One hundred and sixteen years ago, on 7 March 1896, Gilbert and Sullivan presented before the London public their final Savoy Opera: The Grand Duke. It may surprise some readers to learn that The Grand Duke has received no professional treatment since this time, save for a single concert performance on 5 April 1975; thus, on Friday 17 August 2012, the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company made history, being the first company to stage the work professionally since its première.

In 1896 the work was a financial disaster; running for a miserable 123 performances, the Grand Duke represented an unprecedented failure compared to the success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s previous 13 operas. The London public must have been disappointed, though it is no secret that by the time of their final collaboration the pair were not on cordial terms and had to be persuaded to work together by their publisher. The genesis of their disagreements was principally artistic – each gentleman believed he was tailoring his work to the satisfaction of the other, at the suppression of their own artistic desires. Consequently, The Grand Duke displays signs of fatigue both musically and in its libretto.

The story features one of Gilbert’s topsy-turvy arrangements (too ridiculous to go into detail here) and the music also is regrettably not Sullivan’s best; within it, you will discover no grand scenes of emotionally arresting intensity, outrageous jollification or witty brilliance of the calibre found in Pirates, Mikado, Pinafore and Yeomen. Instead, the musical and literary style appears out of sync with the popular G and S formula – a style that would later be picked up, refined and polished by the next generation of theatre composers.

Scheduled conductor John Owen Edwards was forced to abandon the performance due to ill-health and David Steadman stepped in, leading an often shaky orchestra whose lack of rehearsals was evident in questionable intonation and harmonies unlike anything Sullivan would have conceived. Additionally the slightly bizarre production did not always aid the plot along its way.

For Act I the sets were plain but represented the backstage of a theatre and market square adequately, though they were as not as colourful or entertaining as those for this year’s Mikado and Pinafore performances. Likewise the traditional 18th century costumes were unremarkable. Oddly enough, had the Grand Duke’s costume been rather more threadbare and dusty, we might have gleaned a better representation of his penny-pinching philosophy. For Act II, set in supposed Grecian splendour, the chorus wore flimsy togas, whilst the best costumes were reserved for the late entrance of the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo whose respective frockcoat and gown were wonderfully eye-catching and interesting. There was also some dancing and finger-wagging that by now ought to be confined to Gilbert and Sullivan productions in history books.

Aside from the novelty of hearing this rare piece, the principal cast were certainly the real draw of the evening. Living-legend Richard Suart, in the role of the Grand Duke, was excellent; squeezing every line spoken and sung for all it was worth, the audience could not have expected any less than to observe in Mr Suart’s performance all the benefits acquired by a lifetime in playing comic roles. Precise in diction, vocal projection, acting and a singing-tone perfect for these roles, I eagerly look-forward to Mr Suart’s Ko-Ko at ENO this coming December. Similarly, leading man Stephen John Davis, who also boasts enviable theatrical credits, was very entertaining in the role of Ludwig. Singing and acting with a clear understanding of his character, Mr Davis stood out for providing a strong performance that avoided all twee campery occasionally supported by other characters.

Of the leading ladies Victoria Joyce’s Julia adopted the single affected accent uncalled for in Gilbert’s part. Regrettably, this faux-German accent distorted text spoken and sung, and yet, Miss Joyce has a beautiful voice that would suit Sullivan perfectly if only she would consider dropping these accents and tempering an occasionally over-zealous vibrato. Jill Pert must be congratulated on having now performed all the principal Sullivan alto roles excellently – a true role model for the next generation of comic female singers.

On the whole the show was an interesting venture for which the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company must be commended in their display of programming bravery. Despite being the ‘Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’, perhaps they may be persuaded in forthcoming seasons to consider reviving some of Sidney Jones and Lionel Monckton’s charming work? I do hope so...