The Sorcerer – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert [sung in English]
Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre – Stephen Roe
Alexis Pointdextre – Alex Carpenter
Dr Daly – Chris Cann
John Wellington Wells – Tony Bannister
Notary – Geoffrey Wallis
Lady Sangazure – Helena Culliney
Aline Sangazure – Laura Jamie Anstice
Mrs Partlet – Cissy Street-Mellor
Constance Partlet – Mary Grace Black
Hercules – Katie Frodsham
Ahrimanes – Eirian Walsh Atkins
Chorus & Orchestra of New London Opera Group
Tony Bannister – Director
Lucy Harrold – Production
Alex Woolley – Lighting
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 24 June, 2023
Venue: Riverhead Theatre, Louth, Lincolnshire, England
The Sorcerer (1877) was Gilbert & Sullivan’s third collaboration, marking a milestone in their partnership as it was their first full length drama and achieved a notable success, buoying them to go on and create the further eleven works which constitute the sequence of Savoy Operas. The caustic wit of Gilbert’s libretto satirises the temperance movement, village tea parties, and the social pretensions of the minor aristocracy, as well as Alexis’s pinko ideals in seeking to counteract the latter and foster egalitarianism through the bliss of wedded love that leads him to call upon JW Wells’s magic potions (though he is rather perturbed when he discovers that such levelling up (how Gilbert could have lampooned Government policy today) within his circle means that his father, Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre, falls in love with the pew-opener Mrs Partlet).
But Gilbert’s cleverly wrought drama also interweaves a number of allusions to, and parodies of, the operatic and stage repertoire itself, enabling Sullivan to bring to bear his equally versatile genius upon the score which demonstrates an appealing array of musical styles and forms. If the idea of the love philtre derived immediately from an earlier short story which Gilbert wrote, somewhere at the back of his mind was surely the love juice used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the elixir which serves as the turning point in Tristan und Isolde or, less seriously, in L’elisir d’amore. The incantation scene, as the potion is magically concocted by Wells in a teapot, consciously satirises the episode at the Wolf’s Glen in Der Freischütz, and the guests’ imbibing of that (believing it simply to be tea) ironically mimics the genre of the brindisi or (alcoholic) drinking song in however many Italian operas. Wells’s communing with the supernatural and his being carried off by the evil spirit Ahrimanes also intentionally or subliminally invokes Don Giovanni and his doom at the hands of the dead Commendatore, especially with the juxtaposition of a banquet here (although the sandwiches and tea of the party at Ploverleigh are rather simpler fare than the pheasant and fine wine on which Don Giovanni gorges in his last feast).
Tony Bannister directs an adroit production which foregrounds such connections with its effective choreography and stagecraft – Wells is led up the staircase to the door in the set’s façade, and disappears into oblivion through an agglomeration of shadows and smoke, like Don Giovanni; and his earlier incantation is accompanied with the added spectacle of fireworks and explosions. The stylish presentation in the 1920s enables the different stratifications of class and society to be clearly exemplified in something of the manner of a P. G. Wodehouse Blanding Castle story, perhaps crossed with Barbara Pym’s slightly later novels, as Stephen Roe’s rambunctious baronet Sir Marmaduke, Helena Culliney’s prim Lady Sangazure (until her passions fire up under the potion’s influence) and Chris Cann’s amiably nostalgic and lovelorn clergyman Dr Daly people the drama alongside the renditions of Mrs Partlet and her daughter Constance in these performances with a West Country burr (slightly bordering on the shrill) by Mary Grace Black and Cissy Street-Mellor. They followed in that accent by the chorus of villagers.
Alex Carpenter as Alexis, a Grenadier Guard, is appropriately and vociferously ardent in his enthusiasms, and peremptory when things don’t go the way he wishes, matched by Laura Jamie Anstice as his betrothed Aline in clear, determined voice. Bannister takes the part of Wells, seemingly denying himself the indulgence of too much charisma and thereby eclipsing his colleagues on stage as his deadpan, Cockney-tinged characterisation in sombre attire like an undertaker gives the effect of slightly charlatan businessman if without any demonic flair. But vocally his carefully paced and crisply articulated delivery of the role’s music – above all in G&S’s first great patter song ‘My name is John Wellington Wells, I’m a dealer in magic and spells’ – cannot be faulted.
David Anstice-Pim’s conducting of the reduced orchestration (for eight performers) is lively and very effective, led as much by the clarion sonority of trumpet and horn, and the piquant flute (sometimes with the incision of a piccolo) as from the piano – which, in Matthew Jeffery’s discreet contribution, stands in almost like an eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century operatic continuo. In line with the energetic choreography, the modest resources of this production never seem like a compromise but play to the strengths of a delightful work, making this a welcome realisation of one of the less frequently encountered works of the G&S canon.
Further performance on July 31 at the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, Buxton