The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has always gone its own way, choosing its own repertoire and collaborators and pioneering a now established framework for ‘historically informed’ performance. So what would happen when its players alighted upon WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, alongside the vivacious and intrepid John Wilson, king of 20th-century popular repertoire?

Louise Alder © Gerard Collett
Louise Alder
© Gerard Collett

Wilson drew miraculous playing from the OAE, which seemed completely at home among the clouds of meringue and piles of whipped cream that Gilbert & Sullivan offer their audiences. The overture to The Gondoliers is rather boilerplate stuff, lacking Sullivan's flair for pastiche and relentless tunefulness we find in say, Iolanthe, whose wispy opening enchanted later. But Wilson offered us a generous cone of creamy gelato, coaxing sumptuous and effulgent warmth from the OAE strings.

Whatever misgivings one might have had about an historically informed G&S from the OAE (raspingly austere or emotionally parsimonious, say), if anything the timbres and tempi seemed relatively straightforward, with only a smudge-less vibrato here and a crisp, transparent texture there. In Iolanthe one certainly noticed the more mellow hues of the period woodwinds, making the fairy kingdom sultry as well as silly. An approach, then, to the G&S institution that meant prudent revision rather than revolution.

A smattering of solo and chorus numbers made up the first half. Robert Murray’s honeyed tenor gave us gentle sentimentality in “Is Life a Boon”. Simon Butteriss excelled in a streetwise “As Someday it Might Happen” from The Mikado; his victims included climate change deniers, Michael Gove, the Extinction Rebellion protestors on the nearby Hungerford Bridge, older ladies with an, ahem, fondness for Boris Johnson, and the homophobic Sultan of Brunei. Louise Alder embodied imperious melodrama in “Minerva…Oh Goddess Wise” from Princess Ida; Simon Bailey and the men of the Choir of the Age of the Enlightenment offered pitch-perfect Verdian pastiche in Ruddigore’s “Painted Emblems of a Race” and “When the Night Wind Howls”, supported with hilarious, icy sobriety from Wilson and the band. The first half rollicked to an end with a second-helping of stracciatella in “Once More, Gondolieri”, choristers finding their footing after some slightly unkempt diction and uneven balance in “Ring Forth Ye Bells” and “Climbing Over Rocky Mountains”.

Sweet and sticky portions certainly, but it’s hardly a proper dinner. Thank goodness for the one-act Trial by Jury in the second half then, a compact scamper around the landmarks of G&S: legal chicanery, a patter song, lashings of melodrama, and a pungent cynicism about bourgeois habits of mind. Here it was presented with the scantest of staging but with oodles of class.

Trial by Jury is about a broken promise of marriage, of which there were many such cases in the nineteenth-century, and which, I’m told by a lawyer I brought along for the ride, still appear in undergraduate courses on Contract law. It’s frothy and socially piquant in the way really great operetta can be - and far more penetrating than the bizarre marketing claim that Trial by Jury was the “Mamma Mia! of the 1870s” - sending the inanity and incompetence of the judiciary, and the sentimental hypocrisy of the criminal justice system.

Simon Butteriss gave us a vaudevillian, effervescent Judge, with a fruity baritone and sprightly movement that delighted in his patter song, with a few tabasco splashes of Frankie Howerd bawdiness. Robert Murray’s Edwin, the defendant, was a charmingly impetuous idiot, canny enough to charm the audience but stupid enough to invite our contempt. He was in honeyed voice throughout, and consistent with the text, though sometimes felt a little underpowered. Louise Alder’s Angelina, clattering about with tin cans attached to a voluminous wedding dress, acted and sang superbly throughout, with a bright, generous voice and hilarious, indulgently hammy nose-blowing and wailing.

Michael Craddock’s Usher was daft and youthful, as should be, setting the hypocritical scene in his vivid opening number, though his voice – whilst lithe and fresh, and consistent with the character – didn’t quite have the heft to hit some of the prominent bottom notes the part requires, which is surely more suited to a lyric bass.

There can be no complaint about Simon Bailey’s Counsel for the Plaintiff though, the best voice of the night: luxurious, orotund, totally convincing in its pomposity and self-assurance. So much hinges in these works on diction being as crisp as a gin and tonic, which on the whole it was, even if some problems with balance persisted from the first half, afflicting both chorus and soloists (with the exceptions of Alder and Bailey, whose solid instruments high-jumped over the OAE’s crackling and zesty contribution). But the final verdict? Not guilty by reason of hilarity.

***11