Sullivan with and without Gilbert

10 May

Having enjoyed the two previous Charles Court Opera performances, that I’ve seen, it was a no-brainer to make my way up to London on 10th May to see the matinee of the their double bill of Sullivan’s The Zoo and Trial by Jury at the King’s Head.  Trial was the first opera I ever saw, when I was four and I’ve never seen The Zoo before.  It proved a really nice way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

The Zoo was written about the same time as Trial with a libretto by Barton Rowe (a pseudonym).  it’s a very light piece of flummery set, as you might guess, in London Zoo.  It’s a lower middle class comedy: an apothecary loves a grocer’s daughter but her father won’t consent to their marriage so he is suicidal and a duke loves a barmaid.  The lyrics are not quite in Gilbert’s class but they’re enjoyable enough with a nice sense of the ridiculous – the apothecary wants to hurl himself in the bear pit only to find that they’ve moved the bears.  The barmaid is no better than she ought to be and has rather diverting song to a lilting music hall tune telling you all about it.

The joy is Sullivan’s music.  Again, it doesn’t reach the heights of some of his later works, but there’s a freshness about it and it has lots of his hallmarks – some lovely parodies of operatic conventions, a gorgeous double duet and that deadpan sense of the ridiculous that he is so good at.  The word setting is impeccable.  There’s a fine recording of it by the old D’Oyly Carte (currently on Decca’s Sorceror set) and I commend it to anyone interested.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it deserves to be done now and then.

The Charles Court performance cut the chorus but was otherwise complete and very, very good.  David Menezes made a soulful, silly suicidal apothecary, Catrine Kirkman was equally silly as Laetitia and sang it nicely.  Ideally, you need Barbara Windsor for Eliza the Barmaid and Nichola Jolley is not her.  However, she did her “I have so many “cousins” now which one was I going to marry” number very well.  Matthew Kellett was a suitably angry Grinder the grocer and John Savournin, who directed, had fun as Thomas Brown (aka the Duke of Islington).  It was a thoroughly amiable performance and hard to dislike.

Trial by Jury is a complete masterpiece.  Gilbert’s libretto doesn’t put a foot wrong and Sullivan’s score fits it like a glove.  He manages to find music which tells you how ghastly all of these characters are.  He punctures the pomposity of the judge and the system and, in A nice dilemma, he provides a parody of Bellini/Donizetti ensembles that is, actually, as good as them.  It’s 35 minutes of pure pleasure.

So was this performance.  Savournin got over the problem that we don’t have breach of promise actions any more by setting it as Judge Judy sort of TV show.  We have a plaintiff who is clearly in the late stages of pregnancy and from the nastier parts of Essex, a thuggish defendant, ditto and, brilliantly, a lesbian judge (Savournin in drag) with a pronounced American accent and.a randy court clerk.  There’s lots of fighting between Plaintiff and Defendant and lots of perfectly judged business – “What’s Watteau” asked the Plaintiff after her Counsel made her sing about him.  I smiled and giggled throughout.

Savournin was in his element as the Judge – it’s an easy part to ham up and to overdo but I thought that he got the balance spot on.  This man has serious talent and it’s good to know that he’s doing stuff with Holland Park and Opera North in the coming months.  Menezes made a thuggish, rather thick defendant, while Ms Kirkman was completely transformed as Angelina and was very, very funny.  Philip Lee joined the cast as Counsel for the Plaintiff and was brilliantly unctuous in a nicely understated way.  Kellett was very funny indeed as the clerk.

David Eaton played the piano valiantly, setting brisk, intelligent tempi and the musical values were high.  Ideally, I’d like to see both with chorus and with Sullivan’s orchestration, but there’s little prospect of that, and I didn’t feel cheated by this.

The run’s now over but if they do it again, G&S fans shouldn’t hesitate.

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