Sunday 10 July 2022

Style and substance: a fascinating & engaging account of The Yeomen of the Guard at the Grange

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard; Ellie Laugharne, Nick Pritchard, Nick Haverson, Angela Simkin, Nicholas Crawley, Heather Shipp, Graeme Broadbent, John Savournin, dir: Christopher Luscombe, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, cond: John Andrews; the Grange Festival
Reviewed 8 July 2022 (★★★★½)

A sympathetic and stylish account of the most serious of the G&S operas, combining fine singing indeed, plenty of words and some remarkable physical theatre from Nick Haverson's superb Jack Point

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an apparently effortless sequence of Savoy Operas that trace an arc of development from The Sorcerer through to The Mikado and Ruddigore; when the run of one opera came to an end, there was another one waiting. However, Ruddigore was not a success on opening night and only after changes, including removing some of Sullivan's more serious music, did it achieve a respectable run. And when it closed, for the first time in their partnership there was no new opera ready. The work that did appear, in 1888 was Yeomen of the Guard, the most serious of Gilbert and Sullivan's collaborations. It is not the serious, grand opera that Sullivan wanted, but Gilbert's plot includes hardly any element of topsy-turveydom and the comic elements are woven into a serious plot. Sullivan responded with some of his most developed music, the two act finales in particular move well away from the familiar comic patter. As such, the opera responds well to performance by operatic voices, and it has the slightly dubious distinction of being the only complete Gilbert & Sullivan opera to be performed at the Royal Opera House (when Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the forces of Welsh National Opera in 1995). Whilst there have been more recent productions from Carl Rosa Opera Company and at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, there has not been a major opera house or festival production this century.

So it welcome news that Christopher Luscombe directed Gilbert & Sullivan's Yeomen of the Guard at the Grange Festival when we caught the final performance (8 July 2022). John Andrews conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with John Savournin as Sir Richard Cholmondeley, Nick Pritchard as Colonel Fairfax, Graeme Broadbent as Sergeant Meryll, David Webb as Leonard Meryll, Angela Simkin as Phoebe Meryll, Nick Haverson as Jack Point, Ellie Laugharne as Elsie Maynard, Nicholas Crawley as Wilfred Shadbolt and Heather Shipp as Dame Carruthers. Designs were by Simon Higlett, lighting by Paul Pyant and choreography by Ewan Jones.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Nick Haverson, Nicholas Crawley - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - 'Hereupon we're both agreed': Nick Haverson, Nicholas Crawley - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

The opera has a very specific setting and the dramaturgy is the sort of complex mechanism that directors tinker with at their peril. Simon Higlet's striking set was an attractive depiction of Tower Green, and as such completely timeless. Luscombe (who directed the stripped back Pagliacci at the Grange in 2020, see my review, and the delightful 1950s-set Falstaff in 2019, see my review) introduced one significant innovation, the work was set in July 1919. Colonel Fairfax's supposed crime was spying during the war, whilst Jack Point and Elsie Maynard became musical hall comedians. It worked very well, with few if any disjoints and only slight adjustments (I think) to the dialogue. It also allowed director and cast to have fun with some of the stiffer elements of Gilbert's dialogue. So that the Act One dialogue between John Savournin's Sir Richard Cholmondeley and Nick Pritchard's Colonel Fairfax was given in the wonderfully clipped stiff-upper-lip tones of 1930s British cinema, whilst in Fairfax (as Leonard) wooing of Elsie, Pritchard and Ellie Laugharne really channelled Brief Encounter.

Luscombe and choreographer Ewan Jones marshalled their forces well. There was choreography including the principals dancing in some of the lighter numbers, notably trio 'How say you, maiden, will you wed?' for Cholmondeley  (Savournin), Elsie (Laugharne), and Point (Haverson), but in the larger scale number Luscombe kept movement to a minimum, keeping the relatively small stage from being cluttered and allowing Sullivan's large-scale finales to happen in a dramatic and musical fashion. And these are the moments when Sullivan's writing approaches the type of serious light opera that he strained at and never really achieved.

Jack Point is a role that allows a variety of interpretation. The first Jack Point was the actor, writer and comedian George Grossmith whose voice was actorly rather than operatic trained, and I have heard the role sung by singers as different as Tommy Steele (at the Tower of London in 1978), and a fine Wagnerian, Derek Hammond-Stroud. Here Nick Haverson is an actor (who trained at LAMDA) and whose credits include the Royal Shakespeare Company (where he worked with Luscombe) and Improbable. This was not Haverson's first Gilbert & Sullivan, he performed in The Pirates of Penzance at the Orange Tree, Richmond. His voice was striking, very much an extension to his speech (which is a bonus in the more patter moments), yet possessed of a depth and character that meant that he certainly did not disappear in the ensembles, which can be problem when mixing operatic and non-operatic voices. There was no amplification, Haverson simply used the fine acoustics of the Grange's theatre to strongly expressive purposes. 

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Nick Haverson, Ellie Laugharne, John Savournin - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - 'How say you, maiden, will you wed?': Nick Haverson, Ellie Laugharne, John Savournin - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

But what set Haverson's remarkable performance apart was his use of physical theatre. His Jack Point was very funny and very physical, effectively setting him apart from the other characters in a way that made the finale (where Jack Point is the only character to be left alone) an extension of the dramaturgy. Haverson had the knack of being touching and entertaining, giving the character a poignancy all the while whilst being funny and cracking bad jokes. His scene with Savournin's Cholmondeley when Point is trying to convince Cholmondeley of his suitability for Court Jester was a complete delight. The ending was as moving, and as shocking, as it should be with the heart breaking return of 'I have a song to sing, O', though I was not quite convinced by Luscombe's gloss at the very end, turning the screw a bit more.

Yeomen has the vestiges of the Gilbert & Sullivan's tendency to cast the young female roles in threes, providing the heroine with two companions. Here we have Elsie (Elle Laugharne), Phoebe (Angela Simkin) and Kate (Caroline Taylor), this latter Dame Carruther's niece. But this is not developed, Kate becomes almost a cipher, whilst both Elsie and Phoebe are developed. Both are effectively, dual female leads, both rivals for the affections of Fairfax as Leonard. We met Phoebe first, and Angela Simkin was wonderfully sparky as a young woman straining at the restraints placed on her sex (a nice hint of the revolution is women's rights that was beginning to happen at the time). Simkin really charmed yet also gave a sense of strong character, and used her mezzo-soprano in a light and delightful way. Ellie Laugharne brought surprising depth to Elsie's music, she was quite a way away from the soubrette and this repaid in spades the complexities of Elsie's role. Laugharne was beautifully touching in 'I have a song to sing, O' with Haverson and she moved her Act One solo, 'Tis done, I am a bride' securely into the serious light opera territory that the music deserves.  

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Angela Simkin, Nick Pritchard, Ellie Laugharne - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - The Colonel and his Ladies: Angela Simkin, Nick Pritchard, Ellie Laugharne - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

The whole of the love triangle was finely and engagingly articulated in the trio 'A man who would woo a fair maid' when Pritchard, Laugharne and Simkin used Ewan Jones' movement to create something that was elegantly expressive and rather funny. 

Nick Pritchard played Fairfax as a finely upright, stiff-upper lip officer but there were delightful hints of a less admirable character, including the trio with Wilfred (Nicholas Crawley) and Phoebe (Smikin) at the end of Act One, where it was clear that Fairfax as Leonard's 'care' of his 'sister' Phoebe would be very intimate indeed. There is also the wooing of Elsie as well, and of course the treatment of Elsie in the Act Two finale when she has to submit to her resurrected husband sight unseen, even though he knows quite clearly who she is. There are the elements of a very different Fairfax in there, but Pritchard has such a profoundly beautiful and finely expressive voice that he made the character open, frank and believable. Pritchard is a noted Evangelist in Bach's Passions, and here showed a similar ability to combining spinning a superbly easy line with killer diction. This was a wonderfully well sung and enunciated account of the role, a fine achievement indeed.

Both Graeme Broadbent's Sergeant Meryll and Angela Simkin's Phoebe had elements of a Northern accent (though they came and went a bit). We did wonder whether it was to show that they were freer and more open than the buttoned up Southerners. Broadbent played Meryll quite broadly, making him very much a character that perhaps inclined to the music hall somewhat, yet combined with a finely musical account of the role. Cholmondeley is a relatively small role, yet John Savourin captured him to perfection, stiff upper lip and a care for his charges, aligned of course to Savournin's fine feel for the style of the music and text.

Nicholas Crawley was a hilariously gloomy Wilfred Shadbolt. Not so much unsatisfactory of appearance (in fact this Wilfred was very personable), but his gloomy Eeyore-ish personality really came over. A sad clown, almost, and Crawley brought a fine physicality to Wilfred's tortured love for Phoebe. And his and Haverson's Act Two duet was a delight of physical comedy and patter. David Webb made a finely upright Leonard Meryll (the real one), making one regret that the role is rather small.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Graeme Broadbent, Heather Shipp - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - 'Rapture, Rapture': Graeme Broadbent, Heather Shipp - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

Whilst there are elements of the typical Gilbert & Sullivan rampantly sexual elderly lady in Dame Carruthers, her two main solos are highly serious and Carruthers is very much the vocal embodiment of the ethos of the Tower. Heather Shipp made a fine Carruthers indeed, effortlessly playing older than her real age without a pronounced element of caricature. Both her Tower solos were finely done indeed, yet she showed a neat physical comedy as well in the ironic duet 'Rapture, Rapture' with Graeme Broadent's Sergeant Meryll spotlighting their two very different attitudes to the forthcoming nuptials.

Caroline Taylor, as Kate, made a fine solo contribution to the quartet 'Strange Adventure' with Shipp, Pritchard and Broadbent). Taylor was a member of the Grange Chorus, and other chorus members supplied other solo roles, David Menezes, Pedro Ometto, Vladimir-Mihai Sima and Armand Rabot as Yeomen, Joshua Baxter, James Wafer, Martins Smaukstelis and Samuel Knock as Citizens.

Like several Gilbert & Sullivan operas, The Yeomen of the Guard has a complex textual history. We heard Wilfred Shadbolt's jealousy aria at the beginning of Act One (cut because the singer for whom it was written left the company), superbly delivered by  Nicholas Crawley, providing added depth to Shadbolt's character. 'Rapture, Rapture' (for Carruthers and Sergeant Meryll) is another number that is often cut, and in the Act One finale, the couplets for some of the Yeomen describing Leonard Meryll's adventures were restored.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Heather Shipp - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - 'Warders are ye, whom do ye ward?': Heather Shipp - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

The Grange Festival chorus were on strong form, and had plenty to do as the chorus plays both citizens and yeomen. There was little in the way of choreography, they tended to sing stationary, quite understandably, but the men formed a very striking force of Yeomen (with a neat turn of marching). And all concerned made a fine noise indeed.

In the pit, John Andrews and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra showed just what can be done when you treat Sullivan's score with sympathy and seriousness. Even at his most comic, there was a serious element of Sullivan's music making and it was lovely to have the music so finely played here. The orchestra has showed itself remarkably versatile for this year's residency at the Grange Festival, proving adept at providing stylish and highly accomplished accompaniments to operas by Handel and Verdi, as well as G&S and an evening of symphonic jazz!

This was a profoundly accomplished evening, finely sung and played. Yet Gilbert & Sullivan operas are about the words as well as the music. One of the reasons Gilbert gave for declining to write the libretto of a grand opera for Sullivan was that in grand opera the librettist was subservient. In Gilbert & Sullivan the words count for a lot. Here everyone diction was admirable and more. There were surtitles, but we hardly needed them, such was the clarity and expressiveness of the text. This was an evening of words and music.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Ellie Laugharne, Nick Haverson - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - 'I have a song to sing, O', Act Two finale: Ellie Laugharne, Nick Haverson - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

The theatre at the Grange is an ideal size for Gilbert & Sullivan and this production by Christopher Luscombe showed itself highly sympathetic to the opera, finely expressive, and imaginative without any element of send-up, with John Andrews and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra ensuring strong musical values.

I vastly enjoyed this, and do hope the Grange Festival gives us some more Gilbert & Sullivan, how about an uncut Ruddigore! The operatic element of this year's festival is now at an end, with three extremely strong productions, Tamerlano, Macbeth and this Yeomen of the Guard. Next week the festival comes to a conclusion with two dance performances. Next year we are promised Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades and a double bill of Blow's Venus & Adonis and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas, plus dance from the Mark Morris Dance Company and an evening of Duke Ellington.

There was, however one further pleasant duty, before the curtain came down. This year, the festival has launched a new annual summer prize for a member of the company who shone during the season and showed the most potential. The £7,500 prize was awarded on stage by Patricia Hodge young soprano Isabel Garcia Raujo .

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