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The Gondoliers

by on 1 April 2022

Fast, Flippant and Frolicsome

The Gondoliers

by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W. S. Gilbert

Scottish Opera at the Hackney Empire until 2nd April

Review by Mark Aspen

Let’s go to Venice, it may be flooded under Climate Change, but what the hell, it still holds its romance and not a little bit of mystery.  Or perhaps cross the Adriatic to Barataria.  In 2022 it is probably unwise to go too far in that direction, but you probably won’t find Barataria on a map.  Let’s put the terrible tribulations of the present time aside for two and a half hours of Gilbert and Sullivan froth and froufrou, with outrageous plots that make even Shakespeare’s look plausible.    Fast, flippant and frolicsome, Scottish Opera’s Gondoliers captures all that is best in the Savoy opera style, that strange mix of memorable music, subtle satire and hearty humour.

We open to a view of Venice that would make Canaletto proud, filled with a chocolate-box tableau of wonderful pastel crinolines.  The superb setting by Designer Dick Bird is outstanding, and atmospherically lit by Paul Keogan.  It has plenty of other painterly pastiches: we see Ingres’ portrait of Napoleon purloined as a fairground double cut-out for the presentation of the two gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe, each now potentially but ambiguously King of Barataria.  Gillray makes his mark in the design of the outrageously OTT panniers in the gown of The Duchess of Plaza-Toro, who has come from Spain to re-claim the King for her daughter, who has just become Queen of Barataria.   Casilda, the daughter, arrayed in black and silver, is pure Velázquez.  She also sports an eye-patch like Princess of Éboli, referencing Verdi’s Don Carlos.   Or could it be that she cannot compete with Marco’s formula for his sweetheart when he sings, “Take a pair of sparkling eyes”? 

As the two ace gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri, bounce with happy-go-lucky glee between encounters.  William Morgan (whom we last saw as Prunier in West Green Opera’s La Rondine) plays Marco with more than a hint of mischievousness, and his lyrical tenor scales the heights of “Take a pair of sparkling eyes” in its poetic rendition.   Equally sparkling is baritone Mark Nathan’s lively “Rising early in the morning”, Giuseppe’s blueprint to bring a new anarchistic republicanism to his putative monarchy, sung with the chorus, and sprinkled with boyish naughtiness. 

We first see the Palmieri brothers choosing a bride from the adoring crowd of contadine (country girls) in the piazza, as these two Adonis get first dibs over the other gondoliers.  Although ostensibly blindfolded (more eye-patch references?) they cheat, and choose their own sweethearts.   Marco’s love is Gianetta and Giuseppe’s is Tessa.  (Dick Bird has helpfully colour-coded the costumes of the pair, red and blue respectively.)  Charlie Drummond is a charming Gianetta, who sings with fervour, her bell-like soprano “Kind sir, you cannot have the heart”, the lyrical love-song which she sings on discovering that the newly married couples must be parted, albeit temporarily, drawing accolades from the audience. The closing line, “ … woman’s heart is one with woman’s hand!” hangs like a teardrop.  Both girls are demure, but develop into pretty feisty womanhood when they decide to go to Barataria to find out for themselves.  Sioned Gwen Davies as Tessa gives much earnestness to her paean to marriage, “When a merry maiden marries”, nicely coloured in her mezzo warmth, (a far cry from the nature of her Pitti-Sing, one of the three little maids in Jonathan Miller’s Mikado for ENO).   

The chocolate box becomes more gob-smacking with the entry, accompanied by suitable Sullivan Iberian themes, of the noble party from Spain, the Duke of Plaza-Toro and his entourage.  The Duke is played by the eminent G&S exponent, baritone Richard Suart, who has a lifetime experience in the Savoy Opera canon (including also in the aforementioned Jonathan Miller’s Mikado).  Suart is comfortably placed in the role, whether explaining The Duke’s military career, his falling on hard times, relatively, or why he is setting himself up as a limited company, Gilbert’s dig at what he saw as the absurdities of the various eighteenth century Joint Stock Companies Acts.  Of course, the patter song is stock-in-trade for Suart and he not only has great fun with “Small titles and orders”, but embellishes it with “little list” type political squibs for 2022.

Also having fun is contralto Yvonne Howard, with her hyper-caricatured pannier dress, as The Duchess of Plaza-Toro.  The wayward dress often threatens to take over the role and indeed the whole stage, but Howard handles it with the aplomb of a seasoned performer.  Although she has performed with most leading UK opera companies, this is her debut with Scottish Opera.   “On the day when I was wedded” explains the development, over some decades, of her marital relationship with The Duke.  When she was upstage, however, a little more projection would have prevented the momentum slacking off. 

Catriona Hewitson’s Casilda flits from frisky flirtatiousness to supercilious superiority as she discovers that she is now Queen of Barataria, but her true heart is revealed in “Oh, bury, bury—let the grave close o’er” when she realises that her new position will, as she thinks, exclude her from marrying her secret love, Luiz.  Her clear lyrical soprano beautifully expresses the wretchedness at that point for Casilda.  It is a duet with Luiz, following his equally touching line, “Each all in all, ah, woe is me!”   Baritone, Dan Shelvey cuts a fine-looking figure as Luiz, the put-upon drummer and general factotum to The Duke, but who later proves to be key in the plot’s denouement.     

Ben McAteer as the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra del Bolero, gets more than his fair share of satirical and laugh lines, and layers them with great dollops of menace and lasciviousness in equal portions.  With his stage presence, and leather clad paunch, he looks imposing and his stentorian baritone sounds imposing.   The Inquisitor’s cynical wit unravels the misplaced idealism of the would-be egalitarian kings, “When everyone is somebodee, then no-one’s anybody!”

As Inez, the King’s foster mother, contralto Cheryl Forbes is a real scream, literally so as the Inquisitor’s threats are carried out for all to see … the rack!   With lashings (oops!) of zany black humour, the poor woman’s arms are elongated beyond, or without, a stretch of the imagination.   Forbes is incidentally a Falkirk Personality of the Year, and her Inez certainly has bags of personality!

In The Gondoliers, the chorus has a busy time, starting with “List and learn, ye dainty roses”, the famously long opening sequence (almost twenty minutes before spoken dialogue comes along).  The opera is also well-known for having more dance sequences than most G&S, a sherry-fuelled list of “cachucha, fandango, bolero” is promised.  Not to be outdone by the libretto, choreographer Isabel Baquero excels, putting The Chorus of the Gondoliers and some pretty nifty principals faultlessly through some intricate and demanding dance routines. 

The Orchestra of Scottish Opera is not so obviously visual, as the five-dozen strong orchestra is ensconced in the deep Hackney Empire pit, but they certainly make their presence known.  Conductor Derek Clark is a dyed-in-the-wool G&S fan, and certainly knows how to get the best out of Sullivan’s lively score.  Crisp, clear and pacey, it propels the action without forcing it.  One is struck by the wit of the score.  There is at first something that smacks of Rossini (Il Barbiere ?).  The quintet of Marco, Giuseppe, Casilda, Gianetta and Tessa, just before the finale, when the ladies ponder the concept of possibly having two-thirds of a husband each, is pure Mozart (the other Figaro, Le Nozze ?). “O moralists all, how can you call marriage a state of unitee?” 

So it seems that both Gilbert and Sullivan liked their references.  Director Stuart Maunder pays homage to these references, and to the (slightly updated) satires, but without caricaturising the caricature that is G&S.  He takes Scottish Opera on quite a journey to Barataria (and wasn’t that even a jest in Don Quixote?).  It seems almost a shame to come back from Barataria to Venice to Hackney.

Mark Aspen, March 2022

Photography by James Glossop

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