United Kingdom Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Derek Clark (conductor). Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 21.10.2021. (GT)
Director – Stuart Maunder
Stage Designer – Dick Bird
Lighting Designer – Paul Keogan
Choreography – Isabel Baquero
The Duke of Plaza-Toro – Richard Suart
Luiz – his Attendant – Dan Shelvey
Don Alhambra del Bolero – Ben McAteer
Marco Palmieri – William Morgan
Giuseppe Palmieri – Mark Nathan
Antonio – Arthur Bruce
Francesco – Osian Wyn Bowen
Giorgio – Oskar McCarthy
Duchess of Plaza-Toro – Yvonne Howard
Casilda – Catriona Hewitson
Gianetta – Ellie Laugharne
Tessa – Sioned Gwen Davies
Fiametta – Zoe Drummond
Vittoria – Flora Macdonald
Giulia – Grace Maria Wain
Inez – Cheryl Forbes
This staging was scheduled to take place in 2020 however was held back owing to the pandemic, yet in opening the new season, Scottish Opera could hardly have chosen a better opera to revive the fortunes of both the company and its audiences; few of the Savoy Operas achieves the degree of wit and charm as does this opera. Despite the pandemic, it is worth reporting that Scottish Opera’s Pop-Up Opera tour was seen by over 10,000 people in over 200 performances this year, and the Opera Highlights touring has showcased the company’s Emerging Artists. Scottish Opera’s outstanding revival of Falstaff directed by Sir David McVicar at the Edinburgh International Festival proved one of the main highlights this year.
The history of performances of The Gondoliers in Scotland goes as far back as 1890 when the D’Oyly Carte ‘American’ company (so-called because of their prolonged US tour) staged a run of performances at the Royalty Theatre in Glasgow with similar week-long runs in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. The popularity of the opera led to prolonged showings at all the major cities for many years. Scottish Opera first staged The Gondoliers in 1968 in a production directed by Joan Cross and conducted by James Loughran with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the pit. On stage were Ian Wallace and Johanna Peters as the Duke and Duchess, Bill McCue as Don Alhambra, whilst Jill Gomez was Casilda, and John Robertson was Luiz.
The Act I opening scene set in a Venice courtyard was delightfully vivid with girls dancing in quite charming costumes, quickly the chorus of ‘List and learn’ initiated a passage of brightly cheerful music performed by the mixed chorus and dancers with choruses and dances following fast one after another, especially ‘We’re called gondolieri’ in gorgeous Rossinian tunes. The story is of two brother gondoliers – Marco Palmieri (William Morgan) and Giuseppe Palmieri (Mark Nathan) who are looking for wives in Venice, and the selection process entails being blindfolded until they pick the most suitable girls amongst the contadinas (Italian peasant girls). These are Gianetta (Ellie Laugharne) and Tessa (Sioned Gwen Davies) who was especially notable for her enchanting aria ‘When a merry maiden marries’. In the next scene, the Duke (Richard Suart) and Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Yvonne Howard) arrived with Casilda, their daughter (Catriona Hewitson) who was betrothed as a child to one of the gondoliers who unknowingly is to be the new king. Don Alhambra – the Grand Inquisitor (Ben McAteer) informs the two gondoliers that one of them is the prospective king, in his sparkling arioso, ‘I stole the prince’, but in order to discover who it is – he sends Luiz (Dan Shelvey) off to the mountains to find the nurse Inez (Cheryl Forbes) who looked after the brothers in childhood.
Act II takes us to the Royal Court of Barataria with a beautiful backdrop of a forest in the surreal Rousseau style. Here in this exotically dreamy setting, the two brother gondoliers live in luxury but without their newly wedded spouses and forced to reside in a male-only environment until the truth is known as to who is the rightful king, singing with the chorus, ‘Of happiness, the very pith’. There are comical songs about one of the brothers being a bigamist as he is married to two ladies, in Marco’s arioso, ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’. When the ladies arrive to see who is to be king, both Tessa and Gianetta jest about who they really want as their husband, with all five singing of their dilemma, ‘Here we are at the risk of our lives’. Luiz returns with Inez who has been tortured by the Grand Inquisitor, and she tells the awaiting audience of courtiers, gondoliers and royals that neither of the gondoliers was betrothed to the queen, but it was Luiz her son who is really the king. The culmination ends happily with the gondoliers able to live happily with their two beautiful Venetian wives, while Luiz can have Casilda as his queen who he always loved, as did she love him. The finale is swept up a happy mixture of wonderful singing ‘Here is a case unprecedented’, and together with joyful dancing showing the strengths of this company which can come up trumps by providing a confection of foot tapping melodies, plenty of jokes often at the expense of contemporary politicians – and la-la choruses together with the patter so characteristic of Gilbert and Sullivan.
I was particularly impressed by the choreography embracing ‘Cachuca’ dancing, tango, flamenco, tap-dancing created by Isabel Baquero which kept the sequence of events surging through from scene to scene – it was just as impressive as the chorus singing. Baquero dedicated her work here to her father who passed away this year. In the sets, there was a stunningly colourful nature to the scenery of Venice, and of the romantic Palace of Barataria offering a picture postcard feeling. Of the singers in this accomplished ensemble, William Morgan and Mark Nathan mined their roles as the gondoliers to great comic effect, Richard Suart as the Duke was outstanding both in acting and his comically funny patter lines, as the gondoliers Francesco, the tenor Osian Wyn Bowen was exceptional – and his compatriot – Sioned Gwen Davies as Tessa was magnificent in both voice and characterisation (a few years ago she represented Wales at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition). Ben McAtee as the evil Grand Inquisitor was a central dominating presence throughout displaying both darkness and comedy in his part. The Luiz of Dan Shelvey was outstanding in the few opportunities he had – as was the often hilarious role of Casilda of Catriona Hewitson especially in her reproducing the manner of speech adopted by members of the royal family. As singer and actor, she proves that she is a fine prospect. This production is a joint effort shared between Scottish Opera, D’Oyly Carte Opera Trust and the State Opera of South Australia and is supported by Garfield Weston Foundation (Weston Culture Fund) and the Michael Bishop Foundation and is touring to Edinburgh, Inverness, and at the Hackney Empire London.