Baritone Thomas Hampson recently quipped that he'd try anything other than Gilbert and Sullivan, echoing the sentiments of many opera fans who are inclined to see the operettas penned by the Victorian duo as the preserve of amateur dramatic societies and school drama clubs. With this in mind, it was somewhat surprising to see Opera North create a new production of Ruddigore back in 2010. One of Gilbert and Sullivan's lesser-known works, Ruddigore hadn't been performed professionally for almost two decades when Opera North mounted their production, but it received favourable reviews and has now been revived for their 2011-12 season.

© Robert Workman
© Robert Workman

Despite the familiar 'girl meets boy, loses boy, is reunited with boy' storyline at the heart of Ruddigore, there are a lot of very complicated sub-plots that seem, to a modern audience at least, completely bizarre. The main focus is the romance between local beauty Rose Maybud and shy, handsome farmer Robin Oakapple. Oakapple is concealing the fact that he is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, Baronet of Ruddigore. The reason for his secrecy is the curse put on the Baronetcy several generations before by a witch burned at the stake by the first Baronet, Sir Rupert Murgatroyd. Now each Murgatroyd who inherits the rank is obliged to commit a crime a day or face a painful death. Understandably, Oakapple is less than enamoured with this prospect and has faked his own death, leaving his younger brother, Sir Despard Murgatroyd, to take on the challenge. Throughout the course of the operetta, Oakapple's true identity is exposed, he is spurned by Rose, then loopholes are predictably found to allow all (including Sir Despard and his love interest, the hilarious Mad Margaret) to live happily ever after.

Thankfully, Opera North handle all this archaic comic-melodrama in an extremely stylish fashion, updating the proceedings to a 1920s Britain in which all things music hall and slightly silly would have been whole-heartedly embraced. Richard Hudson's sepia-tinted set complete with silent movie-esque film reels and British seaside tableaus seems to scream “we know that this is an anachronism, but it's fun.” Jo Davies' direction further enforces this, with the characters speaking their lines between songs in a purposefully hammy fashion and charleston-ing about the stage-like little puppets on strings.

Musically, there's little to fall in love with, and I would defy anyone other than Gilbert and Sullivan superfans to come away humming the score. Most of it sounds like it is there simply to make the book sound a little more sing-song, and I found myself wondering whether, if Ruddigore had been presented as a play rather than an operetta, anyone would have really minded. That's not to detract from the efforts of the Orchestra of Opera North and conductor John Wilson, who, fresh from his incredibly popular performance at the Hooray for Hollywood Prom, made the score sound as exciting as possible, and tackled Ruddigore's one memorable, dramatic tune, When the Night Wind Howls, with aplomb.

When the Night Wind Howls was, for me, the highlight of the evening. Sung to Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd by his ancestor Sir Roderic, who leaps down from a painting accompanied by a whole gallery of Murgatroyd ghosts, it seems to mark the point at which (partway through Act II) Ruddigore really gets going. Opera North's staging of the song is exemplary, with works of art morphing into chorus members under clever lighting effects and Kay Shepherd's choreoraphy encouraging the spectres to leap about with wild abandon, attacking each other with spears and jumping up and down with comedy skeletons. It is incredibly hilarious, and Gilbert and Sullivan stalwart Stephen Page puts in an excellent performance as Sir Roderic.

There are no weak links in the cast. Amy Freston (Rose Maybud) and Grant Doyle (Robin Oakapple/Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd) carry things along nicely with sweet, tuneful voices and Hal Cazalet puts in a hilarious and extremely energetic turn as Robin's foster brother and friend, the sailor Richard 'Dick' Dauntless. The standout performance, however, is delivered by mezzo-soprano Heather Shipp as Mad Margaret. Shipp recently received rave reviews for her portrayal of the title role in Opera North's controversial new Carmen, and her rich, dark voice was just as powerful and moving in this less-dramatic work. She made the most of her solo song Cheerily Carols the Lark, offering up a Mad Margaret that elicited sympathy as well as a lot of laughs.

Those with a penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan will adore this production, but Opera North's Ruddigore won't turn everyone into hardcore G&S fans, and for the many who agree with Thomas Hampson, I suspect that no amount of on-stage innovation will make up for the cheesy jokes and mostly unmemorable music. However, if you are prepared to overlook these imperfections and just want to sit back and enjoy some light entertainment, you will appreciate the stunning visuals, accomplished acting, beautiful singing and wonderful conducting.