chorus. Enter Gianetta and Tessa, fashionably late. They rush to the arms of Giuseppe and Marco, and as they embrace each of the four cries out the beloved's name in rapture.17
     There ensues a song in which Tessa and Gianetta describe their voyage and pepper their husbands with questions in "Tossing in a manner frightful."18 They are interested in everything, and are going to keep pestering until they're told it all. Or so they sing: in fact, the only answer they are given is that nobody knows who is King yet (admittedly the question of most import).
     Then Giuseppe puts them off with the matter of how best to celebrate the commencement of their honeymoon. The courtiers graciously allow the Kings to offer them a banquet, and the ladies respond favorably to the prospect of a dance, which then commences (with singing) in "Dance a cachucha."
     The dance is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of Don Alhambra, who is astonished by it. Marco and Giuseppe are embarrassed, and the others all run off, except for a drummer boy, who is driven off by Don Alhambra. And what, he sniffs, is going on here? Why are the servants dancing with their rulers? The Kings explain, which necessarily entails some explication of the type of government they have set up. It won't do, says the Inquisitor. There are distinctions to be observed. To support this opinion, he gives them an instance from ancient times in which their leveling experiment was tried the delightful piece "There lived a king."19 The problem with abolishing distinctions, it turns out, is that distinctions get abolished. Marco and Giuseppe, who aren't too sophisticated, are completely bamboozled by this example of circular reasoning.
     Now Tessa and Gianetta sneak back in and overhear something they aren't supposed to. Don Alhambra tells the Kings that the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro and their beautiful daughter Casilda have come to Barataria, and will arrive any moment. So what? say the Kings. Don Alhambra proceeds to let the cat out of the bag: one of them is married to Casilda! And an unintentional bigamist who will have to put aside his Venetian wife.
     At this Tessa and Gianetta come forward they proceed to make the old gentleman highly uncomfortable by their mere existence, not to mention their questions! But he is equal to the situation, turning aside their wrath with flattery.20 And, he assures them, they will not long be in suspense: the royal nurse has been found and brought to the torture chamber, where she is waiting for him to interview her. (In the meantime, she has all the latest magazines to keep her from boredom.)21 Exit Inquisitor to begin the interrogation.
     Husbands and wives enter into a discussion of the situation, which soon, quite naturally, becomes rather heated. Marco calms the others down and urges them to address the problem in a more sober manner. So they sing, "In contemplative fashion." Alas, the singing also quickly becomes heated. Exeunt, pondering.

     A procession of retainers then enters, heralding the approach of the Duke, Duchess, and Casilda, all attired in utmost magnificence. It seems they've come up in the world, thanks to the Duke floating himself as a company which rents out his services to people in need of snob appeal.22 They make the most of their entrance in "With ducal pomp." The Duke and Duchess send their attendants to demand an audience with the Kings, and tell their daughter to prepare to receive her husband. But which? she asks. There are two of them. That will soon be taken care of, they assure her.
     Well, says Casilda, she of course will be a dutiful wife, but she can never love her husband. Her mother demures. Sure she can if she puts her mind to it! The Duchess goes on to sing "On the day when I was wedded," telling how, through grim determination alone, she has managed to love the Duke. The Duke would happily have told a similar tale himself, but hasn't the guts.
     So, sighs, Casilda, her only hope is that when her husband sees what a shady family he has married into, he will repudiate the contract altogether. Shady? her parents protest, how can they be shady when, thanks to their current racket, they are so much in demand? They describe how the operation works in "To help unhappy commoners," each relating (to the somewhat snide comments of the other) his or her particular duties. The upshot of the whole thing is to prove their daughter's point.
     Enter Marco and Giuseppe. The Duke bows. They try to shake hands with him, but he ignores the offer and bows again. So they awkwardly try to imitate him. He presents his daughter. They try to shake hands with her, but she ignores the offer and curtsies. They awkwardly try to imitate her. The Duke extols his daughter's virtues and then complains about his reception. It's not enough!23 The Kings explain that their subjects are very off-hand with them and wouldn't stand for that sort of thing. Oh, but you mustn't allow that, says the Duke, you must keep them in proper discipline. He tries to teach them how to project the requisite dignity in "I am a courtier." They have a little difficulty catching on, but soon pick it up, to the satisfaction of all concerned. Exeunt Duke and Duchess, leaving Casilda with the Palmieris.
     Embarrassed, everyone attempts to explain how they are already in love with somebody else. Enter Gianetta and Tessa, just to add to the confusion. They all try to sort things out in "Here is a case unprecedented," a rather more dignified attempt than the last time this was tried.24
     In comes Don Alhambra, followed by the Duke, Duchess, and all the chorus. Alhambra proclaims the royal nurse is ready to declare the rightful king in "Now let the loyal lieges gather round." He brings forth the nurse, Inez.
     "Speak, woman, speak," sing all the persons whose fates ride on her words. She answers in a short solo, "The royal prince was by the King entrusted." It is her only speech in the entire opera, making hers the most minor significant role in the whole Gilbert and Sullivan canon. She explains how she had fooled everybody, and substituted her own infant son when Don Alhambra tried to steal the Prince. So the true King of Barataria is Luiz!
     Well? Isn't anyone going to gasp in surprise?25
     Of course, the characters do there is a "sensation."26 Luiz ascends the throne and is crowned and robed as king.27 Casilda rushes to his arms and they cry each other's names. The chorus expresses wonderment in "Is this indeed the king?"
     Marco, Giuseppe, Tessa, and Gianetta sing "This statement we receive with sentiments conflicting," but on the whole, they are delighted to be actually married to the persons they thought they were married to.
     Luiz tells Casilda how he waited "When others claimed thy dainty hand," the Duke commends his prudence, and Casilda congratulates him on how his pure and patient love has been rewarded. As well she might. Congratulation is catching, and all add to it in "Then hail, O King" while Luiz crowns Casilda.28
     Then the Palmieris, assisted by the chorus, celebrate their return to freedom in the piece that ends the opera, "Once more gondolieri." As well they might. They never gained anything by kingship but work and marriage complications.29 This, then, is the happy ending. One might quibble with it,30 but the operetta is so fun that, to paraphrase the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, we waive that point. We don't press it. We look over it.31

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  1. The title of the opening song covers about 20 solid minutes of music, but only actually applies to the initial portion of it. In what follows I refer to the remaining portions by their initial words. [Back to text]
  2. Actually, this is not true: the number of men and women is equal, and after the Palmieris remove their brides there will be two women short. But Gilbert is typically careless with his mathematics. [Back to text]
  3. In Gilbert's mind, at least. [Back to text]
  4. This ends the sequence of pieces lumped together under the title "List and learn." [Back to text]
  5. It is nowhere explained how the Grand Inquisitor of Spain got mixed up in the affairs of Barataria, or why he brought the prince to Venice. Much of Italy was under direct or indirect Spanish rule at this time and thus had its own Inquisition, but neither Spanish authority nor the Inquisition ever entered Venice, which was a stubbornly independent republic and a power in its own right. It is a wonder, not just that the Venetians permitted the Grand Inquisitor to reside in Venice for over twenty years, but that they did not immediately arrest him in the first place. [Back to text]
  6. Baptisto's wife, who presumably would have known her own son, never figures in the tale. We are left to infer that the elder Palmieri was a widower who undertook to raise two infants and teach him his craft on his own. How he expected to do either one is unclear, as he is presented as having been a drunk afflicted with gout. Nor is it clear who actually raised the babies after his decease. Incidentally, we later learn that Baptisto had also been a revolutionary, making him a distinctly odd choice for a prince's foster-father. Really, Don Alhambra seems to have displayed appalling judgment throughout the whole enterprise! [Back to text]
  7. Only a man accustomed to always getting whatever answers he wishes would assume this. [Back to text]
  8. No one is so crude as to point out the dubiousness of her identification of a child she would not have seen since infancy not even Casilda, who would seem to have the motivation to do so. But she has a lisp and probably isn't too bright. [Back to text]
  9. Can anyone detect a typically Gilbertian solution in the making here? [Back to text]
  10. Not in fact separately titled. [Back to text]
  11. In spite of being two girls short. [Back to text]
  12. All strung together under the title of the first. Once again I will identify the untitled pieces by their initial words. [Back to text]
  13. Basically, the kings do all the grunt-work, and are pathetically pleased at being allowed to do so. [Back to text]
  14. One suspects they were seeing just how thickly they could lay it on and still get away with it. [Back to text]
  15. They have apparently reclaimed their positions of dominance in spite of being passed up by the Palmieris. [Back to text]
  16. Gilbert seems to have accomplished the return of Marco and Giuseppe's followers without a stage direction. [Back to text]
  17. Operettas are much given to this sort of thing. [Back to text]
  18. Gilbert and Sullivan have practiced their usual trick on it, subsuming it into the preceding title, so I will practice mine and give it its own. [Back to text]
  19. It doesn't really prove the point, but it's great fun. (For some reason, Don Alhambra gets most of the really amusing songs in this opera). [Back to text]
  20. He has quite an eye for the ladies throughout the opera. [Back to text]
  21. This is not as considerate as it sounds. There weren't many magazines around in 1750. [Back to text]
  22. Although it may seem otherwise, Gilbert wasn't really trying to prophecy today's tendency of public figures to sell their names for any purpose. The practice, distressing as it may be to those who like to believe there were "good old days," was contemporary. [Back to text]
  23. This is the sort of quality that marks him as a true aristocrat. He expected all sorts of ceremony and didn't get it. [Back to text]
  24. This song marks the beginning of the finale, and so the succeeding pieces, as usual, are treated as extensions of it and not titled. I'll tell you what they are anyway. [Back to text]
  25. It should be noted that this is very much to Inez's own advantage, so it would not be too surprising if she is lying. After all, she is claiming that she gave up her own baby, against all motherly instincts. Besides, had she been so loyal to the old king to have done so in order to thwart Don Alhambra, one would also have expected her to have raised Luiz as a Methodist. We must assume she did not, since everyone, including Don Alhambra, is satisfied with her revelation. Of course, no one challenges her on any of this (Gilbert never did let practical considerations get in the way of a neat solution). Incidentally, if Inez is telling the truth then Luiz, previously thought to be her son, isn't, and one of the Palmieris is. But we never learn which one. So the question we have been expecting to have answered for the entire opera, that is, which Palmieri isn't a Palmieri, is never addressed. [Back to text]
  26. Stage-directionese for everyone acting surprised. [Back to text]
  27. This smacks of premeditation. I suspect Don Alhambra decided an egalitarian gondolier just "wouldn't do" as king, and came to an understanding with Inez. Hence her probable whopper about switching babies. She gains, Luiz (who no doubt really is her son) gains, Casilda gains, her parents gain, and the Grand Inquisitor gains. Just follow the web of self-interest! [Back to text]
  28. This ia a real crown, not their first argument. [Back to text]
  29. The only ones to lose by their disenthronement are the other gondoliers, who will have to give up their offices, and presumably the people of Barataria, who must trade a limited monarchy for an old-style king with pushy, extravagant in-laws. But of course no one considers the people. [Back to text]
  30. See the above notes. [Back to text]
  31. We aren't given the reactions of those who have reason to be unhappy so who are we to second-guess the authors? [Back to text]

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Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers:" a plot summary

1st web edition posted 2/23/1996
(updated 2/28/1996).
2nd web edition posted 3/12/1998
(updated 11/13/2000).
3rd web edition posted 1/25/2001
(updated 5/16/2008).

Published by Fleabonnet Press.
© 1990-2008 by Brian Kunde.