Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Gondoliers

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About the Opera

The Gondoliers

The period between The Yeomen of the Guard and its eventual successor, The Gondoliers, was an extremely trying one for the triumvirate. The Queen’s perhaps offhand remark about grand opera was taken to heart by Sullivan and Carte. Gilbert wisely declined their invitation to join in such a venture, but Carte was convinced that English opera would appeal to English audiences. He therefore planned and started building a large opera house and urged Sullivan to write a serious opera that would assure the venture’s success. While this was going on, Gilbert started work on a new comic opera. Sullivan was in Venice, and he, Gilbert, and Carte were burdening the mails with a series of increasingly troublesome letters. Sullivan clearly felt himself imposed upon and complained to Carte that “excepting during the vocal rehearsals and the two orchestral rehearsals I am a cipher in the theatre.” Carte was brave (or foolish) enough to show the letter to Gilbert, who thereupon stopped work on the new libretto and wrote a blistering yet flattering letter to Sullivan, which perhaps helped clear the air. Eventually Carte brought the two back together and Sullivan found himself composing serious opera and comic opera simultaneously. The new comic opera was The Gondoliers; it opened at the Savoy on December 7, 1889, and ran for 554 performances.

The Gondoliers reflects the reconciliation between the two artists. Sensitive to Sullivan’s desire for more emphasis on music, Gilbert provided a cornucopia of opportunities for musical invention, and Sullivan responded with some of the most joyous melodies in all of musical theater. Further reflection on their relationship is seen in the two kings who reign jointly “as one individual.” The Gondoliers will surely long remain a solid favorite with music lovers everywhere.


Barataria [The King of Barataria]

This is an imaginary island kingdom and the locale of the second act. The name is also well known as Sancho Panza’s island in Don Quixote, as well as from the real Barataria Bay in Louisiana, which was the mini-kingdom of the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte in the early 1800s. There is also a town of that name in Trinidad. The word comes from Spanish: barato: cheap.

Plaza-Toro [The Duke of Plaza-Toro]

Spanish for “Place of the Bulls,” i.e., the bullring.

Grandee [a Grandee of Spain]

A nobleman of the highest rank, one of whose distinguishing characteristics was the privilege of wearing head gear in the presence of royalty (48).

Grand Inquisitor

“The presiding officer of a court of inquisition” (250). The famous Spanish Inquisition was formed by Ferdinand and Isabella at the request of the Pope. Although dedicated to strengthening the Catholic faith, it was under the control of the state rather than of the Pope, whose influence was limited to naming the presiding officer (called the “Grand Inquisitor” in some countries, the “Inquisitor General” in others). The tribunal had a permanent staff of state employees with its head office at the capital; its influence was felt and dreaded until well into the nineteenth century (54, 77, 105, 229, 250).

Here the Grand Inquisitor takes one name, “Alhambra,” from the Moorish palace at Granada; and the other, “Bolero,” from a Spanish dance in triple time. He may well be modeled after Tomás de Torqemada (1420-1498), the Spanish Inquisition’s infamous first Grand Inquisitor (34). The fact that he was selected by the Pope may explain why Don Alhambra was residing in Venice rather than somewhere in Spain. More to the point, however, is the fact that when Gilbert set out to write the words Sullivan was vacationing in Venice and both realized that there was a perfect setting for a comic opera (27).


Country girls or peasant girls.

Foster-mother [the King’s Foster-mother]

A woman who raises one or more children not her own.

Piazzetta [The Piazzetta, Venice]

The small open square next to the Doge’s Palace in Venice. As originally conceived by Gilbert, the Doge’s Palace should be on stage right with the lagoon and island of San Gorgio Maggiore in the background. The Piazetta features two famous pillars, one surmounted by a winged lion, the heraldic emblem of the Venetian Republic; the other by a statue of Theodore, the city’s patron saint (48).

Act I

The Ducal Palace
Sketch of The Ducal Palace

Ancient residence and office of the Doge, the chief magistrate of the Venetian republic.

Posies [we bind you into posies]

A posy is defined as a flower, bouquet, or nosegay (a bunch of sweet-smelling flowers).

Bloom [Ere your morning bloom has fled]

State of perfection and greatest beauty.

Peerless [Two so peerless in their beauty]


Pink [the pink and flower]
Sketch of The pink and flower of all the gondolieri


Tacitly [we tacitly ignore you]

By implication, but not in so many words. (Here’s a how-de-do! How can you tacitly ignore the men if you tell them that’s what you’re doing?)

[Note on Italian pronunciation]

[Note: With expert guidance I have tried to show how to pronounce the Italian words that follow. If you are involved in a production you may want to get further help from someone proficient in the language.]

Dolce far niente [enjoy your dolce far niente]

Pronunciation: DOLE-cheh far nee-ENN-teh

Italian for “sweet idleness.”

Contradicente [nobody contradicente!]

Pronunciation: CONE-trah-dee-CHEN-teh

Italian for “contradicting.”

Jealousy yellow

Green is more often associated with jealousy, but yellow is sometimes called upon to serve the same purpose (54). Phoebe, in The Yeomen of the Guard mentions “yellow, bilious jaundiced jealousy.” Moreover, since the gondoliers go on to say they will drown “Jealousy yellow” in the shimmering blue, might not the combination of yellow and blue produce green? (Rhetorical question.)

Ben venuti!

Pronunciation: ben veh-NOOT-ee!


Buon’ giorno, signorine!

Pronunciation: bwon DJORNO, SEEN-yore-een-eh!

Good morning, ladies!

Gondolieri, carissimi!

Pronunciation: gohn-dole-YEH-ree, cah-REES-ee-mee!

Dearest gondoliers!

Siamo contadine!

Pronunciation: see-AH-moe cohn-tah-DEEN-eh!

We are only peasant girls!

Servitori umilissimi!

Pronunciation: sair-vee-TORE-ee oom-ee-LEES-ee-me!

We are your most humble servants!

Per chi questi fiori –– Questi fiori bellissimi?

Pronunciation: pair KEE qwes-tee fee-OH-ree bell-EES-ee-me?

For whom are these really lovely flowers?

Per voi, bei signori, O eccellentissimi!

Pronunciation: pair voy, bay seen-YORE-ee, oh etch-ell-enn-TEE-see-me!

For you, O gracious and charming gentlemen!

O ciel’!

Pronunciation: oh TSCHEL!

Oh Heaven!

Buon’ giorno, cavalieri!

Pronunciation: cah-vahl-YEHR-ee!

Good morning, gentlemen!

Siamo gondolieri

We are only gondoliers.

Signorina, io t’ amo!

Pronunciation: seen-yore-EEN-ah, EE-oh TOM-oh!

Young lady, I love you!

Contadine siamo

We are only peasant girls.