Opera in Two Acts by Basil Hood and Edward German
First produced at the Savoy Theatre, London under the management of William Greet on 2nd April, 1902, for a run of 120 performances.
Reopened at the Savoy Theatre on 24th November, 1902, following a provincial tour, for a further 56 performances.
After Sir Arthur Sullivan's timely death in 1900, it fell to Edward German to complete Sullivan's last opera, The Emerald Isle. The success of this opera led to an opportunity for German to compose an opera of his own with the same librettist, Basil Hood.
The length of the original run may seem short by Gilbert and Sullivan standards, but the opera quickly established itself as a British staple. In Queen Elizabeth II's coronation year, over five hundred amateur societies staged the piece. Its popularity has always been cyclical, with interest rising particularly at patriotic moments, such as during the Falklands War.
The plot is quite silly, as well as historically inaccurate. The opera's success rests primarily with German's engaging melodies evoking a past era.
The story of Merrie England is laid in the glorioius days of Queen Elizabeth, who, together with those famous personages of her reign, the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh, appear in the opera, the scene of which is laid in the heart of mediaeval England, by the Thames near Windsor.
Act I opens to the strains of the May-day revels. The Queen of the May and her supporters are chosen, and Raleigh, disguised as Robin Hood, appears upon the scene. His lady love, Bessie Throckmorton, Maid of Honour to the Queen, comes forward to meet him. The witch, Jill-all-alone, finds an acrostic which Raleigh has given to Bessie, and which she has lost. The Earl of Essex, to whom Jill brings the lost property, sees that it is addressed to "Bessie," and believes that Queen Bess is the object of Raleigh's attentions. He shows the acrostic to the Queen, who is not displeased, until she hears from Raleigh's lips that the verses were intended for Bessie Throckmorton, whom he loves. In anger, the Queen banishes Raleigh, orders Bessie into imprisonment, and has Jill-all-alone thrust within the castle walls to be burned for a witch.
In Act II, the Queen goes hunting in Windsor Forest, where the forest folk give a performance for her entertainment. Essex causes the apparition of Herne the Hunter to appear before the Queen, tradition having it that the ghost is only seen when the Sovereign mediates a wrong. The Queen relents, and all are pardoned. To the strain of Raleigh's and Bessie's wedding music, this delightful opera draws to a close.
Source: Opera at Home
The Gramophone Company, 1925
Recordings of Merrie England
Merrie England has probably been the most recorded and most popular of German's musical creations. It has fared particularly well on record and will probably be the most expansive part of this discography. (Please let me know of any recordings not listed.)
The most complete recording is the recent one by G&S of Victoria, which includes every song and the dialogue. For a quick fix or a favourite song, my recommendation would be the 1960 HMV recording, but for a full listening experience, any of these will probably do, since tastes will vary from one listener to the next.