Sullivan – The Grand Duke – A comic opera in two acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert

The Grand Duke

A comic opera in two acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert

Rudolph – Philip W. Errington
Ernest Dummkopf – Andrew Hurst
Ludwig – Daniel Morris
Dr. Tannhäuser – James Chadburn
The Prince of Monte Carlo – Geoffrey Farrar
Ben Hashbaz – Stoo Gill
Herald – Ritchie Scott
The Princess of Monte Carlo – Alicia Fothergill
The Baroness von Krakenfeldt – Emma Rettie
Julia Jellicoe – Harriet Flower
Lisa – Rachel Middle
Gretchen – Cate McDermott
Bertha – Caroline Taunt
Elsa – Pei Tan
Olga – Alex Hill

Chorus and Orchestra of Grosvenor Light Opera Company
Christopher Jacklin

Vicky Simon – Director
Christopher Jacklin and Vicky Simon – Set design
Vicky Simon – Costume design
Amy Worrall and Katy Scott – Lighting designers
Laura Burgoyne – Choreography

4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 8 June, 2023
Venue: Bridewell Theatre, London

It’s a brave company that takes on a piece with a reputation as the ‘flop’ of a loved creative partnership with a full staging, albeit with reduced orchestration. The final opera of the G&S canon, The Grand Duke, had an initial 1896 run of only 123 performances, despite some post first night Gilbert-imposed cuts to add brevity to the original performing edition. The piece then lapsed into obscurity for some fifty odd years only starting on its path of reappraisal after the D’Oyly Carte recording of the mid-1970s.

Flaws there are indeed, but on the evidence of this performance (the second of a short run at the Bridewell Theatre) there is more to savour than to endure; indeed, the second act of this staging was handled with deft and verve by the whole ensemble of the Grosvenor Light Opera Company. There has been some filleting and limited updating of dialogue to fit modern sensibilities, and the staging is broadly ‘traditional’ but the show was exuberant and colourful – the company filling the confined stage areas of the Bridewell Theatre with some excellent choreography, full throated ensemble and crisp diction throughout. The reduced orchestra gives a sprightly rendition of the score under Christopher Jacklin’s baton, one that shows Sullivan inspiration alternating between the routine and rather more audacious writing.

So, where are the problems? Gilbert’s plot involving a rebellious theatrical troupe is over-worked initially, labours some jokes to the point of near-killing them (the sausage rolls), lacks satirical focus and over-relies on re-hashing of some old tropes, rhymes and gags better encountered in some of the earlier works of the canon – though it was a nice directorial touch that the ‘hired costumed supernumeraries’ of the Monte Carlo troupe were attired in costumes from other G&S works! In a world familiar with some very sophisticated theatre-set farce (think Noises Off for example), the theatrical humour perhaps seems very ‘quaint’. In Act 2 things improve enormously; Ludwig’s dealing with his succession of ‘statutory’ wives with their concerns over artistic and social status, the sense that everyone is dressed up as something they are not, and some witty pseudo-melodrama, are all given opportunity.

As Julia Jellicoe, the Hungarian-accented (only when she speaks) English leading actress of the German company Harriet Flower makes a great impression, relishing all the convention and contradiction and vocal opportunities. Her scena summarising what is a ‘great role’ (and nicely echoing an embryonic Mad Margaret from Ruddigore) elicits some great laughs. Ritchie Scott’s Herald is unexpectedly scene-stealing in every sense, and yet Geoffrey Farras tops that with his ebullient late appearance as a fruity-voiced and heavily accented Prince of Monte Carlo. How curious that it was this character’s number about Roulette that Gilbert cut, for it is one of the best of the score. Both Philip Errington and Daniel Morris have impeccable diction and help propel the plot forward with their energy and theatrical savvy. Rachel Middle’s Lisa and Emma Rettie’s Baroness von Krakenfeldt give effective interpretations and make strong vocal impressions. The GLOC’s gamble, and the show has a lot to say about chance, paid off handsomely.

The show is well worth a look – particularly for the keen Savoyard. And as a go-home musing – just why is Hungary the chosen country of disguise in many musicals and operettas (think Die Fledermaus, My fair Lady, etc.)?
Further performances until 10 June 2023.

4 thoughts on “Sullivan – The Grand Duke – A comic opera in two acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert”

  1. Don’t forget the country of choice for a disguise in Mozart/da Ponte’s “Cosi fan tutte” being “Valacchi”. I’m never exactly sure where they are meant to be from; libretto translations vary widely as do costume choices… but it seems to be somewhere in the vicinity of Romania or Hungary. One commentary I read suggested that they had a certain reputation for prowess.

  2. just to say how sad i am to have missed this as the grand duke is one of my favourite G and S pieces since I first saw it in Chiswick around 1960. Is there any chance you might be taking it up to buxton later this summer?
    yours ever
    brian joplin

    1. Yes, we are taking this production to this year’s Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton – we are performing a 2.30pm matinee on Friday 4th August.

      Jonathan Broad
      GLOC Secretary

  3. Just a small point.
    The original singer of Julia WAS Hungarian but she was portraying a German character amongst a supposed English theatrical troupe.

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