William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan(1842-1900)
The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid
Chronologically the eleventh Gilbert and Sullivan opera, ifwe number Trial By Jury as their first, and the sixth of the Savoy Operaproductions, The Yeomen of the Guard was first given at the London Savoy on 3rdOctober, 1888. It ran there for 423 performances and during its first two yearsof life its name became established on a par with The Mikado and TheGondoliers. A success in the English provinces, it was welcomed overseas inproductions by J.C. Williamson in Australia and a hundred-performance run onBroadway, not to mention in certain bowdlerised versions in Vienna and Budapestin 1890 which earned the composer's disapproval.
Having previously mocked time-honoured British institutions,the Navy in HMS Pinafore and the judicature in Trial By Jury, not to mentionthe newly-ordained Aesthetic Movement in Patience, in The Yeomen of the GuardGilbert poked gentle fun at the Sovereign's personal Guard. While Yeomen markeda sudden departure from the opera-bouffe style most recently heard in their1887 'melodrama burlesque' Ruddigore, towards the more dazzling operetta idiomof The Gondoliers (1889), in dramatic terms it was the team's furthestgravitation towards 'serious' opera. The work has since stayed the course asone of Sullivan's finest scores. A standard in the repertoire of the originalD'Oyly Carte Company, it enjoyed frequent revivals during the first half of thelast century and was restored to the repertoire by the new Company in 1989. Onfour separate occasions it was staged within the Tower of London itself, mostrecently during the Tower's Ninth Centenary celebrations in 1978.
The tuneful Overture  partly compensates for the lack ofan opening chorus (this is the only G & S opera without one) and thecurtain rises on Tower Green. Working at her spinnin-wheel, Phoebe, thedaughter of Sergeant Meryll of the Yeomen of the Guard, sings a doleful lay.She is hopelessly in love with the dashing Colonel Fairfax, a man of sciencewho was formerly a soldier of great bravery and who awaits execution in theTower on a false charge of sorcery . She weeps as Wilfred Shadbolt, HeadJailer and Assistant Tormentor, enters. Phoebe berates him on the cruelty ofhis profession and as he takes his exit, dejected (for he, too, loves Phoebeand is jealous of Fairfax) a crowd of villagers, followed by the yeomen onduty, enters . Phoebe protests to Dame Carruthers, the Tower's 'dragonesque'housekeeper, that Fairfax, while admittedly a student of alchemy, is innocentof sorcery, but the Dame, who believes Fairfax guilty, hastens to defend theTower's bloodthirsty practises . Phoebe and Sergeant Meryll await the arrivalof Meryll's son Leonard, whose gallant service has earned him an appointment asa yeoman. Phoebe hopes he will bring a reprieve for Fairfax, but he comes withonly a routine dispatch to the Tower's Lieutenant. Meryll recounts that Fairfaxhas twice saved his life and proposes that, as no one knows Leonard, he shouldhide, while Fairfax, his beard removed, should take his son's place . Undersurveillance, Fairfax takes his exercise in the courtyard. He first greetsMeryll, then philosophises on his impending doom . Faced with a dilemma,Fairfax makes a final request of the Tower's Lieutenant. The sorcery charge, heexplains, is the skulduggery of his cousin Sir Clarence Poltwhistle who, shouldFairfax die unmarried, stands to inherit his estate. He asks the Lieutenant ifa bride can be found for him at such short notice - the incentive being that inlittle more than an hour's time she would be a rich widow. As they go out, JackPoint, a strolling jester, bounds excitedly onto the scene with his street-singercompanion, Elsie Maynard, pursued by a boisterous crowd . They call for asong and the duo oblige with 'The Merryman and His Maid' . Hullabalooensues. A citizen tries to force his attentions on Elsie, who draws a dagger inself-defence. The Lieutenant enters. Ascertaining that Jack and Elsie are not amarried couple, he offers Elsie a hundred crowns to marry Fairfax. On theassurance that Fairfax is soon to be executed, Jack and Elsie agree . AsElsie is led, blindfolded, into the Tower, Jack swaps jokes with the Lieutenantand explains the jester's routine . Elsie, who has just married a man shehas never seen, is led in by Wilfred. Removing her blindfold, Elsie expressesher feelings . Elsie goes out and Wilfred returns to ponder over the recentevents in Fairfax's cell (he had hoped to eavesdrop through his spy-hole, butit had been filled in). Watched from afar by Meryll, Phoebe pretends to seduceWilfred. Meanwhile surreptitiously, and while serenading her enraptured victim,she removes the keys to the jail from his belt and passes them to her father. Having released the prisoner, Meryll returns with the keys, which Phoebereplaces on the unsuspecting Wilfred's belt. Meryll goes out again and Phoebecontinues her mock seduction of Wilfred. As they leave together, Meryllreturns, followed by a clean-shaven Fairfax clad in Yeoman's attire. The yeomentake Fairfax for Leonard Meryll and proudly welcome him to their ranks. Phoebeembraces Fairfax, who realises she is his 'sister', while Wilfred jealouslydeclares that he and Phoebe are now engaged to be married. Wilfred concedesthat, as Phoebe and Fairfax are brother and sister, their embrace ispermissible. Suddenly, a bell toll signals Fairfax's impending execution and asthe crowd enters to a funeral march the headsmen prepare the chopping-block.The Lieutenant orders Fairfax (alias Leonard) and two other yeomen to bring theprisoner in but in a moment they return with news that the prisoner hasescaped. As yeomen and citizens rush off to act upon the Lieutenant's 'dead oralive' reward offer, Elsie swoons in Fairfax's arms .
The same scene, at moonlight. Two days have passed and theprisoner is still at liberty. First the chorus, then Dame Carruthers and her nieceKate castigate the Tower's warders for their incompetence. The yeomen enterbriefly before resuming their search . Jack Point is in a quandary. Heagreed to let Elsie wed the imprisoned Fairfax on the assurance that Fairfaxwould die within the hour, but now he has escaped, Elsie's marital statusprevents Jack from marrying her himself. Wilfred Shadbolt is dejected, too.Having failed as a jailer, he thinks that he might now be better suited to thejesting profession. Jack agrees [2 and, in return for free schooling in thetrade, Wilfred promises to assist Jack in his stratagem to secure Elsie's'release': Wilfred is to swear that he shot Fairfax whilst trying to escapeacross the Thames and he (Jack) will corroborate the story . As they moveoff conspiratorially, Fairfax enters and ponders his own 'situation' . He issoon joined by Sergeant Meryll and Dame Carruthers, who has been consolingElsie. She reveals that Kate heard Elsie moans 'How shall I marry one I havenever seen?... I love him not, and yet I am his wife' . Fairfax now knows thename of the woman he has married and, disguised as Leonard Meryll, resolves towoo her and thus test her fidelity. However, she resists him and just as he isabout to reveal his true identity, a shot from the Tower causes commotion .At this Wilfred and Point take centre stage to unfurl their tale . AsWilfred is hailed the hero of the moment, Jack reminds Elsie she may now chooseto marry whomsoever she wishes while she, Fairfax and Phoebe discourserespectively on the art of wooing . The supposed Leonard Meryll gives apractical demo