Thursday 31 March 2022

You could not help but be won over: Scottish Opera's new Gilbert and Sullivan production parks its gondola at the Hackney Empire

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Dan Shelvey, Catriona Hewitson, Yvonne Howard and Richard Suart - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop.
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Dan Shelvey, Catriona Hewitson, Yvonne Howard and Richard Suart - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop.

Gilbert & Sullivan The Gondoliers; Richard Suart, Yvonne Howard, Ben McAteer, William Morgan, Mark Nathan, Charlie Drummond, Sioned Gwen Davies, Catriona Hewitson, Dan Shelvey, dir: Stuart Maunder, cond: Derek Clark; Scottish Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Charm & delight to the fore with a largely youthful cast for Scottish Opera's visit to London

Scottish Opera is currently making a welcome visit to London, performing two operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan (one popular, the other rare). We caught Scottish Opera in Stuart Maunder's production Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers at the Hackney Empire on 30 March 2022. Derek Clark conducted with Richard Suart and Yvonne Howard as the Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro, Ben McAteer as Don Alhambra del Bolero, William Morgan and Mark Nathan in the title roles, with Charlie Drummond and Sioned Gwen Davies as their beloveds, Catriona Hewitson as Casilda and Dan Shelvey as Luiz. Designs were by Dick Bird, lighting by Paul Keogan, and choreography by Isabel Baquero.

As a co-production with D'Oyly Carte Opera and State Opera South Australia, Dick Bird's sets and costumes were perhaps rather more luxurious than we often have with Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The opera is the final of Gilbert and Sullivan's regularly performed operas, afterwards came the 'carpet quarrel' and the two final works, The Grand Duke and Utopia Limited, neither of which are regularly performed (though Scottish Opera gives a concert staging of Utopia Limited at the Hackney Empire on 1/4/2022). But, even in The Gondoliers Gilbert was trying to vary the formula and the work comes with a deliberately large cast, rather than a few major roles, and effectively two story-lines which only properly intersect two thirds of the way through the opera. Gilbert's satire here is relatively gentle, and neither his skit on a Republican monarchy nor the Duke's turning himself into a limited company are quite developed enough. What the opera does have is tunes galore, and it is this aspect along with the attractive Venetian setting, that makes it so popular in the UK (and also high on the list of opera companies wanting to perform G&S).

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Mark Nathan, William Morgan - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop.
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Mark Nathan, William Morgan - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop.

Maunder and Bird took an entirely traditional view of the work, treating it seriously and never sending it up. The cast was an admirable mix of season professionals and young artists, including one current Scottish Opera Emerging Artist (Catriona Hewitson) and five former members of the scheme. The Hackney Empire was perhaps not the ideal theatre for the show, being somewhat larger than the company's Glasgow home, but all concerned filled the theatre with music and joy.

I did think that Maunder could perhaps have given the titular gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, a more pointed, revolutionary outlook; as it was Morgan and Nathan had to rely on youth and dashing charm with both showing eager good humour and willingness to be fully involved in the production's sometimes fussy movement and choreographic detail. Both also displayed a delightful naivety in the opening scenes of Act Two when describing their role in the republican monarchy. Charlie Drummond and Sioned Gwen Davies were similarly full of charm and delight. The four were engaging both in their solos and the ensemble numbers, without ever giving us a strong sense of individual character (perhaps this is Gilbert and Sullivan's fault).

As the other couple, Catriona Hewitson and Dan Shelvey made the most of their opportunities, she complete with Princess Eboli-like eye-patch and he a dab hand with his drum. Frankly here Gilbert gave the singers far more to work with. Both Hewitson and Shelvey relished their business where she has to pretend to be rude to him in public, before their passionate, private leave taking in Act One.

Here, I have to confess that I have always felt that The Gondoliers would make stronger drama if we had more of Casilda and Luiz, and less of Marco, Giuseppe, Gianetta and Tessa.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Catriona Hewitson - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop.
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Catriona Hewitson
Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop.
Richard Suart and Yvonne Howard had great fun as the penniless and venal Duke and Duchess, with Howard particularly rocking an entirely ludicrous dress that could easily have over-dominated. The comic talent was completed by Ben McAteer's ludicrous and camp Grand Inquisitor, a truly delightful portrayal.

The smaller roles were all superbly taken with Arthur Bruce, Osian Wyn Bowen, Oskar McCarthy, Flora Macdonald and Grace Maria Wain all stepping out of the chorus with aplomb. And Cheryl Forbes made the most of her crucial by tiny role as Luiz' mother Inez.

The production was fully planned when the pandemic happened, and this London visit was intended to come after a Scottish tour. As it was, the production debuted in October 2021 and the London performances were a revival (with one cast change, Charlie Drummond's Gianetta was new). 

The diction was satisfactory given that this was the company's first night in the theatre, but this was very much an opera company performing Gilbert and Sullivan, with music prized above words and there were times when I could have wanted more prominence to the words (many of the original Savoyards were more singing actors than opera singers). The chorus was hard working indeed, all singing and all dancing, always conveying the right sort of enthusiasm and keeping things light. Choreographer Isabel Baquero worked her singers hard, and the set (designed for touring) made life hard for them with the full chorus barely fitting in. But you couldn't tell, such was their enjoyment coming over.

In the pit, Derek Clark gave us quite a lush account of the score, clearly enjoying the myriad lyricisms that Sullivan gives us. At times I wondered whether there was a little too much enjoyment and whether the first act in particular could have lingered less.

For all my niggles, this was a delightful account of a charming score. The work was allowed to speak for itself and there was a lovely sense of youthful charm to the performance and great feeling of joyful engagement from the performers. You could not help but be won over. 

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