Buxton Gilbert and Sullivan Festival 2011 (4) – Handbells and Hippies turn The Sorcerer on its head

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sullivan, The Sorcerer: Opera della Luna Opera Company, Opera House, Buxton. 16.8.2011 (RJW)

Ian Belsey … Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre
Oliver White … Alexis
Philip Cox … Dr Daly
David Feedman … Notary
Richard Gauntlett … John Wellington Wells
Sylvia Clarke … Lady Sangazure
Abigail Iveson … Aline
Graham Hoardly … Mrs Partlett
Rhoda McKaill Constance

Directed by Jeff Clarke

How original can a production get? This, the latest Opera del Luna creation by Jeff Clarke first saw light of day two years ago. It not only takes the topsy turvydom of W S Gilbert but also completely turns it on its head. A chorus is dispensed with yet the activity takes on a new dimension where hand bells are used for ‘Ring forth ye Bells’ and the Act 2 opening has only the Notary and Constance asleep on stage. Jibes and witticisms like ‘Control your clapper’ in relation to her hand bell/tongue have been appropriately added.

Surprisingly, the most amusement came from an Irish Mrs Brown look-alike (recent tv series) who provided much amusement in her mannerisms and Gilbert’s normally dry dialogue with Constance, and later interaction with the vicar. Dr Daly, reminiscent of a Mr Bean in looks, was played with more strength than the normally dreamy, nostalgic version by Kenneth Sandford. Lady Sangazure surprised us with a return of her lost aria ‘In days gone by’, set to ‘Queen of the Garden’ (from Haddon Hall) and part of ‘The Lost Chord’ sewn neatly into the Act 1 finale. The loss of a chorus number did not affect the plot or flow. From ‘Thou hast the power’ to the Act 2 finale Aline and Alexis’s lines were effectively switched to have Alexis take the potion and fall in love with the wrong character with hilarious consequences.

The excellent cast gave a freshness to their parts with a groovy, hippy loving Alexis and Aline, a rich-contralto Barbara Cartland style Lady Sangazure, a drippy Constance, all of whom were upstaged by a drag role in Mrs Partlett, a cross between a pantomime dame and a tv’s Mrs Brown: she stole the show. John Wellington Wells was appropriately energetic with good stage business, yet a fast delivery of lines coupled with a harsh accent caused some to be missed.

The backing group, led by Jeff Clarke at the piano, were good and the reduced orchestration was effective at keeping the singers in time. However, a ponderous pace to the opening of Act 2,”Tis twelve I think’ did not work and was my only disappointment in the music.

The staging, inside a large marquee tent, with garden furniture was appealingly different, the roof of which allowed projection of psychedelic astral shapes and animated images of bats to accompany the Incantation scene. A nice twist was a new Act 2 ending where, after JWW’s departure, the vicar discovers there is still some (cold) tea in the pot and administers it to the company.

The inventiveness of staging, characters and additions to the libretto put this production on the same astral plane as Jeff Clarke’s much applauded Parson’s Pirates and Ghosts of Ruddigore.

Raymond J Walker