Buxton Gilbert and Sullivan Festival 2011 (5) – A brilliant production of Utopia Ltd

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sullivan,  Utopia Ltd: Soloists and chorus of the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, Opera House, Buxton. 19.8.2011 (RJW)

Donald Maxwell … King Paramount
Simon Butteriss … Scaphio
Ian Belsey … Phantis
Richard Gauntlett … Tarara
Michael Tipler … Calynx
Oliver White … Captain Fitzbattleaxe
Barry Clark … Lord Dramaleigh
Bruce Graham … Mr Goldbury
Stephen Godward Captain Corcoran
Martin Milnes … Sir Bailey Barre
Simon Theobald … Mr Blushington
Beverley Warboys Princess Zara
Rebecca Moon … Princess Nekaya
Catrina Kirkman … Princess Kalyba
Jill Pert Lady Sophy
Theda Lehmann … Salata
Angela Simkin … Melene
Alexandra Saunders … Phylla

Musical Direction by John Owen Edwards
Directed by Andrew Nicklin

A professional production of Utopia Ltd has been eagerly awaited by the Festival patrons for a number of years, so once advertised the three performances have been a sell-out. On the strength of the success of tonight’s performance it is hoped that this, the 13th of Gibert & Sullivan operas, will be re-staged next year.

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company did not revive the opera after its early 1900s tours until a special 1975 production was staged (in association with a Decca recording). Only occasional amateur performances have been seen until recent years. This first professional production for 34 years consequently carries an air of importance.

Andrew Nicklin’s production is brilliant and pays excellent attention to subtleties in the script as well as staging detail. The characters take on an extra dimension of believability and the libretto is amusingly delivered. Some of Gilbert’s heavy-weight dialogue has been put into meaningful context and tidied up. We lose the Tarantella (not without fair reason) and have the bonus of a new, well-written overture of the traditional kind, arranged especially for this occasion by John Owen Edwards. A good set brought applause when the curtain went up for Act 2; and colourful costumes, echoing a South Seas/Hawaiian island style for the women and Tibetan monk orange for the men completed the picture.

Central to the action is King Paramount (Donald Maxwell) whose character was superb. Commanding with an air of importance and a continuously smiling face he first entered riding astride an authentic-looking (electric) turtle. The two meddlesome Wise Men (Simon Butteriss and Ian Belsey), who hold the King in check, complemented each other ideally in their looks, singing and activity. Their shark’s teeth and shell necklaces were a nice touch as were the garlands that were put on the towering lifeguards with hilarious consequences. A public exploder with a Hitler-like appearance was wired as a typical suicide bomber and was effective in using explosive caps.

Lady Sophy (Jill Pert) in Safari attire amused us with her Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple mannerisms and dictatorial stance. Trotting out the two young princesses as circus performers to provide graceful poses at the command of her ever-waving stick provided an extra dimension, as did the stage routines with the King, politely following his sitting and lying positions as a mark of respect, however uncomfortable. In fact there was much original stage business introduced for this production. We hear a plane fly in before the appearance of Captain Battleaxe and a logo board with UTOPIAIR appears from a wing. Zara, now a graduate from Girton, was sincere in her portrayal but it was a pity that her delivery wasn’t always strong enough to reach the gallery as words were missed. Captain Battleaxe commanded a well turned out row of lifeguards (were horses in that plane?) who sang well.

The orchestra played exceptionally well and I for one was pleased that the pace the music was taken, particularly the more zippy tempo of ‘In ev’ry mental lore’ [Allegro moderato] recognized by Isidore Godfrey yet lost by Royston Nash in his recording. The chorus were strong and well rehearsed.

This was a Buxton occasion not to be missed and it will surely be playing again at a future festival. Some patrons were asking if The Grand Duke will be similarly revived as a professional production, but there would be so much work needed to revamp the libretto that I would sooner suggest a stage production of The Martyr of Antioch on Ice to be considered first!

Raymond J Walker