Opera Holland Park 2023 – Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore – with Matthew Kellet, David Webb & Llio Evans; directed by John Savournin; conducted by David Eaton

Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse – opera in two Acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert [sung to a reduced orchestral version by David Eaton in English with English surtitles]

Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd – Matthew Kellett
Sir Despard Murgatroyd – John Savournin
Sir Roderic Murgatroyd – Stephen Gadd
Richard Dauntless – David Webb
Old Adam Goodheart – Richard Suart
Rose Maybud – Llio Evans
Mad Margaret – Heather Lowe
Dame Hannah – Heather Sipp
Zorah – Natasha Agarwal
Ruth – Caroline Carragher

Opera Holland Park Chorus

City of London Sinfonia
David Eaton

John Savournin – Director
Madeleine Boyd – Designer
Mark Jonathan – Lighting
Merry Holden – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 August, 2023
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London

On first thoughts, Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘spooky’ Ruddigore (1887) seems an odd choice for a summer opera festival. But its presentation is well timed at this point in the year and in the course of the evening such that its famous scene in Act Two, when the Murgatroyd ancestors come to life from their portraits at the family seat, Ruddigore Castle, coincides with dusk as the shadows fall around the auditorium and breezes eerily stir the canopy overhead. The odd squawking bird and barking dog even obliged to provide their own creepy accompaniment. The façade of the ruin of Holland House also adds a dimension of decay and abandonment behind the stage, apart from the set upon it of a slightly dilapidated row of houses to evoke the Cornish village of Rederring. For better or worse the ancestors don’t exactly step out of their frames, but simply appear, lurking in the gloaming after a blaze of flashing lights, in their rather outlandish forms (one of them even having been beheaded), each representing a different era from the last five centuries or so.

John Savournin doesn’t impose an overriding concept in his production around its generally Victorian ethos other than that his own character, Sir Despard Murgatroyd, and Mad Margaret later appear in 1960s dress, apparently to denote their dour respectability (combining “the manners of a Marquis with the morals of a Methodist” as is actually said of Robin) once he has relinquished the accursed baronetcy and he finally honours his earlier marriage proposal to her.

Another neat little sartorial touch is that the very marriageable Rose Maybud (but so far avoiding matrimony) – contrary to her name – appears in a purple dress, rather than the rosy-pink attire of the troupe of professional bridesmaids anxiously seeking the next occasion for a wedding. Llio Evans’s Rose sounds like a proper frump in her spoken dialogue (religiously following her book of etiquette, written by the wife of a lord mayor) but sings with particular charm and allure, deservedly paired off with her beloved Robin in the end (who turns out to be Sir Ruthven, the rightful Murgatroyd heir, and extinguishes the curse). Matthew Kellett declaims that part with aplomb which generally suits his guise as the baronet (although his duet as such with Richard Suart’s Old Adam Goodheart at the start of Act Two is somewhat too lugubrious to despatch its comedy). But he is surely too forward and swaggering in his initial disguise as the farmer Robin, supposed to be diffident and socially awkward. Savournin plays his brother, Sir Despard, by contrast with a quizzical reserve and dignity.

David Webb gives a nimble account – both choreographically and vocally – as Robin’s foster brother, the sailor Richard Dauntless, with a clear but not grating rural accent. Stephen Gadd is in good voice (following his under-the-weather Rigoletto earlier this season) for Sir Roderic Murgatroyd – stern in his remonstrations with his nephew Sir Ruthven about upholding the curse, but mellifluous as he finds himself reunited with Heather Shipp’s redoubtable Lady Bracknell-like Dame Hannha. It’s only a pity that Gadd and Kellett are given no topical satire to work into their dialogue as Sir Ruthven explains to his (dead) uncle what crimes he has committed during the week in compliance with the curse – there are rich pickings to be had in lampooning the present state of our political class in order to adapt that dialogue. Heather Lowe sustains the part of Mad Margaret seamlessly as she flits around nervously in her distracted state, but not melodramatically, and sings with a touching veneer of wistfulness.

David Eaton leads the City of London Sinfonia in his own orchestral reduction of the score in an interpretation that conveys nuance as well as vivacity, rather than simply pattering through it. Generally limited use of vibrato creates a somewhat sombre, or at least translucent hue, while also keeping it lithe, for example in the ‘Matter’ trio. Eaton’s discreet but graphic accompaniment on the piano provides an effective recreation of Victorian melodrama for one spoken dialogue. As such, this is a cultivated and lively performance of a somewhat sensational narrative (or such it was felt to be by its first audiences) without caricaturing its comedy or itself becoming melodramatic like the type of theatrical work which Gilbert meant to satirise.

Further performances to August 12

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