Buxton G&S Festival: A Rare Outing for The Grand Duke Reveals its Strengths

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Gilbert and Sullivan, The Grand Duke, G&S Opera Company and Buxton Festival Orchestra / David Steadman (conductor), Buxton Opera House, 17-18.8.2012 (RJW)

Grand Duke Rudolph:  Richard Suart
Ernest:  James Elliott
Ludwig:  Stephen John Davis
Doctor Tannhauser:  Bruce Graham
Prince of Monte Carlo:  Donald Maxwell
Viscount Mentone: Richard Gauntlett
Costumier: Stephen Godward
Herald: John Savournin
Princess of Monte Carlo: Catrine Kirkman
Baroness von Krakenfeldt: Jill Pert
Julia:  Victoria Joyce
Lisa:  Victoria Byron

Musical Direction:  John Owen Edwards
Conductor:  David Steadman
Director:  Andrew Nicklin

The Grand Duke, Act I; photo credit: Charles Smith

Everyone who loves musical theatre and its history should be in Buxton just now.

The closing chapter of the Buxton G&S Festival can boast a rare opportunity to see the last opera from the pens of the Gilbert & Sullivan duo. The Grand Duke (1894), like Utopia before it (1893), were never deemed good enough comic operas to be toured by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in the 20th. Century. Yet, persuaded by Royston Nash and the ‘60s producer at Decca, they recorded these two operas for posterity. The Grand Duke recording is far from good, and marred by poor diction and problems in keeping singers and orchestra together. In it Kenneth Sandford struggles at times and the rather gritty timbre of John Ayldon doesn’t help. This exposure affected a fair appraisal of the work in the minds of the listener.

The 1975 recording and various amateur productions that resulted at the end of copyright have masked the gem that glittered on stage at Buxton Opera House at the 2012 Festival. Both this year’s Grand Duke and last year’s Utopia at Buxton [see review at- https://www.seenandheard-international.com/2011/08/22/buxton-gilbert-and-sullivan-festival-2011-5-a-brilliant-production-of-utopia-ltd/ ] show how wrong the D’Oyly Carte Company was to pay lip service to both these works.

Last night’s performance was the first professional production to hit the stage since the opening run in 1896 and it sparkled. Gilbert’s complex and wordy plot previously held responsible for the work’s original failure certainly worked in Andrew Nicklin’s production where believable characterisations now make good sense of the dialogue. There were no large-scale cuts noticable apart from a chorus reprise and the second verses of two numbers. Only Gilbert’s ‘sausage roll’ conspiracy plot used to aid a mean Duke’s downfall still seems too artificially contrived to make any real sense. His use of too many stage characters, all of which need dialogue to explain their purpose, hampers the progress of plot and this was noted by the first night critics.

A twist to the normal routine of 1896 is found in the first part of Act I. This is prologue played as a backstage scene at the close of playing Troilus & Cressida, where a wedding breakfast is being held for two of the company’s thespians. A subtle and fast change of scenery puts us in the Market Place of Act I in time for the Grand Duke’s arrival. (Paul Lazell’s scene brought applause from the audience.) It is a device devised by director Andrew Nickin that works nicely, and helps cement the audience’s focus. Good concentration on the difficult plot was helped by the charisma and stage presence of Ludwig, superbly played by Stephen John Davis, around whom the plot hinges. He acted and sang with conviction.

There were many strengths to this quality cast, each adding their own colour to the Gilbertian characters and singing with strength. Excellent acting was provided by Victoria Joyce in Julia’s eccentric theatrical mood swings using an authentic German accent: it is just a pity that her voice did not always carry sufficiently. Richard Suart was on form as the irritable, penny-pinching Duke. His interaction with the team of chamberlains was nicely achieved and his childish writhings were hilarious. Bruce Graham’s informative Notary clearly delivered the Statutory Duel law in ‘About a century since’, and nicely led the show’s favourite quintet ‘Now take a card’. The Act I finale duet between Lisa and Julia was sensitively sung. James Elliot’s authoritative Ernest, a theatrical manager, was dynamic and he enunciated well in his singing.

Act II opens in the Palace with the thespians dressed in Grecian robes for the wedding of Ludwig and Julia. I felt the stage would have looked fuller for the women to come on at the same time as the men. Julia’s Grecian gown was particularly elegant and later the costumes of the Prince of Monte Carlo, his daughter and Herald were theatrically striking and brought  colour to the stage. The flamboyant and fussy costumier was amusingly played by Stephen Godward: his outrageous wig was a hoot. Credit must be given to Tony Brett’s team for the superb costumes of this new production, and all for just two performances. I liked the animated chorus which interacted convincingly throughout. They surprised us with their energetic welcome of the Prince of Monte Carlo in a chaotic vivacious dance.

A larger-than-life camp Herald (nicely portrayed and sung by John Savournin) kept everyone neatly in order for the effective arrival of the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo who, with echoes of the Duke of Plaza Toro, have risen in unaccustomed pocket-money due to the Prince’s invention of Roulette where the bank always wins!  A vibrant and strong performance by Donald Maxwell with his Roulette song (originally cut from the original run after the first night) gave a new lift of interest to the opera at this point in Act II. A determined Duchess (Jill Pert) filled the stage with her delightful and over-large character to cheer the proceedings with her rollicking ‘Come bumpers’.

As might be expected the Festival orchestra under David Steadman gave a splendid reading of the score with a well-paced overture and provided some  delightful moments in their accompaniment to the singers. With the autograph score now in the public domain, John Owen Edwards had been able to painstakingly check and adjust the existing band parts for accurate use in this Buxton presentation. If this performance were matched alongside the D’Oyly Carte recording I know which would be the clear winner.

Raymond J Walker