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Classical Notes

Gilbert, Sullivan, and . . . Wagner?

Posted at 8:29 AM on August 16, 2006 by Rex Levang

Tonight on the Opera, we'll be playing some Gilbert and Sullivan (and also some Gilbert-less Sullivan).

A lot of people know that these operettas make merciless fun of grand opera. The baby-switching plot in "H. M. S. Pinafore" goes back to Verdi's "Il Trovatore." The bumbling pirates of Penzance are a parody of all those corsairs and brigands who populate the operatic world. And so on.

But there's a similar moment in tonight's "Trial by Jury" that I've never seen discussed. When the soprano is summoned into the courtroom, Sullivan uses a brief musical phrase (if you're keeping track, the words are "Oh Angelina, come thou into court"). The phrase is tantalizingly close to the phrase Richard Wagner uses for a similar situation in "Lohengrin" -- except that his soprano is charged with witchcraft, is rescued by Lohengrin who sails in with his swan, etc., etc.

So did Sullivan have a little fun lifting from Wagner? The music (both Sullivan's and Wagner's) is a little formulaic, so it could just be a coincidence.

But maybe -- just maybe. . . .