The very model of a modern music theatre
Geoffrey Smith urges us to take a fresh look at Gilbert & Sullivan
DURING the Victorian heyday of the Savoy Operas, a friend of Sir Arthur Sullivan came upon the composer in a box at Covent Garden, attending a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with the score spread out before him. ‘You see,’ the composer smiled, ‘I’m taking a lesson. After all, it is the greatest comic opera ever written.’
Although Sullivan had mixed feelings about the success of his lighthearted collaborations with W. S. Gilbert and would have preferred acclaim for his more august classical creations, there’s no doubt that his Gilbertian works display the eminent gifts and learning of the leading British musician of the age. His effortless talent, wit and grace give the Savoy series their distinction, with the lyric sentiment and rhyth- mic vivacity of Sullivan’s scores humanising Gilbert’s penchant for absurdity and acerbity.
For generations, that winning theatrical combination has not only delighted audiences, but inspired would-be practitioners. A production of The Gondoliers launched Peter Maxwell Davies, the one-time enfant terrible of Modernism, on a career in composition and the Minimalist Philip Glass came to writing opera through playing in a high-school production of The Mikado: ‘I got to understand how theatre works, the musicians in the pit, the timing, getting singers on and off stage. It gave me a good solid background.’
In fact, I’ve always believed that Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) provide not just a background, but a bedrock for music theatre of a particularly British sort and that national companies are missing a trick by not maximising that richly frolicsome resource. People can be put off the Savoy legacy by the coy, camp performances that came to be associated with D’oyly Carte, summed up by the director Ian Judge as ‘middle-aged men jigging from foot to foot’, but there’s much more to G&S than that, as many recent productions have shown, with Jonathan Miller’s Art Deco transformation of The Mikado for ENO leading the way.
Indeed, ENO had intended to take Dr Miller’s evergreen stag- ing to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool this spring, before Blackpool Council requested a postponement until next year. Nonetheless, the G&S flag— emblazoned with a skull and crossbones—continues to fly over the Coliseum with Mike Leigh’s cheerily popular version of The Pirates of Penzance, until March 25 (020–7845 9300; www.eno.org).
Although admirers of Dr Miller’s stylish, knowing stagecraft may find the production rather functional, it’s a colourful show with some good performances, including Soraya Mafi’s scenestealing turn as Mabel, Sullivan’s pocket coloratura, and John
Tomlinson’s Sergeant of Police stumps comically about, as if Wagner’s Wotan had joined the Penzance constabulary.
Continuing until March 25, this shipshape Pirates gives ENO a strong bill through the rest of this month, in tandem with composer-conductor Ryan Wigglesworth’s gripping, well-made setting of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, in its world premiere run until March 14, and, from the 15th to the 24th, what ought to be an impressive revival of Christopher Alden’s 1920s Surrealist take on Handel’s comedy
Partenope, with an excellent cast headed by Sarah Tynan and Patricia Bardon.
English Touring Opera (www. englishtouringopera.org.uk; 020–7833 2555) has gladdened the hearts of G&S fans by including its first-ever Savoy Opera in the spring schedule the company has just taken on the road. G&S’S ever-topical ‘original aesthetic comedy’ Patience, satir- ising fashionable poets, lovelorn ladies and heavy-metal dragoons, is currently holding forth at London’s Hackney Empire, in an intriguing double bill with Tosca: sure-fire bliss for the full spectrum of operatic taste until March 10. This delicious combination will then set out across the country, from Poole on March 17–18, to Norwich in June.
One of the high points of London’s operatic year, however, is the new production of Wagner’s
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
at the Royal Opera House (020– 7304 4000; www.roh.org.uk).
Sullivan’s candidate for the greatest comic opera ever written has been chosen as the swan song of Covent Garden’s Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, who’ll be departing at the end of this season. Judging by his previous daring, if controversial, productions, his Die Meistersinger is bound to be a major talking point and its musical quality is guaranteed by the team of Music Director Sir Antonio Pappano and its star, the great Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. Get a ticket if you can for the performances from March 11–31.
However, the riches of opera and Covent Garden are not limited to one production; the thrills of great music and performances roll on. From March 23 to April 25, the well-loved staging of Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly by Moshe Leiser and Patric Caurier returns, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera’s former Chorus Director Renato Balsadonna.
Star sopranos Ermonela Jaho and Ana María Martínez will be sharing the role of Puccini’s tragic heroine.
The Pirates of Penzance’s new staging is a hit for ENO
Big in Japan: the Royal Opera’s romantic Madama Butterfly