United Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, The Gondoliers: National Gilbert & Sullivan Company, Opera House, Buxton, 5.8.15
Duke of Plaza-Toro: Richard Gauntlett
Luiz: Nick Sales
Don Alhambra Del Bolero: Bruce Graham
Marco Palmieri: Robin Bailey
Giuseppe Palmieri: Kevin Greenlaw
Antonio: Matthew Kellett
Giorgio: Jonathan Stirland
Duchess of Plaza-Toro: Sylvia Clarke
Gianetta: Claire Lees
Tessa: Una McMahon
Inez: Amy Payne
Director: John Savournin
Conductor: David Steadman
Choreographer: Phillip Aiden
The renamed National Gilbert & Sullivan Company has been touring the UK widely this summer and I managed to pick up this performance in Buxton before they head for Harrogate again and its International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival. There they will continue to play for the three-week duration of the Festival, which ends on August 17th. We are lucky to find such a group which is continually reinventing itself with fresh concepts and changes over a two-year cycle. I remember John Savournin’s The Pirates of Penzance production with this group in 2013 when it followed the Scottish Opera/D’Oyly Carte production. Then, the Savournin PIrates stood out as being superior in its fast pace and bustling presentation when compared with its rival. I was therefore interested to see how their treatment of this 1889 Savoy opera compared.
This was a slick production, full of energy and joy. From Sullivan’s charming and colourful opening scene we knew that the performance was in good hands: the chorus were all strong singers, the soaring sopranos on excellent form, each contributing confidently to enhance the general stage picture. There is much to be said for playing Gilbert’s humour comparatively straight without over-doing tomfoolery and gimmicky. It is not panto and much of the humour lies in Gilbert’s witty lines.
The entry of the Duke of Plaza Toro and Suite in dowdy attire to an empty stage allows immediate focus on these eccentric characters so the development of mannerisms is closely noticed. Richard Gauntlet as the Duke was good throughout with playful emphasis on choice phrases and Sylvia Clarke’s dryness as the Duchess complementing him superbly (particularly in Act II). An over-upset Casilda carried her stage worries into Act II and I longed for a welcome smile. A clean and upright Luiz demonstrated his good handling of ‘that delicately moderated instrument’ with well-practiced drum roll. The love duet, “There was a time” between Luiz and Casilda was delightful, with the voices and orchestra very nicely balanced. Bruce Graham revelled in his role as Don Alhambra with a dryness and pacing of lines that equalled Kenneth Sandford’s traditional characterization of the part, teasing out every nuance of comedy in his lines. A more rotund figure for his character would not have gone amiss and, elegant though the cardinal scarlet of his cassock was to replace the usual drab black, the line comparing him to an undertaker was completely lost. I somehow wondered whether all men should be clean-shaven: I never think of any bearded Italians, and it could have given the two gondoliers a closer identity.
All soloists were exceptionally strong in singing and characterisation with excellent timbre and changes in dynamics. The ensembles were beautifully sung, particularly the quintet, “Try we life-long”. Gilbert does not give all soloists an opportunity to excel themselves, but of them Robin Bailey has to be singled out, not just because of his exquisite lyrical tenor voice but also for reacting where appropriate to the words being sung by others. His routines were always slick and nicely synchronized to the music. The diction of both soloists and chorus was first class and their costumes carried that Mediterranean brightness. Phillip Aiden’s well-drilled choreography was stunning and brought much attention with a precision in clapping and foot coordination that must have been difficult to accomplish. This showed also in the Gavotte where movement, timing and the Gondoliers’ floppy marionette-style gestures were memorable. The costumes for Duke, Duchess and Casilda in Act II were magnificent and were proof of the lavish spending that a ‘limited Plaza Toro company’ could afford.
Checker-board tiling of interestingly-shaped rostra was effective but it could have helped if the borders had been lowered to mask the tops of columns. Certain soliloquizing asides, with frozen attitudes by the chorus, with change of lighting were effective. Apart from some trellis gobo effects the lighting was disappointing until the radiant sunset of the first Act finale appeared. I found the odd splashes of light across the cyclorama distracting and they served no useful purpose. With touring one has to make allowances for the headache of scenery transportation yet in this design there seemed nothing Italianate for either scene. An elegant pair of throne chairs served their purpose admirably by both servants and Kings.
The National Festival orchestra (leader Sally Robinson) played superbly under David Steadman’s experienced direction — a G&S veteran who has worked on many occasions with this orchestra, his pace and voice training was perfect. It may have been my ears but I felt there had been a slight re-writing of wind parts for an Act I finale crescendo and one number of Act II, but they fitted well.
This production opened the Harrogate Festival on 1st August and plays there again on 21st August. Other professional productions at Harrogate by the National Opera Company, under different directors, are Patience (14/15/21 August); The Mikado (16/23 August); HMS Pinafore (20 August)
Raymond J Walker