Since the death of conductors like Isidore Godfrey, Malcolm Sargent and Charles Mackerras, all of whom feature heavily in the Gilbert and Sullivan discography with many excellent soloists of the last century, there has been no mainstream conductor that has really given the work of Gilbert and Sullivan its due; countless amateur dramatic societies and a few professional opera houses have done their bit in damaging the reputation of Sullivan as a composer by presenting his work either in very bad amateur productions, or simply by producing a G&S opera as a novelty in otherwise seriously heavy German and Italian opera seasons. I am by no means counting the amateur and professional organisations that generally produce good productions – the Buxton G&S Festival and Raymond Gubbay, for example – but they are few, and even those can have a limited audience appreciation. However, in recent years, conductor John Wilson has brought us extraordinary performances of Ruddigore and The Yeoman of the Guard, but with one key difference: he loves the music and the words. Introducing various numbers from tonight’s potpourri with sincere admiration, Wilson lead the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir and the soloists in an excellent evening full of insight, wit and humour.

John Wilson © Chris Christodoulou
John Wilson
© Chris Christodoulou

Opening the concert with the sparkling overture from The Gondoliers, one of the few arranged and orchestrated by Sullivan himself, Wilson extracted Italian sunshine from the orchestra in an already very warm concert hall. Steadily paced, the overture’s sweetly executed and extended cantabile oboe solo might have been a shade faster, but the central gavotte and closing cachucha (added by Sargent) were beautifully matched in grace and energy respectfully. The chorus, trained by Ian Tracey (also an ardent G&S fan), arrived in The Sorcerer’s “Ring forth, ye bells” and displayed wonderful balance and diction before tenor Ben Johnson cooled the mood and atmosphere in a sweet performance of “Is life a boon?” from The Yeoman of the Guard. Moving on through extracts from popular operas such as The Mikado and HMS Pinafore as well as less well known numbers from Iolanthe and Princess Ida, comic baritone and G&S specialist Simon Butteriss held the room in the palm of his hand in one of his typically topical and hysterical little lists, shaming everyone from politicians to bankers (in rhyming slang, which I’m sure you can, blushing and flushed, work out...). The real ornament of the stage was the crystalline soprano Sarah Fox, whose voice is so pure and diction so clear that confident intonation and security across the whole register of her voice fall naturally into place, easily establishing her as one of the loveliest voices presently available on any opera stage or concert platform.

Following the interval, a rare treat in the form of Trial by Jury in its entirety made for a pleasingly short and bubbly second half. This half-hour cantata that cemented the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership in 1875, is set in a ludicrously biased court where a duff judge (Butteriss), fickle jury (chorus), dodgy defendant (Edwin, sung by Johnson) and pure plaintiff (Angelina, played by Sarah Fox) debate over a breach of promise of marriage. An Usher (Graeme Danby) aims to keep the peace as the Counsel (Alan Opie) gushes over his adorable client. In the execution of humour and drama, the orchestra, chorus, Butteriss and Fox were well matched, each making more of the space allowed them, rather than simply standing and singing in recital fashion, while Johnson and Opie were more stationary – Opie, I was told, later had not sung any Gilbert and Sullivan since the 1970s, and thus was less familiar and comfortable than the others. Johnson’s two brief comic arias were well sung, and his rich, clear tenor voice was well matched with Fox’s purity. Butteriss’ patter number on how he came to be a judge was an excellent marriage of his own original comic touches and the humour found in Gilbert’s text.

The concert met with loud applause; I sincerely hope that further performances by Wilson in partnership with Butteriss, who hand-pick their soloists to the greatest advantage of the music, will go some way to revealing the more subtle beauties of Gilbert and Sullivan by bringing the words, music, sweetness and drama to a wider audience on a national scale.