The Witch's Curse
Words: W.S. Gilbert
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Written in: Authored Date:

"Paragraphs got into all the papers..."

January 1887. London society was busily preparing for the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of her great and glorious majesty Queen Victoria... the new Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, had just been sworn in ... Doctor William Grace was taking a well-earned winter break from his crusade to turn cricket into a popular and entertaining sport with the English public ... Signer Verdi and Mr. Tchaikowsky were putting the finishing touches to Otello and Swan Lake respectively ... at home the more discerning musical cognoscenti were praising in fulsome tones Mr. Sullivan's epic oratorio. The Golden Legend, while the less sophisticated strata of society were whistling the tunes from that infernal nonsense The Mikado.

Against this background Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan were working on the tenth of their collaborations, Ruddygore or The Witch's Curse. Gilbert saw an easy target for satire in the contemporary taste for bloodthirsty melodrama. Sir Despard's entrance and soliloquy (Poor children, how they loath me!) typifies the tone of many of the plays that were packing the West End playhouses of the time. To the character of Sir Despard add a chorus of ghosts, portraits which come to life, a maiden driven to insanity by unrequited love, a bragging, hearty Jolly Jack Tar and a wicked baronet in disguise and you have the recipe for a satire which has all the wit and subtlety of Gilbert at his best.

However, on the first night the audience was quick to react against the piece, and in particular the Ghosts' Chorus. They were taken aback by the solemnity of Sullivan's music - indeed Gilbert himself had expressed surprise that the setting was not more frivolous. In fact, although both Gilbert's and Sullivan's diaries record satisfaction with the performance, there was some ill-mannered jeering from the auditorium. As for the title, Ruddygore, it caused so much offence that Gilbert was obliged to change it to Ruddigore - a spelling with less gruesome overtones. Despite this The Graphic magazine was still prompted to comment:

"The sterner and less mealy-mouthed sex, safe in the club smoking room, might pass such a name with a smile. But it is different in the case of the ladies, to whom the Savoy Operas largely appeal, and on whose lips such a title would scarcely sound pretty".

History has judged Ruddigore very differently. The score, written at the height of his considerable powers, shows Sullivan at his most versatile and contains some of his most irreverent imitations of fellow composers: the omnipresent chorus of bridesmaids is reminiscent of Weber's Der Freischutz, Mad Margaret's entrance has strong hints of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and the second act patter song out-Rossini's Rossini. The ghost scene in Act Two now ranks as one of the most dramatic and effective in the whole of the Savoy Operas. How appropriate, then, that the idea for a gallery of portraits which comes to life dates from a play which Gilbert wrote 18 years earlier called Ages Ago. For it was at a rehearsal for Ages Ago that Gilbert was first introduced by his impressario friend, D'Oyly Carte, to an earnest young composer called Arthur Sullivan.

M.W.M. Andrews. Neither this article nor the synopsis may be reproduced without permission.

Ruddigore, June 2008, Nuffield Theatre
Ruddigore, July 1992, Nuffield Theatre
Ruddigore, July 1992, Nuffield Theatre
Ruddigore, July 1981, The Nuffield Theatre
Ruddigore, March 1973, The Guildhall
Ruddigore, March 1961, The Guildhall
Ruddigore, March 1953, The Guildhall
Ruddigore, April 1936, The Avenue Hall

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