The National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company – Utopia, Limited – with Ben McAteer, Anthony Flaum, Monica McGhee & Paul Featherstone; directed by Jeff Clarke; conducted by John Andrews

Utopia, Limited, or the Flowers of Progress – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert [sung in English]

King Paramount – Ben McAteer
Scaphio – Robert Gildon
Phantis – Giles Davies
Calynx – Ciarán Walker
Lord Dramaleigh – Tim Walton
Captain Fitzbattleaxe – Anthony Flaum
Captain Sir Edward Corcoran – Stephen Godward
Mr Goldbury – Paul Featherstone
Sir Bailey Barre – Cameron Mitchell
Princess Zara – Monica McGhee
Princess Nekaya / Melene – Rachel Speirs
Princess Kalyba – Meriel Cunningham
Lady Sophy – Katharine Taylor-Jones
Phylla – Phoebe Smith
Salata – Juliet Montgomery

The National Festival Chorus and Orchestra
John Andrews

Jeff Clarke – Director
Elroy Ashmore – Designer
Jenny Arnold – Choreographer
Matt Cater – Lighting Designer

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 August, 2022
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, England

After the hiatus of a couple of years owing to disagreements among composer, librettist and their impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, Utopia, Limited (1893) marked a return to form by Gilbert and Sullivan in this work which proved to be their penultimate collaboration. Gilbert pulled no punches in satirising a range of English institutions – as depicted by the six representative personnel (the ‘Flowers of Progress’) – and values imported from there to the remote, exotic kingdom of Utopia at the prompting of its English-loving King Paramount (his country of Utopia itself, of course, also an implied satire upon some of the shortcomings of Victorian government and society). Only the Church is not represented among the Flowers, presumably because the Lord Chamberlain (who is personified) would never have allowed it, but the other institutions Gilbert singles out remain very much interwoven within society today. To some extent Sullivan’s score shows the influence of the more serious operas he had recently composed, with its often somewhat more symphonic sequences, particularly in Act Two, as compared with the earlier Savoy operas: for some listeners, like The Gondoliers perhaps, it is musically richer and more rewarding as a result.

Despite that and the ripe opportunities it continues to offer for comment upon public affairs in the present, the opera has been curiously neglected: indeed it is remarkable (even depressing) how true so much of its joking and mockery remain today, not least in our post-Thatcherite consensus of privatised corporate enterprise and the relentless pursuit of profit, taken aim at in this comedy by the Flowers’ suggestion to Paramount that the whole of his country be turned into a limited liability company (as per the ‘Joint Stock Companies Act of 1862’). Furthermore, although not explicitly the object of Gilbert’s critique, the work’s scenario must surely make audiences today ponder the problems and issues that arose (and continue to arise) from British imperial and military ventures abroad, and values imposed upon very different societies, whether willingly or not. The scene near the beginning of Act Two as the King meets with the English Flowers to extol Utopia’s transformation into a ‘more perfect replica’ of Britain here provides the opportunity for an ironic encore in which the courtiers can congratulate themselves on some other, more pointed benefits that now accrue such as ‘fuel as cheap as water’ and a functioning healthcare system where there are so few patients that waiting lists don’t exist.

The set for Jeff Clarke’s production comprises a delicious confection of various exotic strands that doesn’t locate the comedy in any specific or contemporary place, but the dazzling visual combination creates a fantasy world from which the opera’s satire still speaks all too clearly to our world, without having to make the parallels obvious. The languorous maidens and the line of palm trees conjure the South Pacific at the outset, as in the original, but the despotism (even if benign) of the King and the other (male) Utopians are evoked by their Ottoman-style costumes. The palace façade is something between a Venetian palazzo or a South American hacienda mansion, whilst an air of the archaic is also displayed in the Elizabethan elements of Scaphio and Phantis’s attire, the King’s anti-reform ministers who hold him tightly in their clutches. The camp choreography of the characters’ dancing and frolics across the stage may not be exactly as Gilbert devised for the original productions, but it falls in line with the typical approach now taken to this operatic canon, and in any case is brilliantly executed by the singers concerned and of course makes irresistibly ridiculous the personalities and ideas represented.

A generally excellent cast keep up with the opera’s bubbling, burlesque wit and invention. Ben McAteer, as the musically assured but credulous King Paramount, is ably abetted first by his comically bumbling pair of ministers, Robert Gildon and Giles Davies’s Scaphio and Phantis respectively, before coming under the sway of the Flowers of Progress, all well distinguished from each other. Anthony Flaum’s Captain Fitzbattleaxe (personifying the Army) evinces a sympathetic, unaffected tenor lead as the beloved of Zara, the King’s daughter, only breaking out into a fruitier romantic flourish for the ironic love song that parodies such roles in Italian opera. The company promoter Mr Goldbury is convincingly taken as a Cockney man-made-good by Paul Featherstone, alongside the Lord Chamberlain’s reedy warble of Tim Walton’s Lord Dramaleigh. If the other Flowers (Cameron Mitchell’s Sir Bailey Barre QC, MP; Aidan Edwards’s county councillor Mr Blushington; and Stephen Godward in the cameo from HMS Pinafore, Captain Sir Edward Corcoran) sound more demure by comparison, their parts are much less prominent.

The two most English roles – Zara, who has been educated at a Cambridge ladies’ college, and her governess, Lady Sophy – are enacted with suitably clipped accents and at times arch demeanour by Monica McGhee and Katharine Taylor-Jones, but still register as somewhat stiff and withdrawn compared with the production’s prevailing vivacity. Rachel Speirs and Meriel Cunningham are winningly mercurial and mischievous as Zara’s younger sisters, Nekaya and Kalyba, like the cartoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle as they jibe about the people around them and play tricks upon them.

Despite the slightly reduced orchestral force of twenty-six players in the pit, the National Festival Orchestra still produce notable heft under John Andrews’s conducting, which is attentive without becoming at all ponderous, but the inner parts of Sullivan’s contrapuntal writing and the not uninteresting accompanying figures and harmonies come through clearly. Apart from the odd slip in more scurrying music, the performance achieves ideal ebullience in livelier numbers, not least the sustained ensemble finale of Act One. Without departing much from traditional approaches to G&S production practice, this realisation of the opera brings it to life adroitly and coherently, letting the satire speak for itself.

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