Cox and Box, or The Long-Lost Brothers – Opera in one Act to a libretto by F. C. Burnand [sung in English with English surtitles]
Trial by Jury – Opera in one Act to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert [sung in English with English surtitles]
The Zoo – Opera in one Act to a libretto by B. C. Stephenson (alias Bolton Rowe) [sung in English with English surtitles]
James John Cox – Sam Snowden
John James Box – Russell Painter
Sergeant Bouncer – Bruce Graham
The Learned Judge – David Kay
The Plaintiff – Victoria Goulden
The Defendant – Paul Bailey
Counsel for the Plaintiff – Anthony Noden
Usher – Steven Brennan
Foreman of the Jury – Anthony Alman
Æsculapius Carboy – Russell Painter
Thomas Brown – Sam Snowden
Mr Grinder – David Kay
Lætitia Grinder – Rebecca Goulden
Eliza Smith – Nicole Boardman
North West Productions Chorus
National Festival Orchestra
Robert Becket – Director
Charlie McKevitt – Choreographer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 3 August, 2023
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, UK
Three (brief) one Act operas by Sullivan here, but only one of them a collaboration with Gilbert. The Zoo – perhaps the most obscure – was written at the same time as Trial by Jury (the second G&S opera) and premiered just a few months after it, in June 1875, serving as the opener to an entirely separate, spoken play by Gilbert. After a few years it was quickly forgotten, and the score effectively lost until it was rediscovered when auctioned in 1966.
Although all three works are usually encountered (when at all) as openers to longer works, it was a clever ploy to put them together here, as there happen to be thematic connections, even though not explicitly drawn out in Robert Becket’s production, except that the flanking, non-Gilbert operas were presented in colourful Victorian dress and settings, contrasting with the contemporary presentation of Trial by Jury. The latter concerns a breach of promise of marriage and functioned here tellingly as the pivot between the other two operas on either side of its performance. The comical scenario of Cox and Box (Sullivan’s first opera, 1866)brings together the two eponymous characters (revealed to be brothers) who are renting the same room from Bouncer at different times of day. Box (like the Defendant in Trial) seeks to renege on his engagement to Penelope Ann, in this case by feigning his own suicide, following which Cox has unwittingly become involved with her but also comes to regret the prospect of marriage. In The Zoo, the lovers don’t seek to avoid marriage, but external aggravating factors intervene. In the case of Æsculapius Carboy it is the disapproval of his beloved, Lætitia Grinder’s father, and so the narrative starts with his melodramatically attempted suicide (repeated later when he still fails to overcome Mr Grinder’s opposition). The one little metatheatrical coup here was that Russell Painter sang the parts of Carboy and Box.
Purely as drama The Zoo is a more conventional work than the other two, in that it essentially follows the time-honoured traditions of opera buffa (within an English context) in combining pairs of lovers of different social strata, with one typically hampered by the disapproval of a patriarchal figure (Lætitia’s father in this case), and the high and low pairs brought together in the one duo (therefore like the mid-eighteenth-century form of an intermezzo) in the zoo’s snack shop vendor Eliza Smith and her admirer Thomas Brown, who turns out to be the Duke of Islington in disguise. Social commentary was sustained in Becket’s concept for Trial insofar as the Plaintiff’s Bridesmaids came on in tracksuits and declaimed their parts in an estuary English accent, denoting a lower socio-economic rank, presumably to give reality to the Judge’s assertion that the “Defendant is a snob”.
Musically, however, The Zoo is more characteristic of Sullivan’s genius for light opera (developed in all his collaborations with Gilbert) than Cox and Box, which is less distinguished in that it seems to be a parody of Italianate – particularly Donizettian – models, for instance in its ebullient Overture, and notable, prominent “rataplan” sequences which commentators trace back to the Italian composer’s La figlia del reggimento (better known in its French version, La fille du régiment). Although its hilariously absurd scenario is essentially worthy of Gilbert, the brothers’ betting to try and be rid of the undesirable Penelope surely recalls Donizetti’s one Act farce Rita.
Bruce Graham made the most of those “rataplans” with his charmingly blustering Bouncer, the rogue landlord. Where Sam Snowden was quite a determined, even peevish, Cox, Painter projected Box’s outrage with more forbearance, lighter in his tenor range (as in the satirical lullaby ‘Hush-a-bye, bacon’) if stretched in the upper register, though more even as Carboy for The Zoo. Snowden also reappeared as the down-to-earth aristocrat in disguise, his song cataloguing the excessive amount of food he has consumed from Eliza’s stall to demonstrate his devotion to her, giving Snowden the opportunity to scamper vigorously through one of Sullivan’s early patter songs. Nicole Boardman gave a suitably folksy rendition of Eliza without vulgarity, while Rebecca Goulden imparted more imperious flare to Lætitia’s character.
North West Productions cultivate the laudable aim of bringing on to the stage both young people, especially with special needs, and the elderly with early onset dementia. To comment on the musical performance of Trial would be beside the point, which is to recognise the importance of giving even the vulnerable a chance in the theatrical spotlight. Suffice to say that there was certainly no lack in the chorus’s commitment and enthusiasm (and still more so in The Zoo in fact) alongside David Kay’s aptly bumbling Judge and somewhat reserved Plaintiff and Defendant from Victoria Goulden and Paul Bailey. Anthony Noden was a chipper Counsel for the Plaintiff. Kay reappeared as a sour Mr Grinder in The Zoo. All was kept moving forwards admirably by David Goulden in charge of the sprightly National Festival Orchestra.
The juxtaposition of these three operas left the intriguing impression, like a sandwich with the filling on the outside, that perhaps it is Trial by Jury (the one canonical work here) which in some respects is the slightest of them – certainly in terms of length (even taking into account what seemed to be some drawn out and added dialogue for Cox and Box) but maybe in dramatic and stylistic ambition too. If nothing else, the project showed that The Zoo is a work which deserves more attention than it gets.