Sunday 20 November 2022

The sad clown and the ingenue: Jo Davies' 1950s-set production of The Yeomen of the Guard from English National Opera

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard; Richard McCabe, Alexandra Oomens, Heather Lowe, Anthony Gregory, Neal Davies, John Molloy, Susan Bickley, director: Jo Davies, conductor: Chris Hopkins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Amazingly, this is ENO's first production of The Yeomen of the Guard; very much a musical treat with strong performances all round

Gilbert & Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard is a tantalising work, an experiment in going in a new direction that was unfortunately a one-off. The couple's tenth opera, Ruddigore had not been a complete success when it premiered in 1887 and despite changes, it only went on to have a moderate run. The changes that were made to the piece included removing music that seemed too serious. The Yeomen of the Guard would remain the couple's only opera to really explore a more serious theme, in that it rather reminds you of Offenbach's later operas where he moved away from the mad-cap and satire to explore other themes including lyric comedy. Gilbert & Sullivan never quite managed it, alas. They followed The Yeomen of the Guard with The Gondoliers, a strangely unsatisfactory work despite Sullivan's wonderful tunes.

The Yeomen of the Guard seems to be having its moment and following on from the Grange Festival's fine production this Summer [see my review], English National Opera has been giving its first performances of the work. We finally caught up with Jo Davies' production at the London Coliseum on Saturday 19 November 2022. Chris Hopkins conducted, with Anthony Gregory as Colonel Fairfax, Neal Davies as Sergeant Meryll, Alexandra Oomens as Elsie Maynard, Heather Lowe as Phoebe Meryll, Richard McCabe as Jack Point, John Molloy as Wilfred Shadbolt, Susan Bickley as Dame Carruthers, Steven Page as Sir Richard Cholmondely, Innocent Masuku as Leonard Meryll, and Isabelle Peters as Kate. Designs were by Anthony Ward.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Anthony Gregory, Alexandra Oomens- English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Anthony Gregory, Alexandra Oomens - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Jo Davies and Anthony Ward chose to update the action to the 1950s and during the overture, there was even a newsreel (video design by Andrzej Goulding) giving background to the action. The logic does not quite work, but you do not go to G&S for realism. A bigger problem is that G&S operas, whatever their setting, are about the society in which the creators lived and if we are going to update the opera, then setting it in the 1880s would make more sense. As it was Davies' updated text moved between the consciously arch and more modern idioms, but then Gilbert's original does the same.

For most of Act One, Ward's sets gave us a strong feel for the element of incarceration and enclosure, but no feeling of the Tower as an entity or a community. Apart from the entrance of Jack Point and Elsie Maynard, the chorus were entirely Yeomen warders and women in service uniforms. It wasn't quite sure who these women were, but Davies removed an element of the feeling of the opera being about an enclosed community. The biggest challenge faced by the production team, however, was the Coliseum itself. The theatre is simply too big for this style of opera, and Ward's designs seemed to deliberately open up the stage. Into this space, Davies threw a great deal of imagination, this was a very busy production with each musical number almost getting a different setting. Turning Dame Carruthers' first number, at the beginning of Act One, into a lecture might have seemed a good idea but it rather leached the point out of the piece. This happened a few times, despite fine musical performances the production's reliance on busy stage effects was rather a weakness. It was strongest when simplest, when Davies allowed us to focus.

The Yeomen of the Guard has little element of dance in the music, but the production team included choreographer Kay Shepherd and three dancers. The result was an element of capering that undercut the essentially serious tone of the work, which went as far as having a pair of comic guardsmen during the trio 'How say you, maiden, will you wed?' in Act One. A joke that quickly moved from mildly amusing to tedious.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - John Molloy, Richard McCabe - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - John Molloy, Richard McCabe - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Musically this was a strong performance, and wonderfully engaging. The dialogue was amplified (sound design by Nick Lidster), and an element of amplification was used in the musical numbers (I think), probably because Richard McCabe's singing voice would not have filled the theatre and it enabled him to bring a wide range to his performance with many of Jack Point's songs seeming to be extensions of McCabe's speaking voice. McCabe was very much the sad clown and his performance included nods to great comics from the 1950s and 1960s, and his capering always seemed to have an element of melancholy desperation to it and his final appearance was very moving.

Alexandra Oomens made a delightful Elisa Maynard, very much the ingenue who is caught up in complexities not of her making. Oomens brought clarity and directness to the role, sympathetically pairing with McCabe in 'I have a song to sing, O', and making its reprise in the finale touching indeed. By contrast, Heather Lowe's Phoebe was very feisty, and you sensed her chafing against the yoke of propriety all the time, including the naughty flirting with her 'brother'. And she sparred delightfully with John Molloy's wonderfully cadaverous Wilfred Shadbolt. And frankly, this Shadbolt seemed to be a rather more interesting catch than is usual. Molloy and McCabe made a terrific duo in 'Hereupon we're both agreed', though it did seem to be taken a tad slower than usual.

Colonel Fairfax is the official hero of the opera, and Anthony Gregory turned in a finely sung performance that brought out all the right characteristics of the character, very much 1950s stiff upper lip sort of thing. Gregory's tenor seems admirably fitted for this music and I loved his shapely, clean approach to the music. That said, the conception of the character here was entirely uncritical and there was no sense of the caddishness that is implicit in the story (his flirting with Phoebe in Act One and the general treatment of Elsie in the Act Two finale).

Neal Davies was an enjoyably serious Sergeant Meryll and Susan Bickley had great fun with Dame Carruthers, successfully avoiding the old battle axe trope, yet giving us someone rather fearsome, though I did wonder whether the role sat a little too low for Bickley. The smaller roles were all well taken with Innocent Masuku bringing a naive charm to Leonard and Steven Page as a very stiff upper lip Colonel. Isabelle Peters sang the rather small, and grossly underwritten, role of Kate.

The chorus had lots to do, there was plenty of movement in this production and they filled the stage admirably with colour and movement, a wonderfully engaging performance though, the complexities of the stage action sometimes seemed to mitigate against an ideal unanimity between stage and pit. Chris Hopkins and the orchestra had great fun with one of Sullivan's more complex scores.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Anthony Gregory, Neal Davies - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Anthony Gregory, Neal Davies - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

This was an engaging evening with some fine singing, without ever quite taking wing. Throughout the evening you felt the need to fill the space of the theatre, yet many of the audience were new to the work and perhaps new to the theatre and this was an admirable introduction.

As a rather pointed, yet most enjoyable postlude, after the bows (done with music from the orchestra), John Savournin came on (in his HMS Pinafore costume) to give us the Major General's patter song from Pirates of Penanze with new words that managed to make an amusing yet entirely apposite swipe at Arts Council England's recent ludicrous funding decision.

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