United Kingdom Burnand & Sullivan, The Contrabandista, The Glitter & Twisted Theatre Company / Suzanne Barnes (conductor), Buxton G&S Festival, The Pavilion Theatre, Buxton. 5.8.2012 (RJW)
Sancho, the Lion: Malcolm Webb
José, the Wolf: Samuel Taunton
Inez (Queen of the tribe): Rebecca Fearnley
Rita: Lesley Hendrie
Count Vasquez: Ralph Barnes
Adophus Grigg: Alan Feeney
Spanish Army Sergeant: Richard Schofield
BBC Announcer: Simon Moss
Choreography: Sarah Lowe
Musical Directior: Suzanne Barnes
Director: Simon Moss
It was nice to have this rarity by Burnand & Sullivan in this year’s Festival programme. It must be 15 years since The Contrabandista was last performed at the Buxton Festival.
Much of the success of this production lies in the enthusiastic and inventive direction by Simon Moss. Care has been taken to wed the Victorian story to a modern framework by moving it forward 150 years to the late 20th century where Spanish brigands have become plantation worker guerillas, with one of the band leaders taking on the guise of a suicide bomber when the chief plots to kill him. The action takes place in a Spanish orange grove where the band are industriously engaged crating the sun-soaked fruits.
A touch of originality is shown where a prologue announces that, “the BBC orchestra will now play ‘The Bolero’ from The Contrabandista”. This is used as an Overture since Sullivan only wrote 16 bars play-in at the start of Act I. The opening works well where the ‘Hush, hush’ makes a lot of sense with Sancho and José asking for quietness from the noisy plantation workers so they can hear sounds in the ground of an approaching foe. Throughout, the committed chorus sang well with clear part separation and good movement routines. They were excellently trained by musical director, Suzanne Barnes, and were effective with a good range of dynamics.
The central attention of the libretto is an Scotsman, Grigg who is nicely portrayed as a bumbling idiot caught up in the brigands’ band. He enunciated well and sang with considerable clarity. The Queen impressed with a formidable and commanding presence, and who was excellent in voice. Despite the good singing I felt that the Count’s usually tranquil ‘Wake, gentle maiden’ was too forte and heavy to match its dolce lyrics and accompaniment, yet elsewhere he came across convincingly. Rita carried her English lady correctness convincingly and enchanted with sweetness in “He will return”.
The principals were all to a high standard, and I liked Jose’s clear diction and interaction with Inez. There were times when the theatre acoustics caused the orchestra to blanket some of the singing and asides were too quiet to carry to those distant seats. Extra lines were added to lift sections of Burnand’s turgid libretto, like “it’s so like a band” (Gondoliers). The band’s emblem is traditionally a tall dunce’s hat, but in its place a miniature top hat is used in this production. I liked the visual graphics such as the misspelt LION to read LOIN and a hat box, labelled ‘Coro Nation Hat’ that added to Burnand’s sparse humour. Dressing Grigg up in the deceased captain’s outsized clothes was brilliant as he literally steps into the Captain’s shoes.
Much use was made of different sized packing crates (for the oranges) that could be rearranged to make a coronation seat, a bed, and objects to hide behind. Having a decoy duck and pigeon stuck on top of Joe & Sancho’s field hats was a nice touch, but I felt Grigg needed to be placed at a much bigger distance to have the hiding believable. A freezing and slow-motion, dreamlike sequence for the chorus was effective and nicely presented. A radiant orange provided a focal point for the Spanish theme and acted both as the sun.
This Gloucestershire production was enjoyable for its originality. Simon Moss has been fundamental in its worthwhile creation.
Raymond J Walker