Monday 27 November 2006

Review of The Gondoliers at the London Coliseum

On Friday we went to see Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers in Martin Duncan's new production at the London Coliseum. Designed by Ashley Martin-Davis in picture-book colours (in fact the set itself was a picture-book) it looked handsome in a 1950's kitsch sort of way. Moving the time to the 1950's worked well enough, but I'm not sure why it was necessary.

More problematical was the piece itself. The Gondoliers was the final major piece that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote before their serious argument over the Savoy Theatre carpet. But even in The Gondoliers their collaboration was a little rocky, with Sullivan pressing for a more serious plot.

He got it, in a way, because the first 20 minutes of the opera are set to continuous music - the longest such span in the full length Savoy Operas. And Gilbert's topsy-turveydom (which was one of his principle strenghts), is rather watered down. Many commentators coo excitedly over the opening section, but though Sullivan's music is undeniably attractive it does not really go anywhere dramatically. I have yet to see a production which convinced me, I'm always so relieved when the Plaza Toros and the Grand Inquisitor come onto the scene!

Of course another problem is that there are too many leads, so no-one ever really gets a chance to develop their character. This is one of the respects in which, Gondoliers prefigures Utopia Limited. Utopia requires a serious number of comic leads and its main joke is a country being run as a limited company. Similarly Gondoliers requires rather a lot of leads and there is a minor, undeveloped plot strand which involves the Duke of Plaza-Toro becoming a Limited company; also the opening of Act 2, where we see the Gondoliers republican principals in action when running their new country, pre-figures Utopia.

Unfortunately in The Gondoliers Gilbert never really carrys any of this through. There is an enormous amount of good music, but the producer must work hard to make us care for it. This, Martin Duncan did not do. In the opening scenes of Act1, the chorus seemed to be having a good time but neither diction nor production were sharp enough. The small chorus solos needed a lot more work in putting over the words, drama and music.

David Curry and Toby Stafford-Allen worked very well as the 2 Gondolier leads, they made an attractive double act and put things across nicely. It is no fault of theirs that Gilbert's book lacks bit, he is not really satirising anything at all here. They were well partnered by Sarah Tynan and Stephanie Marshall, but none of them really made us care, or sit up and take notice.

This only happened when the Plaza Toros appeared (Geoffrey Dolton, Duke, Anne Murray, Duchess, Rebecca Bottone, their Daughter). It scarely mattered that the Duchess's part hardly suits the lower registers of Anne Murray's voice (the part was written for one of those forbidding contraltos that are an essential part of the G&S canon). She put the part over so well that it was an object lesson. Dolton made a wonderfully put-upon duke. Bottone and Robert Murray, as Luiz, had a wonderful time with their love scene. Here Gilbert and Sullivan approached the more sophisticated european operetta/opera comique and made one long for more in this vein.

But the person who dominated the stage was Donald Maxwell as the Grand Inquisitor. Got up in an amazingly stylishly outrageous costume (complete with silver heels) he put over the words effortlessly and dominated the stage without ever quite taking all the limelight from his fellows.

Act 2 worked far better, perhaps because there were a greater number of comic numbers, but of course, Act 2 isn't really about anything. Gilbert does nothing to develop either of his main ideas (the limited company or the Gondoliers republican principles) so we are left with a series of bravura comic pieces.

Richard Balcombe conducted a small-ish ENO orchestra. The results were attractive and flexible but perhaps could have been sharper. Though this was an enjoyable evening in the theatre, there were too many moments when both Balcombe and Duncan seemed to be content for things to jog along.

Perhaps I'd have been more sympathetic in a smaller theatre - seeing G&S in the Savoy Theatre made me realise how well it works in a more intimate venue. But I think that all the show really needs is a bit of polishing. I hope that ENO are not content to leave it as it is, but work at what they've got.

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