G&S at the Proms

20 Aug

I find the Prom performances of Gilbert and Sullivan hugely reassuring.  First, a packed Albert Hall suggests that there is a wide range of people of all ages who will pay to see the operas and enjoy them.  Secondly, it reminds you that they still work and stand the test of performance.  People tend to mock them these days and it’s nice to remember that they’re actually good.

This year on 19th August it was the turn of The Yeomen of the Guard – as, I suppose, was only to be expected in this patriotic year. There actually isn’t a lot, bar the grandeur of the music, that’s particularly patriotic about the piece, but I won’t worry about that: there hasn’t been a decent performance of it since the 1995 WNO performances and it was good to see it again.

It’s proof of the range of the two of them that they could produce from material only slightly less silly than that of The Mikado a piece which is entirely different from the others, with a greater level of pathos, where silliness becomes charm, while still retaining the wit and satire.  Most of the operas involve at least an element of disappointed or thwarted love. Yeomen is the only one where you feel it matters and, in Jack Point, Gilbert created his finest character – certainly his most human mix of comedy and humanity. While there are lots of great tunes, there’s a melancholy and seriousness about Sullivan’s music that surpasses even that of Iolanthe: I don’t think it’s his greatest score (there’s a dullness about the later numbers in the second Act) but it has its own very special character.

And this was a really good performance.  I thought that Jane Glover got the score pretty much exactly right – tempi well-judged, responsive to the singers and with a sense of style that reassured me that this hadn’t died with Mackerras.  The BBC Concert orchestra could possibly have done with another rehearsal but the BBC Singers were in fabulous form – it’s among Sullivan’s most difficult choral music and it was a joy to have musicians of their calibre singing it.

It wasn’t a bad cast either. Casting Mark Stone as Jack Point was a stroke of genius. He clearly has the lyricism for the role, but I’d not realised how fine he was at the patter – really clear diction – but he managed to deliver the dialogue with wit and panache and to dance as wel.  This was the most complete Point that I’ve seen and made me want to see him as Papageno, Malatesta and a whole range of other roles quite urgently.

Heather Shipp made a delightful Phoebe (as you would expect following her Mad Margaret at Opera North) – it’s a gem of a role and she caught the impulsive flirtatious silliness beautifully. I very much admired Toby Stafford-Allen’s Shadbolt – just the right level of surly intelligence. And it goes without saying that Felicity Palmer was as perfect a Dame Carruthers as you could imagine. All took their roles seriously and credibly, without exaggeration.

I was a bit less happy about some of the remainder. I was looking forward to seeing Lisa Milne as Elsie, forgetting that Elsie has some of Sullivan’s grandest music to sing – listen to Elizabeth Harwood on the 1964 D’Oyly Carte recording (still, for my money, the best) and you will hear what a grand, lyric soprano can do with it: you need an Elvira, not a Susanna, a Marschallin, not a Sophie. Milne sounded over-parted. I also prefer a rather lusher tone than Andrew Kennedy can find for Fairfax: the two arias need a greater freedom than what struck me as his rather cautious singing could muster.  They weren’t bad but they didn’t strike me as ideally cast.

Martin Duncan’s semi-staging updated it to the Victorian period without significant damage. Better, as with Patience three years ago, he had the cast speaking the dialogue (discreetly amplified, I think) naturally and with just the right style. I don’t understand why he isn’t a regular with the main companies. The movement of the principals was ideal.

So it was a joyous evening and well worth the trip on a sweltering day. The only regret was that all that work only went on for a single performance. It was recorded and will be on BBC 2 on Saturday 25th. It’s well worth seeing.

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