More Pub Gilbert and Sullivan

25 Feb

You couldn’t get a much greater contrast from spending Saturday afternoon in the Coliseum seeing Meistersinger in all its glory to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore in the back of the King’s Head pub on Monday 23rd February. I’ve described the Charles Court Opera’s approach to Gilbert and Sullivan when I saw their Patience last year. This was even better.

Ruddigore is the best kept secret of the G&S canon. A relative failure at its first performance, it became very popular in the 1920s but fell out of favour later on. It kept a toe-hold in the D’Oyly Carte repertory until the company closed but, apart from revivals by New Sadlers Wells in 1986 and Opera North in 2010, it’s languished. This performance reminded me why it’s my favourite of the canon and, I think, one of their best.

Reviewers have referred to the piece’s charm. I agree that there is a lot of charm about it, but that also sounds patronising. For me, it’s the sheer daftness of the libretto that makes it special – channelling a very English sense of silliness that is not a million miles away from Monty Python or Blackadder. It’s a parody of Victorian melodrama but, more importantly, it achieves a level of inspired, but totally logical silliness. Each character is entirely over the top but also entirely believable on their own terms, while occasionally undercutting each other. And it has that wonderful line “I once made an affidavit – but it died.” You either find it hilarious or you don’t. Sullivan’s music may not be quite as inspired as some of the earlier ones, but The Battle’s Roar is his most impassioned love duet, I Know a Youth his most charming, When the Night Wind Howls among his most exhilarating, while the deadpan humour of the Despard/Margaret duet and the patter trio keeps me giggling. I love this piece.

The joy of seeing it in an intimate auditorium is that the singers don’t have to worry about projecting, can sing the words and properly act the dialogue. There’s none of the archness that you can get when people who are primarily singers try to do dialogue and you get almost all the words in the ensembles – yes, Gilbert did write “Likewise the opossum that sits on a tree”. Also doing it with a cast of nine meant that one wholly unnecessary chorus was cut and some really imaginative choices were taken about the staging. I loved the ghosts – their heads mounted like stags on the wall – and a headless figure wandering around the stage.

John Savournin’s direction showed complete understanding of the style while being able to make it fresh: he’d gently updated it while retaining the gothick costumes of the villains. He also played both Sir Despard and Sir Roderic, revealing a very fine bass voice indeed and outstanding acting ability. This was a gem of a performance. The rest of the cast were a bit more optimistic vocally (the Rose was ailing and gave an apology) but gave really strong acting performances. I liked Philip Lee’s vigorous Dauntless, just the right side of camp, Amy J Payne’s Dame Hannah, Cassandra McCowen’s daft Mad Margaret and Matthew Kellett’s permanently bewildred Robin. David Eaton accompanied on the piano with huge energy and, as I remembered from Patience making some of the accompaniments sound like Schubert.

I wouldn’t want to see G&S done like this every time, but it made a lovely way of spending a Monday evening. Go.

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