Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard – Philharmonia Orchestra/John Wilson

The Yeomen of the Guard
Operetta in two acts with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan to a text by W. S. Gilbert [performed in Tim Henty’s new Edition]

Sir Richard Cholmondely – Steven Page
Sergeant Meryll – Bruce Graham
Leonard Meryll – Alexander Sprague
Phoebe Meryll – Heather Shipp
Wilfred Shadbolt – Richard Angas
Colonel Fairfax – Oliver White
Jack Point – Simon Butteriss
Elsie Maynard – Sarah Fox
Dame Carruthers – Jill Pert
Kate – Rebecca Moon

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
John Wilson

Simon Butteriss – Director

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 April, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Sunday-afternoon series continued with a colourful and largely sparkling performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, fully costumed (courtesy Janet Morris) for the main protagonists (and three of the men from Philharmonia Voices, two of whom appeared as beefeaters and one as the axe-wielding executioner). And given the current Indian activities in the RFH’s foyers, I’m glad to report that the Tower of London hadn’t morphed into the Red Fort in Delhi!

Inside the Hall I found was the stage extended, with the still-healthy orchestra (14 firsts, 12-10-8-6) shunted back and the white sail at the back of the stage area lowered to almost vertical. There was a distinct improvement to the orchestral sound with this arrangement, with a pleasing reverberation (if still short), unusual enough to be noted, and fullness of sound. And it was the orchestra’s contribution, under John Wilson, that was the chief joy in this performance.

John Wilson. Photograph: works well in semi-staged concert performances, so it was great to see The Yeomen of the Guard again – one of the duo’s more-sober and (perhaps because of that) successful partnerships. There’s no overt Gilbertian cocking-a-snook at society and (a great boon to Sullivan) his topsy-turvydom was given very short rein. High drama suffuses the plot with the deception to disguise the condemned Colonel Fairfax as Leonard Meryll, who is joining the titular group that very day. But Fairfax, in the hour before his execution, has persuaded Sir Richard Cholmondely to procure for him a wife, so he can thwart his scheming cousin’s attempt (by having him executed) of inheriting his estate. The girl is travelling player Elsie Maynard, who is betrothed to jester Jack Point, who agrees to the arrangement as she’ll be a widow within the hour, but none of them know of the rescue plan. Act One ends not just with the discovery of Fairfax’s ‘escape’ but Elsie realising that she’s not a widow.

The second Act, although with its comic conundrums and a hallmark patter-song, remains rather serious, even to the denouement where Elsie and Fairfax are properly united, Phoebe having to make do with Shadbolt and even the Sergeant getting the Dame, leaving Jack Point bereft and here, rather perfunctorily, prostrate and (the programme note would argue) dead.

Simon Butteriss marshalled the forces as well as playing Jack Point. Diminutive in stature he was rather too hyper-active as Point and shared with most of the male members of the cast (Steven Page and Richard Angas – old hands at G&S – excepted) an occasional strained tone, particularly in solos, and some of the pathos for Point was lost in the business.

I warrant that a little more air in the patter of ‘Oh! a private buffoon, is a light-hearted loon’, might have paid dividends, although Butteriss did get most of the words out clearly. Elsewhere, Sarah Fox as Elsie started off with rather too many indistinct consonants, so that even ‘I have a song to sing oh!’ was often blurred, despite the hushed strings, lapping as if in practice for G&S’s next collaboration, The Gondoliers, in accompaniment. The chorus too took a while to settle into clear diction, too. It was the ensembles that came off best, Rebecca Moon riding high in ‘A Strange Adventure’ as Kate, a character drafted in just for this quartet. One final point, no information was provided about Tim Henty’s new edition.

All-in-all, a very enjoyable afternoon, with the honours going both to the players of the Philharmonia Orchestra and John Wilson, who I hope (after also leading Opera North’s Ruddigore) will soon revive the rest of the G&S canon.

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