British politics gets a knocking in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited from Scottish Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert and Sullivan, Utopia, Limited: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Derek Clark (conductor). Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 5.11.2021. (RJW)

Sioned Gwen Davies (Kalyba) and Catriona Hewitson (Nekaya) (c) Julie Howden

Director – Stuart Maunder
Set and Costume designer – Dick Bird
Lighting – Paul Keogan
Choreographer – Isabel Baquero

King Paramount – Ben McAteer
Phantis –  Arthur Bruce
Scaphio – Richard Suart
Princess Zara – Ellie Laugharne
Princess Nekaya – Catriona Hewitson
Princess Kalyba – Sioned Gwen Davies
Lady Sophy – Yvonne Howard
Phylla ­– Zoe Drummond
Captain Fitzbattleaxe – William Morgan
Mr Goldbury – Mark Nathan
Lord Dramaleigh – Glen Cunningham
Sir Bailey Barre – Osian Wyn Bowen
Captain Corcoran – Francis Church
Mr Blushington – Richard Pinkstone

It was a brave decision to stage this Gilbert and Sullivan rarity by Scottish Opera. With only three planned performances it meant that the comic opera could not justify anything more than a semi-staged presentation. For me, I was expecting such an event as those regularly seen at the BBC Proms, but I couldn’t be more wrong. No scores or libretti were seen on stage – brilliant! What was presented was close to a fully-staged performance, only the costumes were absent.

When The Gondoliers had resulted in a famous ‘carpet quarrel’, where front-of-house carpets had been renewed at £500 and Gilbert and Sullivan were expected to share D’Oyly Carte’s cost without consultation, the famous partnership broke. It was not until 1893 before the duo were on speaking terms again and Utopia, Limited was written and presented on 7 October as the thirteenth comic opera. Gilbert who was responsible for its staging encouraged expenditure on costumes and scenery to amount to £7,200. This included accurate military uniforms for the First Life Guards and custom-manufactured strings of lights with parquet flooring for Act II. To be outraged at a bill of £500 and then decide to spend £7,200 is eccentric. But such were William Gilbert’s inconsistencies.

Utopia, Limited refers to the Companies Act and its mechanism, still in existence. Consequently it is bang up to date in manipulating this country’s woes. Of amusement to the audience was reference to Kodak cameras in 1893, ‘You only need a button press, and we do all the rest’ — a slogan from one of Kodak’s adverts.

In this production, care has been taken to provide all meaningful stage movement as would be arranged for a fully-staged performance. The soloists in Scottish Opera’s exemplary cast were all strong throughout in their roles and I particularly liked Mr Goldbury played by Mark Nathan as a public servant spiv. ‘Eagle high’ is a traditional choral highlight of Utopia, Limited and the company did it credit. The excellent choral singing was also noticed in the Act I finale. It is a Sullivan hallmark to find really captivating music composed for the first act finales of his operas.

The wearing of helmets gave the Lifeguards authenticity. Particularly effective was the slick timing for the tambourine routine in ‘Society has quite forsaken’ where six representatives from Britain, called ‘the Flowers of Progress’ (also the alternative title for the opera), join the King (Ben McAteer) in his Act II song. Phantis (Arthur Bruce) and Scaphio (Richard Stuart) were as fiery as one might expect and sent particularly mad when finding their manipulative plans have been thwarted; their ‘With wily brain’ was convincingly delivered with conviction. Dick Bird’s appropriate set was enhanced by lighting cues (from Paul Keogan) that helped set the mood of each particular scene. Some pleasant effects were created by saturated cross-lighting. However, I thought the sudden lighting change on the last bars of certain numbers did nothing to enhance the ending, especially when provided at a lower level than before.

The orchestra under Derek Clark played to perfection and the brass section was exemplary in Sullivan’s richly composed fanfares throughout this work. The balance with the singers was first class and the tempi throughout were very much in line with the standard set by benchmark recordings of Isidore Godfrey (1963) and Royston Nash (1975). This all demonstrates to the admirers of this genre that Scottish Opera has a respect for the traditional and tested standards set by the original D’Oyly Carte Company.

Scottish Opera intend to give one further performance and this will be at London’s Hackney Empire on 1 April 2022. That will be the last chance to see this rarity until the G&S Festival decides to revive it.

Raymond J Walker

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