Having been involved with the UM Gilbert and Sullivan Society for seven shows now, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see their shows and compare them to each other. Princess Ida, in my opinion, was one of the better ones they’ve done in the time I’ve worked with them.
The plot is as follows. Princess Ida has renounced men and is running a school for women. Her husband, Prince Hilarion, to whom she was married twenty years ago when they were both infants, comes looking for her with his two trusted friends, Florian and Cyril. To get into contact with her, they sneak into the castle dressed as female students.
Ida‘s libretto is in itself quite humorous (as it should be): the humor is on the subtle side, mostly deriving comic effect from wordplay, tongue-in-cheek comments, or absurd statements. For example, the lyrics of one song go, “Like most sons are we, Masculine in sex.” I, for one, was taken by surprise when first they delivered this line, expecting something less obvious. Or, while preparing for a battle, Princess Ida surveys her troops: “My fusiliers, advance! Why, you are armed with axes! Gilded toys! Where are your rifles, pray?” Chloe, the head of the fusiliers, replies: “Why, please you, ma’am, we left them in the armoury, for fear that in the heat and turmoil of the fight, they might go off!” With every show I watch, my respect for Gilbert’s writing abilities increases. If I could be as humorous a writer, I would be so happy.
Then, on the other hand, there are the moments of genuine emotion that Gilbert and Sullivan manage to integrate into even the absurdity of their shows. For me this moment came when the students were preparing for battle and came onstage in their military uniforms, wielding weapons. That song, “Death to the invader,” is musically the most reminiscent to a tragic opera. It is chromatic and full of desperation. The girls don’t want to fight, but they are there for Princess Ida, and that knowledge added to the music makes it clear they are on a doomed last stand.
I think that emotion is part of what has made Gilbert and Sullivan’s work so enduring. Their operettas may be comic and quite ludicrous, full of legal technicalities that magically save the day, but their characters, for the most part, are genuine and believable. (And if you are worrying after reading the part about the doomed last stand, don’t, because there is no bloodshed in Princess Ida. Everyone lives safely and happily ever after.)