The very model of a mod­ern mu­sic theatre

Ge­of­frey Smith urges us to take a fresh look at Gil­bert & Sul­li­van

Country Life Every Week - - Performing Arts - Edited by Jane Watkins

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

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