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Utopia, Limited

by on 3 April 2022

Companies Act

Utopia, Limited

by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W. S. Gilbert

Scottish Opera at the Hackney Empire, 1st April

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited is their penultimate work together.  It’s a work not often performed, and it wasn’t as enthusiastically received by contemporary audiences as the other Savoy operas.  Nonetheless, Utopia has a lot to recommend it and Scottish Opera’s current touring production is well worth a visit. 

Utopia, Limited revisits themes satirised in the more complex plots of Iolanthe and The Mikado (politics, the judiciary, commerce etc) but does so in a simpler way with a pared down plot and the added feature of Utopia having made itself a limited company (hence the title) on the wishes of its king, Paramount, who is obsessed with all things British.

Set on a beautiful, far away paradise island, King Paramount awaits the return of his daughter, Princess Zara, from Britain and a Girton College education (Girton College at the time pioneering university education for women).  In the meantime King Paramount has fallen in love with his younger daughters’ governess, Lady Sophy, which has appalled his advisors, Scaphio and Phantis as it weakens their influence.

On her return, Princess Zara is accompanied by her British protectors, the Flowers of Progress, including Captain Fitzbattleaxe to whom she is engaged.  The usual shenanigans then ensue, including Scaphio and Phantis’ efforts to prevent the king and Lady Sophy getting together, and the island’s rulers descending into chaos, all against Gilbert’s satirical commentary on powerful institutions of all sorts. 

Charlie Drummond, with her exceptional soprano voice, played a beautifully arch Princess Zara, and raised the banner for Girton’s potential graduates by suggesting the possible solution to Utopia’s chaos: “Government by Party …. No political measures will endure, because one party will assuredly undo all that the other party has done”.  Sioned Gwen Davies and Catriona Hewitson as Princesses Kalyba and Nekaye respectively, did a great comic turn whilst endearingly bringing to mind the Teddy Bear Ladies from the BBC’s Repair Shop.

Fitzbattleaxe’s Act II song, “A tenor … should keep himself quiet”, was very fetchingly done by William Morgan.  Ben McAteer and Yvonne Howard as King Paramount and Lady Sophy made an engaging couple, and in a group of highly skilled voices, Mark Nathan’s baritone was particularly rich. 

Scottish Opera’s semi-staged production played out in front of an exotic jungle backdrop on an otherwise empty stage, with a throne and a crown deployed when necessary.  There were, however, costumes, including evening dress in Act II, but the lack of a full set and costumes mattered not one bit, Stuart Maunder’s brisk direction together with Derek Clark’s impressive orchestra moved the work along at a great pace and Isabel Baquero’s small but perfectly executed bits of choreography added both wit and elegance.  

Such is the level of professional skill of Scottish Opera, no one appeared to be wearing head mics and it might have been wise (in the way of covering absolutely every detail) to move some voices a little further downstage when the stage was full and the orchestra (featuring a strikingly good trumpet), at full blast.

In 2022 there might also be some question as to the colonial references in Utopia, Limited but there was a sense of irony present at the time, as Princess Zara maintains while she sings the praises of Britain:

“Let us hope, for her sake,

That she makes no mistakes –

That she’s all she professes to be!”

A very enjoyable production, well worth seeing.

Eleanor Lewis, April 2022

Photography by Julie Howden

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