United Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, The Yeomen of the Guard: National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company and Orchestra / Timothy Burke (conductor), Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, 27.7.2019. (RJW)
Director – Andrew Nicklin
Choreographer – Jackie O’Brien
Set – Paul Lazell
Costumes – Litchfield Costumes
Lighting – Nicholas Holdridge
Steven Page – Sir Richard Cholmondeley
Philip Lee – Lord Fairfax
Bruce Graham – Sergeant Meryll
David J Woods – Leonard Meryll
Richard Gauntlett – Jack Point
Matthew Kellett – Shadbolt
Natalie Montakhab – Elsie
Mae Heydorn – Phoebe
Gaynor Keeble – Dame Carruthers
Julia Smith – Kate
An unexpected opening soon settled into the familiar splendour of Sullivan’s finest overture. The truly excellent playing continued throughout the opera. In Andrew Nicklin’s production we were treated to the inclusion of two numbers generally omitted from performances, Meryll’s song ‘A Laughing boy’ and Meryll and Carruther’s ‘Rapture, rapture’. Both were well received and excellently sung. It was also appreciated that the original Act I Finale couplets were included (third and fourth yeomen’s lines), usually omitted to trim the running time.
The Yeomen is one of only a handful of operas that doesn’t seemingly open with a chorus number. Instead, Phoebe (Mae Heydorn) is discovered at her spinning wheel where she sang a lyrical rendering of ‘When maiden loves’, undistracted by a wheel that refused to turn. Her scene with Shadbolt (Matthew Kellett) was brilliantly delivered. Shadbolt is often discovered eating an apple which is tossed into the wings, an amusing repetitious gesture. The resplendently dressed yeomen and citizens warmed up Act I with their rousing entrance and introduction to Elsie and Point’s ‘I have a song to sing, O’. This lollipop of the opera was beautifully sung and played with Richard Gauntlett’s Point providing effective miming gestures that he also provides for ‘O, a private buffoon’ to give collaborative detail. Elsie (Natalie Montakhab) was on good form with her aria, ‘T’is done I am a bride’ with she sang with sincerity and used the stage well.
Act II opened with a richly played cello passage and later Fairfax (Philip Lee) convincingly demonstrated the art of wooing to Point while the Lieutenant (Steven Page) adopted an impressive air of authority. The quartet ‘Strange Adventure’ was well-balanced with an impressive contribution provided by soprano, Kate (Julia Smith). (This unaccompanied number often slips in pitch within the verse and shown up when the orchestra comes in with a tonal difference, yet here the pitch was perfect.) The trio, ‘How say you maiden’ was another number delivered with much energy and had good effect.
The pace of the opera under Andrew Nicklin’s direction was excellent and there were memorable moments. In particular the interaction between Point and Shadbolt (Matthew Kellett) during Act II’s ‘Cock & Bull’ scene was brilliantly handled and acted. Phoebe’s song, ‘Were I thy bride’ where she taunts Shadbolt whilst his keys are stolen was humorously convincing. Elsewhere, there were outstanding performances by Bruce Graham (Sergeant Meryll) and Natalie Montakhab (Elsie). The diction in songs and dialogue throughout was excellent.
Sally Robinson never fails to lead an outstanding Festival orchestra and here under conductor, Timothy Burke, the score was brilliantly delivered. Excellent tempi were held throughout and Burke introduced new dynamics to give additional colour. Where Gilbert uses the same set for both acts of an opera he transforms his stage picture by choosing a contrasting night setting for Act II (Yeomen, Sorcerer, Pinafore). It seems contrary therefore to give a sneak preview of blue night lighting in the finale of Act I and I felt that some of the cues might have related more sensitively to the onstage mood changes.
The earthy make-up for the grisly Shadbolt was ideal and aging the warders in their smart uniform added to the effect. Elsie’s ribbon festooned skirt and colourful bandana gave the right gipsy touch to her Act I appearance while Point’s bold black and silver costume for Act II made it clear that he had acquired the new post of Jester to the Tower’s Lieutenant. But this was the first time I had seen Dame Carruthers (Gaynor Keeble) portrayed so young, more as a middle-aged blonde rather than a formidable elderly woman to fit Meryll’s ‘ghastly’ remarks. As Housekeeper to the Tower her usual seniority of age and plain-looks fits Gilbert aged-female stereotype.
With singing and orchestra on top form, this performance shows that the Company is in good trim for its forthcoming appearances in Harrogate in two weeks’ time.
Raymond J Walker