Friday 11 August 2023

Ruddigore: Gilbert & Sullivan's supernatural Gothic melodrama at Opera Holland Park

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Stephen Gadd & chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Stephen Gadd & chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore; Matthew Kellett, David Webb, John Savournin, Stephen Gadd, Richard Suart, Llio Evans, Heather Lowe, Heather Shipp, Natasha Agarwal, Caroline Carragher, director: John Savournin, City of London Sinfonia, conductor David Eaton: Opera Holland Park with Charles Court Opera

Strong individual performances and a cast filling the stage with colour and movement lift this traditional and slightly too low-key production

Opera Holland Park (OHP) completed its 2023 season with a third collaboration with Charles Court Opera for Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore which opened on Wednesday 9 August 2023. John Savournin directed and David Eaton conducted the City of London Sinfonia in a production designed by Madeleine Boyd with lighting by Mark Jonathan and choreography by Merry Holden. Matthew Kellett was Robin Oakapple, with David Webb as Richard Dauntless, John Savournin as Sir Despard Murgatroyd, Stephen Gadd as Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, Richard Suart as Old Adam, Llio Evans as Rose, Heather Lowe as Mad Margaret, Heather Shipp as Dame Hannah, plus Natasha Agarwal and Caroline Carragher.

Ruddigore features some of my favourite individual moments in any of G&S, but as an opera, it is tricky to bring off. Gilbert's librettos for Sullivan generally featured a diverse group of comic and satirical targets held together via a setting that provides a strong frame. The cod-Japanese setting in The Mikado and the fairy/house of Lords theme in Iolanthe are strong enough to provide a secure frame into which almost anything else will fit. Ruddigore, written in 1887 as a follow-up to The Mikado uses the idea of the Gothic melodrama so popular on the Victorian stage. Contemporary audiences would have had no problem identifying the references and it was a frame into which, as before, almost anything will fit - mock-Weber professional bridesmaids, mock-Donizetti mad scenes, jolly Jack Tars, a mysterious curse, books on etiquette. For a modern director, this remains something of a challenge as the Victorian melodrama has almost entirely fallen out of currency.

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)

Rather bravely, John Savournin and Madeleine Boyd decided to run with it, so we had a setting true to the libretto's rubric. Boyd's sets were, it must be admitted, more functional than inspiring, a simple set of doors depicting the village, and they did not quite make sufficient impact on the wide OHP stage. Charles Court Opera is a touring company, working generally in small spaces and for all the wit and enjoyment of their OHP stagings, I feel that they have not quite got the hang of filling up the bigger (and rather challenging) space. 

The opening scenes were firmly in melodrama territory with plenty of deliberate over-acting but also some delightful knowing references too. But the first half of the Act One is always a challenge; the temperature really only rises when we meet Mad Margaret and Sir Despard. Before this, for all the delight and charm of individual numbers, I felt that the drama sagged rather; that David Eaton's speeds and the pace of the dialogue were a bit to careful and steady. That said, there were plenty of solo  moments that stood out, whilst the unusual (for Gilbert & Sullivan) love triangle of Robin (Ruthven), Rose and Richard was very strongly highlighted including some hints at the homo-erotic nature of Robin and Richard's relationship! With the advent of Mad Margaret and Sir Despard, we really leaned into stereotypes and the fun took off. 

The set for Act Two was somewhat disappointing; again Boyd's designs did not have sufficient impact on the stage and there was only one picture. The ancestors did not step out of their frames, but simply appeared. This was, I think, a mistake; we should feel their lowring presence and a modern performance is much improved by the fine march Sullivan wrote for the ancestors (this was cut early on and was not included here). But the contrast between Savournin's cloak-twirling Sir Despard and Matthew Kellett's mild-mannered Sir Ruthven was delightful, especially as the scene where Kellett practised his nasty gestures with Old Adam (Richard Suart) really leaned into the fact that Suart is an old G&S hand, so that Old Adam was far better at the nastiness than Sir Ruthven.

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Heather Shipp, Matthew Kellett - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Heather Shipp, Matthew Kellett - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)

One big plus of the whole production was the way that Savournin and choreographer Merry Holden used the stage. The sets might have underwhelmed, but this was an all singing, all dancing production where the full extent of the stage was used. Unlike some OHP productions this season (for instance La Boheme), the main stage and the fore stage were both used. We got to see the singers close to, and felt that this was a production that lived in the whole theatre. No dancers were employed, but chorus and principals worked hard and there was a sense of joy in the dancing whilst it never felt over-choreographed.

Llio Evans made a charming Rose Maybud, with a vein of steel running through her too. Evans triumphed over a rather unfortunate 1970s-style wig (we could not decide whether it was an unfortunate mistake or trying so make a satirical point), and brought a nice seriousness to Rose's devotion to the etiquette book. As with much of Gilbert's satire, the only way to make it work is if the character takes it entirely seriously, as here. Evans also has plenty of power under the hood, so that her big moments with Kellett's Robin/Ruthven soared. She, Kellett and David Webb also brought out the tensions in their tri-partite relationship.

Matthew Kellett made a lovely Robin, really leaning into the character's naïve, humble farmer image. He has a fine lyric baritone voice which impressed, but this was combined with a real feel for Gilbert's text so that he engaged throughout. His struggles in Act Two as he tries to be bad were a complete delight in their own right, but Kellett managed to make the whole piece centre not on this but on the complexities of that tri-partite relationship.

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Llio Evans - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Llio Evans - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)

David Webb was an engaging Richard Dauntless, gamely doing the hornpipe and mugging madly in a role which is more stereotype than character. Webb had a lovely wide-boy stage presence and even hampered by a silly accent still made an impact. It isn't Webb's fault that Richard rather got left behind in Act Two where he is almost redundant as a character.

Stephen Gadd had the time of his life as Sir Roderic. It helps that Sir Roderic's number with the chorus, The Ghosts' High Noon is one of the best and strongest in the opera, and Gadd certainly made it count for every penny. His subsequent reconciliation with Dame Hannah (Heather Shipp) brought together two strong characters. Shipp had impressed in Act One where she recounted the tale of the baronets of Ruddigore in a narrative that was engagingly compelling. 

Heather Lowe really leaned into the depiction of Mad Margaret as a heroine wandering in from a Donizetti opera, and managed to be crazed and musical in her opening number. Her subsequent reconciliation with Savournin's now reformed Sir Despard felt, as ever, a little unpowered but that is the fault, I think of composer and librettist. I have never seen this scene really work. Natasha Agarwal sang and danced winningly as the lead bridesmaid, Zorah, with Caroline Carragher aiding and abetting as Ruth.

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - David Webb - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - David Webb - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)

The 14-strong chorus was in fine form, singing and dancing with a will. The women created a real sense of character with their bridesmaids. The men provided admirable support as the bowler hatted 'chorus of bucks and blades' but it was as the ancestors that they had real fun, and Boyd had also clearly enjoyed the task of creating a series of vivid costumes to match.

Diction was excellent, though as I have said, I felt that the delivery of the dialogue was compromised by the emphasis on clarity and delivery. Perhaps staging G&S in the space is a little too much of a compromise. The work was performed in David Eaton's reduction for 16 players which was a shame as Sullivan's scoring is not outrageous and his use orchestration is dazzling. Eaton's reduction was more than serviceable, but there were times when you felt the corners being cut.

Ruddigore is a piece that benefits from directorial intervention. John Savournin's aim of being true to the original might have been laudable, but the production did not really create a strong enough frame for Gilbert's diverse elements. Each aspect of the opera was strongly performed, but the underlying Gothic melodrama just did not resonate strongly enough with a modern audience.

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - John Savournin & chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - John Savournin & chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Craig Fuller)

Too many of the decisions about this production - sets, size of the chorus, reduced orchestration - felt governed by economics rather than artistic necessity, and it was left to the cast to fill the stage with energy and joy. Next year, OHP and Charles Court Opera are collaborating on a production of The Yeomen of the Guard, and I think that they need to have a re-think about what it takes to perform G&S in this space.

If you are interested in the original Ruddigore, with an extended scene for the ancestors, a longer finale and other usually cut number, then do Support Planet Hugill and buy my Recommended recording of Ruddigore (from New Sadler's Wells Opera) from Amazon.

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