For a week before the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera’s Company’s annual festival in Harrogate they are presenting three of their productions in their old home of the Buxton Opera House. There are further performances in three more venues in August and September. They began with The Yeomen of the Guard, and a very fine beginning it was.

© Buxton Opera Festival
© Buxton Opera Festival

By 1888 Gilbert and Sullivan was an established, popular and financially profitable brand, with many successful shows behind the partnership. Tensions between composer and librettist were growing, however. Sullivan had ambitions for “grander” music. He refused to work on another “topsy-turvy” plot and Gilbert obliged with a drama set in Tudor England, then as now a favourite historical period.  Much of the mock-Tudor dialogue is stilted and ungainly, but some of The Yeomen of the Guard’s lyrics showed Gilbert at his best and the work had a real heart and it inspired Sullivan to some of his finest music. There was none of Gilbert’s usual topical satire but in order to retain the comic element Gilbert made one of the main characters a jester, but Jack Point is a tragic jester who dies of a broken heart.

The National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company is in many ways the heir to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which presented the works from the time of their composition until 1982 and so can justifiably claim to be following a tradition dating back to the nineteenth century. This production was therefore a traditional one with no updating or clever attempts at “relevance”, though it avoided merely copying what has been done before. One good contemporary visual joke was added early in Act 2 (I won’t give it away for those who are yet to see the show). Otherwise the text was given straight, with the addition of the couplets for Yeomen in the First Act Finale which are normally omitted. There were many fine touches in the production, notably Fairfax pulling Elsie away from the dying Jack Point, nicely emphasising Fairfax’s callousness.

© Buxton Opera Festival
© Buxton Opera Festival

This performance had some of the best singing I have heard in G&S. Nick Sales as Colonel Fairfax was a fine and powerful tenor who convinced us that his two ballads were fine arias indeed. Jane Harrington as Elsie Maynard had a beautiful, Italianate soprano voice and her first act solo just after her secret marriage “’Tis done! I am a bride” was a highlight. Even more impressive was Bruce Graham’s Wilfred Shadbolt, the “head jailor and assistant tormentor” whose strong and rich baritone and excellent comic timing made a grotesque suitor to Phoebe. He was the star of the performance. Despite the programme, Wilfred’s song which was cut before the first performance was not reinstated. It would have been good to have heard Graham sing it. Pauline Birchall was a commanding presence with a smooth contralto and very clear diction as Dame Carruthers, the “housekeeper to the Tower”. Martin Lamb was a solid Sergeant Meryll and Fiona McKay as Phoebe had a pleasing mezzo. In the small role of Sir Richard, the Lieutenant of the Tower, Brendan Collins had an imposing bass voice that I hope to hear more of in future. The only weakness was Richard Gauntlett’s Jack Point. His voice failed to carry and it was often hard to make out his words. In his duets with Wilfred and Elsie he came out second best. His voice blended well with the other performers in the quartet towards the end, however, and his acting carried the audience to the heartfelt conclusion.

The chorus of ten men and ten women made a crucial contribution and filled the Opera House. The National Gilbert & Sullivan Orchestra under David Steadman accompanied with delicacy and vigour as required. All in all this Yeomen should please aficionados and convert newcomers to the delights of Gilbert and Sullivan. Go and see it if you can!