The houselights dimmed, and the director of Scottish Opera, Alex Reedijk, stepped through the curtain, a cue usually associated with a last-minute problem. Happily, this was to heartily welcome us back to Theatre Royal, the first ‘normal’ indoor opera since March 2020 with the socially distanced orchestra back in the pit and unmiked singers on stage. Normal for us in the audience still means masks inside and, in Glasgow, proof of vaccination (or equivalent) to gain admission to normal seating, but it felt safe. To celebrate, Scottish Opera has rounded up top Gilbert and Sullivan experts and enthusiasts to create a truly sumptuous production of The Gondoliers, a co-production with D’Oyly Carte and the State Opera of South Australia. Packed with cracking tunes, dances and a generous helping of sunny tra-la-las, it is a perfect choice to entice a still-nervous public back to the opera house.
Written at the peak of Gilbert and Sullivan’s success, The Gondoliers, with its daft baby-swapping plot, was originally written to have no star roles, but in fact there is a whole suite of memorable characters providing a varied musical palette and delightful set pieces. Director Stuart Maunder with his production team have chosen to think spectacular, with Dick Bird’s gorgeous splendidly showy costumes a credit to Lorna Price, head of costume. With ladies in flouncy pastel crinolines and men in Victorian gondolier garb, bell-bottomed trousers, stripy tops and boaters, her army of assistants had a huge task readying 35 performers in complicated period clothes and powdered wigs for curtain up. Bird's smart and effective magic lantern ‘Canaletto’ Venetian set was lit stylishly by Paul Keogan, each musical number lavished with individual attention.
The past 18 months have been particularly hard for singers just embarking on careers, so the choice of The Gondoliers allowed Scottish Opera to engage several emerging voices to take minor roles and augment the chorus. It was pure joy to hear the massed voices of the ‘four-and-twenty’ chorus, trained by Jonathon Cole-Swinard and expertly choreographed by Isabel Baquero. The big numbers were a heady swirl of movement, swish of costumes and pure infectious fun.
In an opera of three pairs of romantic leads, there was fine singing all round from Ellie Laugharne and Sioned Gwen Davies as feisty contadinas Gianetta and Tessa, chosen in a boisterous blindfold selection to be wives for carefree gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe, (William Morgan and Mark Nathan). In a clandestine relationship, Catriona Hewitson as Casilda, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, in a silver and black pannier skirt and eye-patch was a steely match for Dan Shelvey’s tenderly sung Luiz. Ben McAteer was a black-clad, no-nonsense Grand Inquisitor, his two storytelling numbers “I stole the prince” and “There lived a king” delivered with a gleeful zeal. Patter song grandee Richard Suart provided the horseplay as the Duke, and Yvonne Howard as the Duchess was costumed in an outrageous pannier skirt requiring wheels at each end as it was as wide as a gondolier’s oar is long.
For all its enchanting topsy-turvy wit, the work remains a Victorian period piece, although the egalitarian challenge to the established order of everyone in their rank and station has a resonance in a “prizes-for-all” attitude. And for Scottish audiences, for those who want to find it, the republican vs monarchy issue still grumbles away. Although some of the morals and behaviours are difficult to swallow these days, the work is what it is, and thankfully there were some mischievous up-to-date references which raised laughs.
Derek Clark, so enthusiastic that he visited the original score in London, conducted a decent sized orchestra keeping the pace steady and the playing light. Lyrical passages, especially from the woodwinds, were a delight and he nurtured his singers, balancing ensembles deftly while keeping everything crisply together in the livelier moments.
G&S is a curious mix of opera and music hall and pulling it off successfully is a challenge, particularly as some of the spoken dialogue can sound stilted. Duke and Duchess Suart and Howard know how the repertoire goes off pat, but in particular, Mark Nathan with his “Rising early in the morning” caught the pace and timing perfectly.
“A banquet and a dance? O it’s too much happiness!” Watching the company dance and sing the spectacular cachucha with such verve, it was hard not to agree with Tessa. The show will grow as it settles. What was scheduled to be a rousing end to Scottish Opera’s 2020 season has become a lively bump-start to 2021/22.About our star ratings