United Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, The Grand Duke: Manchester University Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Royal Northern College of Music Theatre, Manchester, 28.2.2013. (RJW)
Grand Duke Rudolph: Ben Freeburn
Ernest Dummkopf: Alex Grainger
Ludwig: Jono Miles
Julia Jellicoe: Meinir Roberts
Lisa: Elizabeth Barry
Baroness: Krisztina Rakoczy
Prince of Monte Carlo: Michael Clarke
Princess of Monte Carlo: Laura Sharley
Costumier: Dan Magnone
Herald: Andrew Green
Choreographer: Vicki Newton
Musical Director: James Hendry
Director: Joel Fisher
The choice of The Grand Duke for this production is a brave one since it is the last and most complex of the 14 G&S operas to communicate its plot to the audience. Last year, the Buxton G&S Festival unusually provided a two performance professional production of this opera for the first time since 1896 which was well received. [https://www.seenandheard-international.com/2012/08/21/buxton-gs-festival-a-rare-outing-for-the-grand-duke-reveals-its-strengths/]
In this production the initiative has been sensibly taken to make some judicial pruning of dialogue and song verses to help improve the pace and eliminate an unhelpful sub-plot. A brief prologue is used to convey the synopsis, and this is added to within the acts with mimed actions to help convey better understanding of the lyrics.
This long-standing university society has gone from strength to strength. To find an amateur production with good professional qualities in abundance is remarkable and a credit to the director and his team. The orchestra with its high calibre of musicians under James Hendry’s energetic leadership was superb. It is rare for student productions to gain this degree of professionalism when academic commitments are demanding of time.
Notable highlights were the jolly cards ensemble, “Now take a card” with Vicki Newton’s exacting choreography and a vivacious pace set by James Hendry; Julia’s Act II thespian capers in “So ends my dreams” aria so sensitively sung; Ernest’s excellent singing and diction in “Were I a King” together with the impeccably sung duet that follows; and the chorus who were magnificent in their difficult 4-part long Act I finale. The chorus opening ‘Eloia’ number of Act II was tonally superb.
Clearly, everyone was well-rehearsed and the principals worked hard to engage themselves in Gilbert’s topsy-turvy roles. This justified the well-deserved audience attention. As director Joel Fisher mentions in his programme notes, he ‘armed the cast with the tools to help them understand their own individual characters rather than give exact actions’. (This decision follows Mike Leigh’s open approach to film direction rather than Hitchcock’s who treated his actors like cattle! The old D’Oyly Carte stage direction by Eleanor Evans in the 1950s was narrow and rigid and it is good to get away from it.) Joel’s plan works well and the relaxation it provided on stage was infectious.
A word should be said about Thomas Robertson’s well-balanced lighting and the good composite set by Rob Chilton and Philip Jensen. An 18th century marketplace bordered with practical cottage doors for Act I transforms into a Ducal Palace with stout masonry walls for Act II. A large central clock tower is retained for both Acts and provides added impact to a plot that is so dependent upon Time: a back-lit clockface shows revolving cogs as the hands whizz round, and a balcony allows figures to engage in activity or mime. I liked the balcony use for the Herald, complete with post horn (perfectly in key with the orchestra) to announce the arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo. Throughout, a theme of card suits is cleverly interwoven into the set design with diamond-shaped leaded windows, spade-shaped door hinges and heart-shaped keyholes to add an extra dimension of visual appeal. Well done, all!
The group won an accolade for its production of HMS Pinafore at the 2012 Buxton International G&S Festival [https://www.seenandheard-international.com/2012/02/26/hms-pinaforeking-becomes-queen-in-new-production-set-100-years-earlier/] We wish them well for their appearance at the Buxton Festival again this coming summer.
Raymond J Walker