Opera North at Barbican Theatre – Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore

Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse
Comic opera in two acts with words by W. S. Gilbert and music by Sir Arthur Sullivan

Rose Maybud – Amy Freston
Dame Hannah – Anne-Marie Owens
Robin Oakapple / Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd – Grant Doyle
Old Adam Goodheart – Richard Angas
Richard Dauntless – Hal Cazalet
Mad Margaret – Heather Shipp
Sir Despard Murgatroyd – Richard Burkhard
Sir Roderick Murgatroyd – Steven Page
Zorah – Gillene Herbert

Chorus & Orchestra of Opera North
John Wilson

Jo Davies – Director
Richard Hudson – Set designer
Gabrielle Dalton – Costume designer
Anna Watson – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 23 November, 2011
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

Ruddigore is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best collaborations. The delightfully absurd plot sending up Victorian melodrama bubbles with Gilbert’s most joyous wit; the operetta also features some of Sullivan’s most memorable tunes, as well as boasting a higher than usual quota of more substantial music. Throw in a brilliantly theatrical dollop of the supernatural and the whole package is a winner. Why it remains far less familiar than the likes of The Mikado (its immediate predecessor) or The Pirates of Penzance remains something of a mystery.

One possibility is that it never fully recovered from Victorian critics’ prudish objection to ghosts marrying maidens; but the concept of a portrait gallery of ghoulish ancestors that comes life is exactly the kind of attention-grabber that today’s audiences love. This dramatic gift is not squandered by director Jo Davies – the terrific Act Two ghost-scene – with dramatic thunder and lightning clattering the windows inside the splendid wood-panelled Murgatroyd gothic pile – is the undisputed highlight of her lively production. First staged last year, this is its first – eagerly anticipated – visit to London.

With a lot of back-story to get through – the legend of the cursed Baronet forced to commit a crime a day – Ruddigore’s exposition scenes can drag interminably in the wrong hands. But that is rarely a problem here: Davies’s sure touch keeps the pace taught, helped by a strong cast of excellent singers with a rare talent for comedy acting. Amy Freston is a hearty, obtusely fickle Rose Maybud (the eligible village maiden); Grant Doyle carries off the dual roles of Rose’s erstwhile suitor – the bashful Robin Oakapple aka reluctant wicked Baronet Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd – with confidence. Anne-Marie Owens makes a formidable but endearing Dame Hannah – a woman not to be trifled with, but who (unusually for a Gilbert creation) displays a tender heart.

Inevitably, it is the more extrovert characters that make the greatest impact: Heather Shipp’s superbly batty Mad Margaret; Richard Burkhard’s moustache-twirling Despard; Hal Cazalet’s cock-sure, incredibly hyperactive mariner Dick Dauntless; and Steven Page’s no-nonsense army-major Sir Roderick, the most recent addition to the ghostly gallery. He gets the best song of the show – the deliciously spine-tingling ‘Ghosts’ high noon’ – which Page delivered with gusto, although it was a shame that he was upstaged by the undeniably impressive balletic antics of the chorus of ghosts.

John Wilson has great affinity for Sullivan, and it’s a treat to hear the Opera North Orchestra – here a chamber-like pit-band similar to those Sullivan worked with – unfettered due to the absence of any stage overhang in the Barbican Theatre. The company uses David Russell Hulme’s excellent edition of the score, which restores cuts imposed by the D’Oyly Carte company in the 1920s and 30s, most notably the Act Two finale and a patter-song for Robin/Ruthven which muses satirically on why the baronet’s rank, though “exceedingly nice”, is “uncommonly dear at the price”. Gilbert’s acerbic lyrics, referring to MPs who “don’t care a snuff” about their country’s repute as long as they are rewarded with a knighthood, still carry a remarkable sting, so it is unnecessary to add a new verse by Richard Stilgoe about duck islands – and disheartening that this got the biggest laugh and most sustained applause of the night.

Generally, however, Davies treats Gilbert and Sullivan with due respect, crucially never sending them up. By preserving the essence of the work without being slavishly traditional in his imaginative staging, she offers the ideal approach to modern G&S productions. This triumphant Ruddigore is hugely entertaining, firmly putting the opera up-there with the pair’s well-known creations. Hopefully it won’t be long before the same team turn their hands to Iolanthe, Princess Ida or Patience.

  • Further performances at 7.15 p.m. on November 25 & 26; also 2 p.m. on November 26
  • Barbican

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