If “When every one is somebodee, Then no one’s anybody!” as the Grand Inquisitor asserts, then this fine production is the exception to prove the rule. From principal to chorus, from conductor to second fiddle, there’s star power to spare. Scottish Opera returns to the Festival Theatre with a treat for patrons of all ages.
📍 Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
📅 28 October – 06 November 2021
🕖 Evenings Thurs-Sat, 7.15pm | Matinees Sun 31 Oct & Sat 6 Nov, 2.30pm
🕖 Running time: 2hr 40min (incl. interval)
👥 Composer: Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan
👥 Libretto: Sir William Schwenck Gilbert
👥 Designer: Dick Bird
👥 Director: Stuart Maunder
👥 Conductor: Derek Clark
💰 From £22.50
🎭Accessible performances include: audio description (06 November)
Mentioning Gilbert & Sullivan to theatre goers of particular seniority — and to public-school survivors of any vintage – is to conjure memories of younger days, richer with promise, and poorer in dysfunctional body parts.
To some, the school play remains the pinnacle of their secondary educational experience, smeared in grease paint, and smelling like teen spirit.
Pirate Kings, and Yum-Yums walk amongst us still, unseen, quietly humming arias upon knowing lips.
Changing fashions have largely banished light opera from the high school and amateur stage, sending it fleeing back into professional arms, where composer Arthur Sullivan, long turning in his grave through pubescent renditions of “Three Little Maids”, would doubtless think it belongs. Which brings us neatly to this new production of The Gondoliers, from Scottish Opera, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, & State Opera South Australia.
From overture to curtain down, this is not your grandma’s school production. Conductor Derek Clark leads a tight, jubilant orchestra from the first note, delivering well-kent melodies with naked enjoyment. The opening sequence, almost 20 minutes of continuous song, is a triumph, a visual feast of confident choreography, luxuriously corseted costumery, and a glorious tide of voice. Never once did this reviewer stop to count the maids or gondolieri of the Chorus, happy to trust there were indeed 4 and 20 of each, though the programme claimed but 10 and 6. Chorus Master, Jonathon Cole-Swinard and Choreographer, Isabel Baquero are to be congratulated.
The fair maidens occupying designer Dick Bird’s elegant, and Canaletto-invoking Venice, are awaiting the arrival of the two paramount Gondoliers of their age, each hoping to be taken to wife.
In punt these two objects of desire, Marco (William Morgan), and Giuseppe (Mark Nathan), both striking suitably rakish figures. Equipped with a warm, and clear baritone, Nathan has an absolute ball on stage, leaning into his character with beaming smile, and twinkling eyes. In contrast, tenor Morgan, though pitch perfect, and energetic, struggled to distinguish himself early in the performance, his voice occasionally lost amidst the ensemble. Their counterpart brides-elect, Tessa (Sioned Gwen Davies) and Gianetta (Ellie Laugharne), both vocally excellent, give character rich performances fit for an Oscar Wilde farce.
Director Stuart Maunder’s well-paced production finds highly genial comedy in the subsequent arrival of The Duke of Plaza-Toro (Richard Stuart), and his entourage. Stuart, a D’Oyly Carte legend, displays an expected, yet no less impressive mastery of W.S. Gilbert’s sometimes diction challenging lyrics. The Duchess (Yvonne Howard) whilst giving a stand-out physical performance, and possessed of a sweet, and nuanced vocal talent, was sometimes a little drowned out by her accompaniment. Their daughter Casilda (Catriona Hewitson) probably takes the vocal honours for the show entire. Her eye-patch wearing, sweet, yet swaggering aristocrat demands attention whenever she takes the stage.
No account of the cast would be complete, however, without mention of Ben McAteer’s scenery chewing, nigh-pantomime villain of a Grand Inquisitor. Ben seems to be having the time of his life, and the audience is cordially invited to the party.
The Duke, you see, has come to Venice, in search of the now King of Barataria, since his predecessor’s abrupt demise due to insurrection. The boy-prince was long ago married to an infant Casilda, before being stolen away by the Grand Inquisitor to save him from his father’s “Wesleyan Methodist” ways. Unfortunately, the prince was fostered by a drunken gondolier, who promptly forgot which his biological son, and which the king in waiting.
Who might these foster brothers be? You guessed it.
Casilda, though taken with the idea of being a monarch, is already in love with her father’s drumming attendant, Luiz (Dan Shelvey).
A Royally Good Time…
The story roars away, indulging in this royal muddle with lyrical, and ever amusing results. If The Gondoliers lacks the satirical bite of some of it’s D’Oyly Carte counterparts, it’s ripe with melodious joy, and Scottish Opera extract every ounce.
The second act felt a little swifter than the first, perhaps a little less indulgent, though offering some of the Gondolier’s “greatest hits,” such as Marco’s “Take a part of Sparkling Eyes.” William Morgan seemed to find his feet in this act, his tenor coming through more strongly, and with greater dynamism.
The set pieces when they hit, remain superb, wringing a sterling performance from each and every member of the Chorus. There’s no resisting the tapping foot, or the phantom conducting arm when they blast into full stride.
More of the plot, I will not say, leaving it for you, dear reader, to discover how it unfolds for yourself. I will say that when the boy-prince’s nurse, Inez (Cheryl Forbes) is introduced to declare which gondolier is the rightful king, the entire audience erupted with delight. Her facial expressions are masterful, and her performance truly elastic.
The Gondoliers is a triumph, seamed with quality, and brocaded with excellence. A final testament, if any were needed to its pan-generational appeal, was in evidence in the young lad, and I presume his grandad, in the seats before mine. When the final curtain fell I couldn’t have told you who cheered the more, or who clapped with greater enthusiasm. I commend The Gondoliers to your consideration, and strongly recommend acquiring a ticket before the run ends!