“With Heart and With Voice” – National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company Review

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For the last two evenings, I have been at the Norwich Theatre Royal watching the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s productions of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, and Ruddigore.

It has been rather a long while since I took the time to see some G&S at the theatre, partly because the same old operas get performed time and time again, and sometimes I think I can recite the Modern Major General’s song as reliably as those in the cast.  (Please don’t ask me to; I’m exaggerating).

I was very much “into” G&S when I was a teenager – ah yes, I was that popular kid at school.  In fact, school was to blame as my first school production was of the The Mikado.  It got me investigating the other operas, too, borrowing copies of them from the local library.  And then in 1989, the BBC broadcast the complete G&S on Radio 2 and I dutifully taped them each week and listened to some of them repeatedly.  (As a side note:  Does anyone have copies of these performances?  I would so much like to get hold of them again as they are, bizarrely a key part of my teenage years).  Perhaps understandably as a fifteen year old teenager, the two “supernatural” works grabbed my attention most of all at that time.  However, they were never performed by touring companies coming to Norwich, so the nearest I got were those often-dry TV productions from the early 1980s.   As I grew older, my tastes changed, and G&S got put on the back burner in favour of Elvis, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and jazz.  And then, this year, I saw that The Sorcerer and Ruddigore are finally being performed in the Theatre Royal, which is literally outside my front door.  Finally seeing them live was an offer I was not going to refuse.  I re-familiarised myself with the music, and then expected to be disappointed.

The Sorcerer was preceded by Trial by Jury as a curtain-raiser last night – although The Sorcerer is quite long enough by itself for an evening’s entertainment, but Trial is always good fun, so who’s complaining?  What is interesting after seeing Ruddigore tonight is that it highlights the problems with The Sorcerer – and I’m not talking about the performance, but the source material – and those problems aren’t apparent when watched separately.

There is probably a good reason why The Sorcerer is not done very much, as there really isn’t a great deal of plot and the characters aren’t particularly likeable on the whole.  And yet the music is often some of the most beautiful in the G&S operas (something I remember from that BBC production from 1989), and luckily most of the best songs are in the first act which, to say the least, has a meandering libretto.   Constance’s “When He Is Here” is a lovely ballad, as is Dr. Daly’s “Time Was When Love and I Were Well Acquainted.”  But the opera doesn’t really come alive until J. W. Wells appears about fifty minutes into the proceedings.

This isn’t really noticed in the current production, which is transported to (I’m estimating) the 1930s.  That in itself is enough to grab our interest while Gilbert finally gets around to providing us with a plot.  The opening chorus, presented to us as a choir rehearsal, is performed with so much zest and energy that it’s hard not to be sucked in.  In fact, it’s true to say that I have rarely seen the chorus in an opera provide as much joy to the audience as the soloists.  They throw themselves so much into their individual characters, over-acting their socks off (intentionally, I might add), that it’s hard not to fall in love with them and wait intently for them to return to the stage, which, I’m pleased to say, they often do in The Sorcerer.  It’s this sense that the performers are having a ball that made the last two evenings so enjoyable.   The soloists also share the same enthusiasm, although, oddly, they have less to work with in their parts than the chorus.  Richard Gauntlett provides us with a spiv of a John Wellington Wells (which works very well), and Ellen Angharad Williams shines as Aline.

Ruddigore is, rather bizarrely, a reversal of The Sorcerer:  the plot comes thick and fast from the very beginning, the main characters are much more interesting, but the male chorus in particular have much less to do – which is a shame as they were great fun on the previous evening.  Seeing the two operas side by side, there’s little doubt that Ruddigore is a much better work on the whole.  Again, I’m talking about the source material here and not the production.  The first half of the production is a lengthy eighty minutes, but it seems to zip along at quite a pace, helped, perhaps by the episodic nature of it and the split into three seamless scenes.  Another big bonus here is that it gets off to a strong start through Gaynor Keeble’s impressive “Sir Rupert Murgatroyd” (what a wonderful voice she has).  And then there comes the huge shock – Bradley Travis who is playing Robin/Ruthven is under fifty!  Actually, under forty.  Possibly under thirty.  Of course that IS the intention, but anyone who has seen G&S in the past will know that the leading male and female roles are often NOT played by age-appropriate cast members.  Robin is meant to be in his twenties, I believe, but on the Malcolm Sergeant recording from the 1960s is played by a 78 year old.  You see where I’m coming from here?  This makes a massive difference to the performance – not least by the amount of physicality that can then be brought to the role – although Travis spends much of the second act writhing around on the floor (as you do).

This youth element is what enlivens these productions more than anything.  When I was singing G&S at an amateur level, I’m sure no-one else was under sixty.  Ian Smith, Chairman of the company, boasts in the programme: “I don’t know of any other Opera Company in Britain that takes as many graduates from the leading Music Colleges as we do.  Young enthusiasts with splendid voices embarking on their professional career in the very safe hands of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  And he is right to boast about this.  Not only is this giving young performers a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but it also pays dividends for the company in giving the productions more energy and vitality than they otherwise would have had – and if you want proof of that check out the chorus work in Trial/Sorcerer (there are some members of the chorus who grab your attention despite not having a single line of their own) and the young cast of Ruddigore.

Both of these operas must be very difficult for a company on such a tight budget as this one – they almost beg for special effects and clever sets. They don’t get either here (and at one point, The Sorcerer pokes fun at itself over that), but don’t let that put you off.  Also don’t let it put you off that you might not know these particular works.  Ruddigore, in particular, provides the tried and tested G&S formula – indeed, compare the finale to Act I of The Mikado to the finale of Act I of Ruddigore and, dramatically, it’s pretty identical – just replace Katisha with Despard and you’re almost there.   I really do wish that audiences would be more daring with the choices they make – these performances were far from full houses, and it’s such a shame with so much to enjoy.   I hope that this doesn’t mean that the company resorts to bringing us The Mikado and Pirates instead next year, as it’s really nice to see these other works performed.

What you get with these two productions (and I’m guessing the others on the current tour) is a damned good evening of entertainment – and that, really, is exactly what G&S should be about.   I’m not going to pretend that these are the most polished productions you will ever see (although it might be the ONLY production of The Sorcerer you ever see), or that the sets are the most exciting in the world, but that is more than made up for by what else is being offered – fun.  That is what the evening is all about, and these fresh, sometimes intriguing productions, certainly provide that in abundance.

I’d like to make another comment about the programme note from Ian Smith, in which he states the company receives just £21,000 combined in grants and donations compared to the millions of other opera companies centred in London (he mentions the ENO).  We have to start realising the worth of the arts in this country.  Funding has been cut for the arts subjects at university level, there has been discouragement of taking arts subjects at schools, and funding has been cut for companies such as this one.  The government can try to drum it into our heads that we need scientists more than musicians, but there’s not much point in finding cures for deadly diseases if we don’t have music and the arts to enjoy during those extra years we gain by these cures.  And that goes for whatever areas of the arts provide your enjoyment.  Companies such as this HAVE to survive, as do our orchestras, our independent film makers, and so on.  If our country really is going to continue with this hair-brained political suicide, we’re going to need something to take our mind off it – and I very much doubt that most of those spouting the nationalistic twaddle on Twitter have ever seen a single opera written by two of our country’s national institutions in their lives.  And that’s an irony that Gilbert himself might well have appreciated.

I’d like to conclude by saying health has thrown quite a bit of crap my way over the last couple of months – but for six hours this weekend I forgot about it completely and did a great deal of smiling, and what more can you ask of a theatre trip?

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