Venetian excellence in Edinburgh from Scottish Opera in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Derek Clark (conductor). Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 4.11.2021. (RJW)

Dan Shelvey, Catriona Hewitson, Yvonne Howard & Richard Suart (c) James Glossop

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

The Duke of Plaza-Toro – Richard Suart
Luiz – 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
The Duchess of Plaza-Toro – Yvonne Howard
Casilda – Catriona Hewitson
Gianetta – Ellie Laugharne
Tessa – Sioned Gwen Davies
Fiametta – Zoe Drummond
Vittoria – Flora Macdonald
Guilia – Grace Maria Wain
Inez ­– Cheryl Forbes

Amongst the Savoy operas, The Gondoliers has been a Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut for many decades. Its amusing, witty and somewhat caustic humour flows eloquently from Gilbert’s pen; his lyrics are neat, and his swipes at aristocracy and republicanism are not just tuned to the 1890s but applicable to the following hundred years. This production has dusted down the comic opera and injected fresh energy both aurally and in the portrayal of its characters.

Scottish Opera uses colour and movement to conjure up a feast for the eyes and ears. Derek Clark sets a good pace for the numbers, a few faster than might be expected. The orchestral excellence was very much appreciated and it was nice that the audience of traditional theatregoers allowed the overture to run in absolute silence. The brilliant string playing by a large section was perhaps occasionally drowned by ‘delicately-modulated’ brass in vocal passages, but this did not affect the singing, which was magnificent throughout.

Scottish Opera’s The Gondoliers (c) James Glossop

Director, Stuart Maunder, comes from a family steeped in Australian G&S, where the London operas were played by the J C Williamson company strictly as Gilbert and Sullivan had intended. Consequently the material has been in safe hands. A talented Dan Shelvey (Luiz) demonstrates that he is an accomplished drummer who in addition to accompanying the recitative also drummed the introductory bars to ‘In Enterprise of Martial Kind’ in the correct key before the orchestra joined in for the first verse. Casilda (Catriona Hewitson) and Luiz were nicely balanced in their ‘There was a Time’ duet, and one noticed that the ensembles elsewhere were also gems to listen to. We enjoyed the captivating presence of Mark Nathan as Giuseppe who stood out as a determined republican. Richard Suart, a G&S veteran of many festivals and recordings, brought his eccentric dry humour to the Duke’s role and added amusing contemporary lyrics to ‘Small Titles and Orders’.

The costumes were outstanding, with colours nicely complementing the expansive Venetian backdrop. The scenery of Act I moved to form different vistas and help make certain scenes more intimate. Not only did the two gondoliers each wear half a king’s tunic and britches, but a larger-than-life personality was given to the Duchess (Yvonne Howard) by an enormous boat-shaped crinoline. A confident and believable Don Alhambra (Ben McAteer) provided excellent diction in ‘I Stole the Prince’. Any lost words during the performance could be picked up from the surtitles where one could follow the charm of Gilbert’s witticism in greater detail. A nice touch was the surtitle translation for the Italian chorus sung in the opening sequence by the gondolieri and fanciulle.

Once a staple diet of English musical theatre with exposure in many a school production up to the 1960s, the love and tradition for G&S has only waned because of little exposure in the last decades of the twentieth century. This lavish and expensive production is welcomed, despite being limited to just twenty performances. It is to be presented at Eden Court, Inverness, on the 10, 11, and 13 November, and at Hackney Empire, London on 30, 31 March and 2 April 2022. Snatch it while you can.

Raymond J Walker

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