Is anything sadder than a satire that has outlived its usefulness, its bite blunted, its venom turned syrupy? That, for many people, is the problem with the operettas of W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. In mythological travesties such as La Belle Héène, Offenbach exposed the licentiousness of France's Second Empire, and Strauss in Die Fledermaus laid bare the easy-going cynicism of imperial Vienna. One society frenetically can-cans to its doom, the other waltzes around in self-forgetful circles. But, as the musicologist Wilfrid Mellers once complained, "no abyss" gapes beneath the Victorian society whose foibles are teased by G & S. The Penzance pirates may appear to be free-thinking outlaws; in fact they are errant noblemen, pardonable - as they assert - because they love their Queen.
Put off by the tired, smug productions that the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company were in the habit of shunting around the provinces, I used to agree with the dismissal of G & S as apologists for Victorian complacency. That surely accounts for their popularity in backwoods America, which has never outgrown the pious materialism of the 19th century: one amateur G & S troupe, based in Media, Pennsylvania, boasts of its affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist Church. Yet it was in New York during the 1980s that I changed my mind, after seeing The Pirates of Penzance with Kevin Kline as a rampant buccaneer and Linda Ronstadt as the ditsy Mabel. Even the anaemic music sounded good when performed by a rock singer like Rex Smith, who concluded Frederic's aria about duty with a groaning cadenza full of feral mating noises worthy of Elvis. So far, I've seen nothing to equal this production, with the possible exception of Jon athan Miller's Mik ado for English National Opera, which rejoiced in the murder ous anarchic madness of the piece. But I live in hope, and cross my fingers that ENO's The Gondoliers, which opens this weekend, will be an improvement on the company's recent Pirates, unwisely imported from Chicago.
Whenever I'm disappointed, I blame Sullivan's music and exonerate Gilbert's words. They were an ill-matched pair, as Mike Leigh made clear in Topsy-Turvy, his film about their fraying relationship. Gilbert's grumpy rancour chafed against Sullivan's sleek self-aggrandisement; one man's sharp, pointed words were muffled by the other's indomitably cheery music. Left to his own devices, Sullivan composed a soundtrack for the pomp and circumstance of Victorian society: a jubilee hymn that was sung in every English church in 1897, a setting of "Onward Christian Soldiers", a "Te Deum" that marked the end of the Boer war. Queen Victoria herself, when knighting Sullivan, urged him to concentrate on grand opera, and he dedicated his lame, officious setting of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe to her. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, Sullivan had been trained by his Mendelssohnian teachers to make Europe yawn; instead, lucratively led astray by Gilbert, he made London and New York laugh and whistle. But he thought operettas were beneath him, and could not forgive his own betrayal of his lofty calling.
Gilbert, celebrating G & S as a global brand in 1897, told Sullivan that they were "as much an institution as Westminster Abbey". Yet they specialised in ridiculing Victorian institutions and their spurious, invented traditions. Trial by Jury assails the venality and partiality of the law, and The Pirates of Penzance jeers at the police as bumbling oafs. HMS Pinafore acknowledges that Britain's imperial spoils were obtained by the threat of force with Little Buttercup hailing the sailors as "men-o'-war's men, safeguards of your nation". Iolanthe mocks the bewigged parades of the House of Lords with braying trumpets, and allows a grumbling sentry to suggest that when MPs vote in the House of Commons they leave their brains at the door. The Gondoliers even obliquely glances at the hypocritical duplicity of religion, revealing that the mother of the Grand Inquisitor "is at present the wife of a highly respectable and old-established brigand, who carries on an extensive practice in the mountains around Cordova". Respectability depends on antiquity, or the pretence of it; behind this cover, brigandage can continue with impunity. The skint Duke of Plaza-Toro registers himself under the Limited Liability Act, and for a price confers respectability on pushful commoners. He magics obsequious MPs into baronets, gazettes phoney colonels, and knights second-rate aldermen: aren't these the self-same sleazy practices that still prevail at Westminster?
The Gondoliers risks upsetting the social hierarchy by making its twin Venetian heroes espouse equality and republicanism. They abhor oppression, and therefore abominate kingship; installed as monarchs on the island of Barataria - a borrowing from Don Quixote, where it is the private domain ruled by Sancho Panza - they atone for their elevation by polishing the crown and sceptre themselves, and exercise power with wicked whimsicality. After lunch, flushed with sherry, they make proclamations, receive deputations, or "possibly create a Peer or two" and "help a fellow-creature on his path/With the Garter or the Thistle or the Bath". Their girlfriends wonder at their "royalising" - a dangerous word, coined by Shakespeare in his history plays and revived by Gilbert, who uses it to suggest that monarchs are self-indulgent actors, exploiting privileges they have done nothing to earn. The Inquisitor is appalled, and - as did the Prince of Wales when he recently decried the cult of celebrity, which challenges the inherited inequity of his position - employs one of Gilbert's wrenched rhymes to complain: "When everybody is somebodee,/Then no one's anybody!" Becks for president, say I, instead of Chuck for king, and I don't doubt that Gilbert would have agreed.
Immune or unperceptive, in 1891 Queen Victoria gathered her court together for a command performance of The Gondoliers at Windsor Castle. She declared the music "quite charming", but scrutinised the words a little more suspiciously. Noticing some interpolations that were not in the text, she summoned the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte to explain. The improvised sallies, he said, were called gags. Victoria replied that she thought gags were "things put by authority into people's mouths". Perhaps she understood more than her adamantine expression gave away.
Gilbert's "topsy-turvyitude", as Shaw called it, turns the world upside down. His nonsensical patter detaches language from reason and reveals the foolish vacuity of words. A madwoman in Ruddigore is cured by a magic spell: her delirium is calmed whenever someone says "Basing stoke", which turns the town, aptly enough, into a sedative. Gilbert's elasticised rhymes splice together opposed ideas, performing acts of equalisation that duplicate the democracy of Barataria. The judge in Trial by Jury aligns three words - nob, mob and job - that account for his power, while the defendant in the case disposes of religious prohibitions by rhyming "sinner" with "dinner" and "belief" with "beef". Sexual imbroglios are disposed of mathematically. Two husbands acquire three wives in The Gondoliers, which prompts Tessa to remark "One can't marry a vulgar fraction!" The Duke of Plaza-Toro suggests separating the dual monarchs to produce "an individual who becomes a single man and a married man by the same operation". The Duchess, as astute as Wilde's Lady Bracknell, comments that she has "known instances in which the characteristics of both conditions existed concurrently in the same individual". So much for the double life that was the devious invention of Victorian morality.
When such verbal barbs fail, Gilbert mobilises other weapons. The Yeomen of the Guard takes place beneath the scaffold at the Tower of London; the Executioner in The Mikado trots out his little list of choice victims (updated in every production to include contemporary ogres who wouldn't be missed). And if Gilbert's butts escape the axe, a spitting, spluttering oath can dispose of them. The Lord High Everything Else in The Mikado is called Pooh-Bah: the name turns a man into a hyphenated expletive, who like his creator blows a raspberry at an absurd, iniquitous world.
"The Gondoliers" opens at the English National Opera, London WC2 on 18 November. For details, see www.eno.org