The colourful Barataria backdrop of tropical plants, parrots and the blue yonder also sets the scene for Gilbert and Sullivan’s penultimate collaboration Utopia, Limited. With Scottish Opera’s G&S experts in the house for their main show The Gondoliers, and with both works requiring similar forces, Head of Music Derek Clark took the opportunity to semi-stage this seldom-performed satire on privatisation and Britishness. Who knew that a work first performed in 1893 could have such significance today? With its lyrical score and trademark wit, this co-production with D’Oyly Carte and State Opera Australia make a spirited case for the reappraisal of this rather neglected work.

Ben McAteer
© Julie Howden

Scottish Opera has wisely and sympathetically pruned the score to best advantage, cutting some dialogue to give a show that runs smoothly. This streamlining fits the semi-staging concept perfectly, with the orchestra kept in the pit and plenty of space for the singers in smart modern dress on the stage. The creative team, with judicious direction from Stuart Maunder and subtle choreography from Isabel Baquero, retained interest throughout. If Utopia lacks a bit of the sparkle of The Gondoliers, Dick Bird’s hat-swapping designs and Paul Keogan’s lighting certainly compensated. The whole team transformed the period piece to a modern-day resonance.

We are in the paradise island of Utopia ruled by King Paramount the First, an anglophile puppet of his scurrilous Utopian Supreme Court Judges Phantis and Scaphio. The King is unbelievably naïve in accepting his advisors’ encouragement to anonymously pen scandalous articles about himself in The Palace Peeper, the local rag. The Lady Sophy is employed as an English governess to the youthful younger princesses Nekaya and Kalyba whilst their elder sister, Zara, has just returned from Girton College with The Flowers of Progress, characters who have made England a powerful happy country. The king, keen to emulate all things British, is persuaded by Zara to let the visitors run things and under their guidance declares island a Company Limited. There are consequences, of course.

Richard Suart, Ben McAteer and Arthur Bruce
© Julie Howden

Opening with an introduction suggesting brass bands rather than a formal overture, the chorus sang splendidly throughout, from languorous beginnings to some thrilling set pieces – especially the a cappella "Eagle high in cloudland soaring". They were attired in velvet black concert dress at this point, with individually tailored gowns for the ladies. The usual G&S material was all present, nonsense and wit balanced with lyrical tunes and compelling ensembles. The cast captured it all with enthusiasm, with hats in the first act differentiating the suited men. Ben McAteer was suavely confident as King Paramount, and Arthur Bruce and Richard Suart made the most of Phantis and Scaphio, a couple of cream-jacketed Utopian rogues. The Flowers of Progress included an amorous William Morgan as Captain Fitzbattle, who successfully pulled off the tricky “A tenor, all singers above”; and Francis Church as Captain Sir Edward Corcoran KCB, the very same HMS Pinafore character complete here with musical quote who "hardly ever runs a ship ashore". Mark Nathan was a deliciously oily Mr Goldbury, the Company Promoter, a spiv with a solution for everything explaining just how limited a Company can be. Act 2 moved to evening dress, with sparkly frocks for the ladies and tails for the leading men, and the Flowers and the King had a lovely set piece of entertaining nonsense, breaking out the tambourines for "Society has quite forsaken".

Catriona Hewitson and Sioned Gwen Davies were sweetly sung young innocent princesses. The Act 2 quartet “Then may I play and sing”, with Nathan and Glen Cunningham as Lord Dramaleigh, gently introduced a few worldly ideas – it was a highlight. This opera is kinder to its senior lady than other Savoy works. This allowed Yvonne Howard, liberated from her "mobile sofa" of a costume in The Gondoliers, to shine as the respectable Lady Sophy, responsible for her charges but also in love with the King. Ellie Laugharne was a picture of elegance as Princess Zara, in radiant voice and in love with Fitzbattle.

Sioned Gwen Davies and Catriona Hewitson
© Julie Howden

Clark conducted with a light touch and balance, allowing the lyrical music to flow from the pit. Gilbert’s busy lyrics and music were taken at a pace, producing a few moments that need tightening up here and there between players and singers, and the guards perhaps need one more lesson on the parade ground. Or maybe not! These were minor niggles as this was a rare chance to discover a wonderful score sung and delivered with panache. For a neglected work, it was very enjoyable and a lot more fun than I expected. It is well worth catching at single performances in Edinburgh in November and London in April. 

****1