Cath Barton casts a critical eye over the RWCMD’s latest production as singers of the David Seligman Opera School head to the canals of Venice for Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers.
Gilbert & Sullivan: light, comic opera, which you love or hate. So will say many people, thinking of trilling divas performing with the same precise gestures prescribed by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company from the time when the works were written in the late nineteenth century until copyright of Gilbert’s words expired in 1961. Richard D’Oyly Carte built the Savoy Theatre in 1881 specifically for the performance of G&S. His partnership with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan was enormously successful for all three of them, but not without its tensions, as Mike Leigh’s 1999 film Topsy Turvy showed.
Sullivan longed to be regarded as a serious composer, and felt frustrated in this ambition by the way in which his partnership with Gilbert had developed, with its focus on rhymed couplets confining the style of the music; Gilbert felt that if Sullivan had his head, the music would swamp the words. And, in any case, he said, he did not believe that grand opera would be successful at the Savoy. The Venetian setting of The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria (1889) was part of the compromise on which they agreed, offering the opportunity for bright colour in the music – while Sullivan went ahead at the same time with his opera Ivanhoe (1891), for which Gilbert declined to write the libretto.
The Gondoliers is indeed bright, but lacks the satirical bite of earlier G&S works. With the removal of the D’Oyly Carte stranglehold, Iolanthe (1882), which lampooned the House of Lords and other aspects of the British political system of its day, was memorably parodied by the Ratepayer’s Iolanthe (1984), directed by Ned Sherrin and subsidised by the Greater London Council in its dying days. Nothing quite as brilliant could be achieved in a new production of The Gondoliers, but director Polly Graham, in collaboration with movement director Rosalind Hâf Brooks, does a fine job in introducing spark and feistiness amongst the tra-la-las in this RWCMD production. She also cleverly inserts Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte themselves as observers. During the overture – played with brio by the student orchestra, conducted by Alice Farnham – the trio is on stage, their conversations half-overheard, including Sullivan’s gripes about about wanting to write serious music. And we hear that there will be, in this new Savoy opera, a woman in a dungeon, and a baby. We are, of course, intrigued.
The opera opens in Venice. A chorus of demure girls dances on. Gilbert and Sullivan have been transformed into two gondoliers – Marco and Guiseppe. The pair play a game of blind man’s buff and choose brides, Gianetta and Tessa. But one of them is the heir to the throne of Barataria, married as an infant to Casilda, daughter of Spanish nobleman the Duke of Plaza-Tora. She, though, is in love with Luiz, her father’s attendant. Who will be crowned king of Barataria? Who will get the girl?
In the first act designer Harry Pizzey employs ice-cream colours and cut-out décor to convey the sparkle of Venice. By the end of the act, as the gondoliers prepare to leave for Barataria with Don Alhambra, the Grand Inquisitor (aka in this production Richard D’Oyly Carte), the singers playing the gondoliers and their wives – Huw Ynyr Evans (Marco), Margaret Daly (Gianetta), Aaron Holmes (Guiseppe) and Aimee Daniel (Tessa) – had settled into their roles, and sang the quartet with which the act ends, ‘Then one of us will be a Queen’, with great vocal warmth and charm.
If some of the principal characters introducing themselves singing from inside huge jars is a slightly Beckettian absurdist reference in Act 1, there are more surprises in Act 2, presaged by the cries of the promised woman in a dark dungeon at its start. Having departed in style with Don Alhambra in a flying gondola, Marco and Guiseppe are now held captive, and missing their wives. But who is this coming over the wall and climbing down into the dungeon, who bursting in through the doors? It is the wives and the other women, hair flying now, storming the prison and beating up the male guards in splendid and utterly convincing style!
Meanwhile, with a firm nod to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the Duchess of Plaza Tora wallops the two wives’ babies, whose cat-like mewling is amplified by big babies singing in the windows above. All wonderfully absurd, and Christine Byrne sang the Duchess’s solo ‘On the day when I was wedded’ quite magnificently. Through a hole in the wall Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte watch it all unfold. Finally the nurse, aka woman in a dungeon, reveals the truth that it is Luiz who is king. All ends happily with a song and dance.
There may not be many well-known songs in The Gondoliers – Marco’s ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’ is an exception – but the piece as a whole is full of joyous melody and you are certain to come out humming the tune of the finale.
Amongst a solid cast of principals, Margaret Daly in her first operatic role is a singer to look out for in the future. The chorus was tremendous, both in terms of singing – with splendid diction – and focused acting, and the orchestra gave good support to the singers, particularly in the lighter sections of the score.
Polly Graham was given a choice of two shows to direct for this RWCMD production. Bravo to her for choosing to apply her bold directorial skills to G&S.
Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella will be published by Louise Walters Books in 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.