English National Opera – Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard – Anthony Gregory, Heather Lowe, John Molloy & Alexandra Oomens; directed by Jo Davies; conducted by Chris Hopkins

The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid – opera in two Acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert [sung to a new edition with revised lyrics by Jo Davies in English with English surtitles]

Colonel Fairfax – Anthony Gregory
Phoebe Meryll – Heather Lowe
Dame Carruthers – Gaynor Keeble
Wilfrid Shadbolt – John Molloy
Sergeant Meryll – Neal Davies
Leonard Meryll – Innocent Masuku
Sir Richard Cholmondeley – Steven Page
Jack Point – Richard McCabe
Elsie Maynard – Alexandra Oomens
Kate – Isabelle Peters
Four Yeomen – Adam Sullivan, Paul Sheehan, John-Colyn Gyeantey & Robert Winslade Anderson

English National Opera Chorus & Orchestra

Jo Davies – Director
Anthony Ward – Designer
Oliver Fenwick – Lighting Designer
Andrzej Goulding – Video Designer
Nick Lidster – Sound Designer
Kay Shepherd – Choreographer

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 10 November, 2022
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Regarded by G&S enthusiasts as one of the more ingenious and well-crafted Savoy operas, The Yeomen of the Guard has perhaps been shunned somewhat by others on account of its dark plot and gallows humour, such that it is not one of the more often performed. This is the second professional production this year, however, following that by the Grange Festival in the summer. Whereas that impressed by its eye for detail in recreating the corner of the Tower of London known as Tower Green, where the scaffold was once sited, and set it around the turn of the twentieth-century, Jo Davies’s production for ENO (its first of this opera) creates a more generally gloomy and foreboding atmosphere by largely centring it inside the prison quarters.

That is despite a concocted newsreel which reports Colonel Fairfax’s alleged espionage within the context of the Cold War of the 1950s, at the start of the new ‘Elizabethan’ age (though, confusingly, the only recognisable politician we do see from the historical footage used, is Alec Douglas-Home, who wasn’t Foreign Secretary until 1960-3, immediately prior to his time as Prime Minister, the shortest holder of the post in the post-War period until Liz Truss – maybe a subtle dig at that. How we need a Gilbert today to puncture the absurdities and pretensions of the spate of governments we’ve had). The news broadcast also reports (topically) a rail strike. As the Yeomen’s uniform – and that of the pair of Guardsmen here – has remained pretty consistent since at least the time of the opera, that and the appearance of Lieutenant Sir Richard Cholmondeley could really be taken for almost any decade of the last century: it is only the civilians who evoke more particularly a definite era. The night scene of Act Two is dominated by a more gothic scene of the silhouette of Tower Bridge under a full moon, and a version of the Tower itself serves meta-theatrically as Meryll’s quarters in which Elsie languishes after fainting.

It is not so much period detail which is striking therefore, as the brooding air that hangs over the sometimes-morbid twists and turns of the plot. After Heather Lowe’s mellow first aria as Phoebe, in which she luxuriates in the character’s yearnings for love, Act One proceeds quite leisurely, with largely deadpan humour. It is in Act Two that the high jinks take off, with the couple of patter songs which are well choreographed and updated with a couple of gags about current affairs or in-jokes about the Savoy opera repertoire. There is some dancing to create additional visual spectacle (sensibly confined to the two Guardsmen for the most part, rather than given to the chorus generally) but this production takes the work seriously rather than camping it up as frivolous entertainment. It also achieves that by not interpreting Gilbert’s deliberately opaque ending about Point’s fate as needing to kill him off.

Lowe remains a vibrant musical presence until Alexandra Oomens’s sparkling Elsie comes into dramatic focus as the unsuspecting bride of Fairfax before they happily yield to a longer wedded life than they expected. Anthony Gregory sometimes seems reedy and constricted in timbre as the condemned Fairfax but settles down to more conventionally mellifluous expression once his relationship to Elsie becomes clear. John Molloy is a droll Wilfrid, the jailer – haplessly lovable here, although dressed more like a Shakespearean villain – who comes into his own in the patter numbers, which he holds with aplomb on the bass line.

Replacing Susan Bickley on this occasion as Dame Carruthers, Gaynor Keeble projects a certain amount of tenderness under the character’s overt old maiden frumpishness, eventually wangling Neal Davies’s congenial Sergeant Meryll to agree to marry her. Innocent Masuku’s high tenor lyricism is only briefly heard as his son, Leonard, whilst John McCabe has a quirky gift of the gab as Point, without turning the part into vulgar caricature (which did spoil the Grange Festival’s take on the character). Nor does Steven Page overdo Lieutenant Sir Richard Cholmondeley’s stiff-upper-lip authority.

Chris Hopkins presides over a steady account of Act One, carefully pacing the tempo so that the tension increases more in the extended ensemble finale, and then also in Act Two, which starts with a sonorous account of its instrumental nocturne. The resounding ENO Chorus don’t just deliver their parts efficiently, but become a real, thrilling part of the drama and music – as good a reason as any that should argue against any funding cuts that would fatally disband the organisation in its present set-up in London. Overall, the production is another creditable addition to ENO’s growing repertoire of recent G&S stagings (even setting aside the older ones by Jonathan Miller) which should also discount breaking up a company that can do justice to one of the great institutions of English music theatre, never mind all the other valuable work it achieves in the wider operatic repertoire and the opportunities it provides for creative theatrical minds and performers. The West End really doesn’t need to churn out more endless runs of commercialised musicals for crowds of jaded tourists.

Further performances to December 2

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