Friday, December 01, 2006

Tax a pair of Gondoliers

ENO's The Gondoliers

Gilbert and Sullivan managed to get over their penultimate quarrel and wrote The Gondoliers. Great success. After which they had their ultimate spat over that wretched carpet. The new operetta ran for 554 nights in the Savoy Theatre, which had been built on the profits of Pinafore, Mikado, The Pirates and Iolanthe. But the premiere of The Gondoliers was the best yet; Sullivan wrote to congratulate Gilbert; Gilbert wrote to congratulate Sullivan. “It gives one the chance of shining right through the twentieth century.” Yes, right through to November 18th, 2006 indeed when the English National Opera gave a cracking good performance of a new production in the London Coliseum of the piece that had seen the light of day on December 1889.

The Savoy was only dark during the run on March 6, 1891, when the whole shooting-match went down to give a performance in Windsor Castle, the first theatrical occasion there since Prince Albert had handed in his cards. H.M. was still dressed in black but was gracious and, on this occasion, amused. Beside her on the table was a bound copy of the score and a jewelled opera-glass. She knew the music already and beat time with her fan. The singers were a bit nervous, especially during the number "A Right-down, Regular Royal Queen" but no offence was taken and the artists were all received in the interval.

Ann Murray (The Duchess of Plaza-Toro) & Geoffrey Dolton (The Duke of Plaza-Toro)

The music is one of Sullivan's happiest concoctions, exquisitely wrought with an endless stream of melodies. The score seems full of tunes one knows, the way Hamlet is full of quotations, There is a story that one evening during the original run the composer sitting in the stalls, forgot himself, and started humming. Upon which an irate neighbour attacked him with “Be quiet, sir; I came to hear Sullivan's music, not you, sir". Sullivan had at his disposal only a small orchestra of thirty but the tuttis sound full and warm.

An unusual feature is that the first twenty-five minutes are without any speech, a concession by Gilbert to Sullivan’s constant pleas that the music in the comic operas be given a more important role. Gilbert wrote to a friend that the new work was "ridiculous" therefore would be praised. And most of the libretto is to be praised; if it is ridiculous, it is also sublime nonsense although occasionally the poet can sink almost to the level of a McGonagall:

"Bridegrooms all joyfully/Brides, rather coyfully..."

And after the quite reasonable ''Ye sounding cymbals clang" comes the unreasonable "Ye brazen brasses bang".

True, the plot is not much more than pegs to hang a flimsy story on and to provide Sullivan with cues for his music, but there are very funny patter songs and some quite daring digs at the Establishment.

Donald Maxwell (Don Alhambra) & Rebecca Bottone (Casilda)
Venice is the scene of course but what little plot there is concerns the arrival of a Spanish contingent of three, the Duke of Plaza-Toro, a ninny (Geoffrey Dolton), his wife (a good part for Ann Murray) and their daughter Casilda (nicely sung by Rebecca Bottone), down-at-heel in the libretto but in this production very niftily dressed, poupée aux neufs, dolled up to tne nines. In the late eighteen-eighties reviewers commented on the pretty chorus girls dressed in shortish skirts but the ENO females looked rather like advanced girls but they sang well and lustily. The handsome chunk pair of gondoliers were Toby Stafford-Allen (a. mellifluous "Pair of Sparkling Eyes") and. David Curry. But the star of the snow was Donald Maxwell as The Grand Inquisitor. Richard Balcombe directed vividly. Pretty costumes and a taking pop-up backcloth of the canals which eliminated the necessity to do a Canaletto-type set. If you are not one of those unfortunates who find G & S anathema, do go to this amiable pleasing production,

G & S would be astonished to find that their theatre in the Strand is currently occupied, not by Giuseppe and Marco but Porgy and Bess.

ENO's The Gondoliers returns to The Coliseum in March