Gilbert & Sullivan
The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria A comic operetta in two acts by W.S. Gilbert & Sir Arthur Sullivan
The Duke of Plaza-Toro Geoffrey Dolton
The Duchess of Plaza-Toro Ann Murray
Casilda Rebecca Bottone
Luiz Robert Murray
Don Alhambra del Bolero Donald Maxwell
Gianetta Sarah Tynan
Tessa Stephanie Marshall
Marco Palmieri David Curry
Giuseppe Palmieri Toby Stafford-Allen
Inez Deborah Davison
Fiametta Jane Read
Vittoria Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Giulia Fiona Canfield
Antonio Gary Coward
Annibale Roger Begley
Giorgio Michael Selby
Francesco Graeme Lauren
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Martin Duncan Director
Ashley Martin-Davis Designer
Jonathan Lunn Choreographer
Paul Pyant Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 20 November, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London
This is the first production that English National Opera has presented of “The Gondoliers” (1889) – the work that essentially marked the end of Gilbert and Sullivan’s run of successes. Two further pieces were to follow – “Utopia Limited” (1893) and “The Grand Duke” (1896). Both contain splendid and interesting music – unsurprisingly – but the scenarios find Gilbert’s humour taking a much darker, if not cynical, turn, and the plots are more convoluted than ever.
It is ironic that it was the production and associated costs for the highly successful first run of “The Gondoliers” – which finds both author and composer arguably at their very finest – should have provoked the arguments which led to litigation and, inevitably, distrust between those involved. There is no hint of the unease to come in Sullivan’s sun-drenched score and in the witty libretto, even if the latter contains references to the notion of republicanism that would be explored less amusingly in the later works.
Primary colours form the basis of Ashley Martin-Davis’s designs, which present an unrealistic backdrop to the action. Venice itself – in Act One – is depicted as a kind of ‘toy town’, with miniature bridges, gondolas and canals on-stage and up the walls – literally. It was difficult to discern the intention behind this. In any event, once the eyes adjusted to the garish colours, it did not prove, finally, too distracting. Similar hues were to be seen on the ladies’ costumes. They looked like those that might be worn at a 1950s’ US High School Prom; though some of Jonathan Lunn’s sometimes-fussy choreography suggested the movements of 1920s’ ‘flappers’ girls. In the mythical land of Barataria, where Act Two takes place, the throne-room appeared to also be a bathroom, with individual steam baths and deckchairs. The latter, along with a depiction of a swimming pool, were now seen on the walls. It is a far cry from the ‘realism’ Gilbert would have insisted upon, though perhaps the objective was to depict the author’s ‘topsy-turvy’ world: if so, it was not done so subtly.
The cast, overall, is a very fine one. It was good to hear strong voices in parts that are often under-cast. Sarah Tynan’s sparkling soprano was a real joy, bringing Sullivan’s bright lines to life, with the occasional interpolated high note – a shining top ‘D’ at the end of the first scene, for instance. She was well contrasted with Stephanie Marshall’s lovely mezzo, which made ‘When a merry maiden marries’ really touching. They made an excellent pair, musically and dramatically.
The same might be said of their Gondolier spouses. Toby Stafford-Allen made Giuseppe into a more dynamic figure than is sometimes the case, whilst David Curry’s vivid tenor shone through ensembles and provided an excellent rendering of ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’. As the initially down-at-heel ducal pair, Geoffrey Dolton and Ann Murray sparred with each other most effectively. With his moustachioed appearance, Dolton looked rather like the 1960s’ cartoon character Dick Dastardly. His firm voice was good in the ‘patter’ and characterful in the dialogue (given absolutely complete, by the way) but he did not altogether avoid more than a hint of being ‘camp’, which the character – and the piece – does not need. Ann Murray was on terrific form and the Duchess was, consequently, presented as a ‘personage of importance’, as Gilbert might have put it. Her excellent diction made her solo number in Act Two a highlight.
Rebecca Bottone and Robert Murray were good, the former occasionally fluffing her dialogue, but both were expressive in their Act One duet – a moment of repose amongst the busy-ness. Bottone led an exhilarating performance of the Act Two quintet.
Dominating the proceedings whenever he appeared was Donald Maxwell’s Grand Inquisitor – his rich voice ideally suited musically and histrionically. Smaller parts were taken by members of the chorus – the women being rather more successful than the men. Jane Read’s Fiametta was the first solo voice to be heard, and very good she was too.
Martin Duncan’s direction ensured that there was convincing interplay between the characters and appropriate exits and entrances. The ‘set-piece’ dances were aptly choreographed; the cachucha was exciting – though the tempo could have been a notch swifter – and the conclusion of the gavotte heralded the appearance of masked Venetian figures, which was visually striking.
Elsewhere, there was perhaps too much activity – nearly every time the music started, hand- and body-movement did so too. Furthermore, there were points where the chorus’s movements were not ideally co-ordinated. Neither, on occasions, was there exemplary co-ordination between stage and pit – in the long opening scene, there were moments that went astray, and ensemble was not always tidy. Richard Balcombe conducted a straightforward reading, but the music can be more effervescent than it sounded under his direction – the (few) gentler moments were the best realised. And more could have been made of Sullivan’s perky (and sometimes plangent) woodwind interjections – evidence alone of the composer’s care and craftsmanship. It was a pity that the inauthentic version of the Overture’s conclusion was given, and I could have done without the spurious cymbals right at the end.
Nevertheless, it was wonderful to hear this score so well sung and delivered with evident affection. I defy anyone’s spirits not to be lifted by this generally enjoyable evening.
- The first night was 18 November
- Further performances on 22, 24, 25 & 27 November at 7.30; 25 November at 2.30; and 13 performances in March 2007
- Box Office: 0870 145 1700
- English National Opera