Cellier, François: Captain Billy. Vocal Score
Edited by Christopher O’Brien
Captain Billy by François Cellier is a rare and fascinating example of a genre of Savoy opera initiated by Trial by Jury in 1875, yet all but forgotten today. Premiered in September 1891, it was written to precede as curtain-raiser the main, full-length work of the evening. To words by gifted librettist Harry Greenbank, author of The Geisha, it is the only one-act operetta by Cellier, a composer who was a key figure in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, that is known to have survived with complete orchestral music.
Early reviewers praised Captain Billy for its thoroughly Gilbertian plot. Becoming a pirate and abandoning his infant nephew in the ‘great desert of Sahara’ – in revenge on his twin brother for renouncing orthodoxy to join the Plymouth Brethren – the eponymous Billy aka William Jackson sows the seeds of misunderstanding and mistaken identity which are only resolved when, returning home at last to the village of Porthaven, he is forgiven his iniquities, and family ties are restored. Billy is reconciled with his wife, ‘widow’ Emma Jackson the parish pew-opener, Samuel Chunk his accomplice is contrite, and Billy’s foundling nephew, formerly ‘Christopher Jolly’ but now revealed as Cherubim Jackson, is betrothed to his cousin Polly the Board School teacher. Further salient elements of the action are best discovered through the excellent dialogue and salty humour of the piece itself. Suffice it to say that, boasting a strange facility in performance of the hornpipe, Emma leads a lively dance-scene that is among the musical highlights of this swashbuckling comic drama.
Published in full score in Musica Britannica Volume 99, and now available as a vocal score, this Savoy operetta, for a quintet of soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass, may be performed either with piano or with orchestra. Instrumental material is available from the Stainer & Bell hire library. Captain Billy is at last issued in an authoritative and practical edition that will be welcomed by all devotees of the wider legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan, and by operatic societies and other ensembles wishing to revive this sparkling Savoy companion piece.