by Marc Shepherd
In antiquity, the occupying Romans discovered a thermal spring there, and so began the history of the district's largest town, Buxton. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when "taking the waters" became the cure of choice for a vast array of minor ailments, it became a popular spa town, and the Buxton we know today began to take shape.
Spa holidays eventually passed out of fashion, so Buxton's town fathers wisely inaugurated an international festival of classical music and jazz, ensuring that the town would once again be a popular summer destination for vacationing Britons. One can still partake of the waters, of course, but lovely parks and gardens, Victorian and Edwardian architecture, Poole's Cavern, a micrarium, and a small but eclectic shopping district provide ample distractions for the visitor at leisure.
Despite its charms, Buxton may have seemed an unlikely spot for the First International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival. Yet, it was ideally suited to the challenge. The town is large enough to have a respectable opera house and ample hotel accommodations, but small enough to consider the festival a Big Deal.
The festival was the brain child of one Ian Smith, who managed to pull this logistical marvel together in something less than eighteen months, with most of the details settled only in the last six. Needless to say, Mr. Smith is a rabid Gilbert and Sullivan fan. That he is also a professional travel agent ensured that he could mobilize his entire office staff in bringing the festival to life.
The festival was organized around two basic objectives. The first was to convince British and North American G&S societies to export their productions to Buxton. The second was to reunite as many former D'Oyly Carte stars as possible-to perform, direct, and give master classes. At both objectives, Mr. Smith succeeded spectacularly.
Eight amateur companies, including three from the United States, brought their productions to Buxton. Two productions were cast, rehearsed and presented within the two-week span of the festival. Two more performances were cast and produced from the ranks of former D'Oyly Carte principals. Four master classes, an opening day ceremony and a last-night gala dinner completed the festivities. Each night's entertainment ended with supper of "the most wonderful pie and peas" (Ian Smith's opinion, but hardly anyone else's), drinks and a midnight cabaret in the Festival Club. All in all, it was practically everything that a G&S nut could want in a fortnight's holiday.
The festival, styled "the first annual" by its organizers, was a landmark event in modern G&S history. Savoyard gatherings of various types have been relatively plentiful in the last decade (occurring, it seems, at least once every year or two), but certainly nothing has ever been done on this scale before. To make this festival a reality, Ian Smith and his son Neil overcame armies of doubters and naysayers, who argued either that it couldn't be done at all, or that it couldn't be done this quickly. If this kind of festival becomes a regular fixture on the G&S landscape-and there is every reason to hope that it will-we will have the Smiths to thank for having the vision to make it a reality.
The festival's opening event, a G&S costume parade, began in a large square, where designated leaders carried signs naming all fourteen G&S operas. Representatives of visiting societies, many in costume, then gathered in the proper order (from Thespis to The Grand Duke) for a police-escorted procession through the park and down the main streets of town. Members of the Savoy Company of Philadelphia cut the best figures, in their full Greek regalia (from Grand Duke, Act II).
Then, it was into The Octagon (an eight-sided auditorium) where an enormous crowd (some seven hundred people, by the organizers' estimate) were gathered for the festival's Opening Ceremony and Big Sing. Video recorders memorialized the event for posterity.
The Festival Director, Ian Smith, introduced various luminaries, including Mr. James Newby, conductor of the G&S Festival Orchestra, who led the assembled throng in selections from the operas. I can't praise Mr. Newby enough. Not only was he responsible for rearranging all the selections to fit the twenty-piece Festival Orchestra, but he also expertly directed the hundreds of impromptu chorus members in the audience and volunteer principals with whom he had no prior acquaintance.
Not only that, but the selections included some of the most-challenging double choruses in the Savoy Opera repertory. He began with Sir Joseph's opening scene from Pinafore, including the very tricky barcarole, "Over the bright blue sea," the ensuing double chorus ("Sir Joseph's barge is seen"/"Gaily tripping, lightly skipping"), leading up to John Reed's surprise entrance for "I am the monarch of the sea" and "When I was a lad." At this stage of his career, John seems to be no longer concerned with matters of rhythm or pitch, but he is still possessed of all the mannerisms and comic timing in this role that he must certainly have performed many hundreds of times.
John Reed lives within a few miles of Ian Smith and directs the amateur company of which Smith is a member. It was, therefore, a natural fit that John agreed to serve as Festival President, and it was his agreeable duty to declare the Festival officially "open," whatever that meant. Indeed, he was evidently not quite sure what it meant, as he said, "Well, I don't have a ribbon to cut, or anything. What can I say? It's open, okay, it's open. Enjoy yourselves, the Festival is open."
The sing along continued with many more challenging chorus numbers, including "Tower warders, under orders" from Yeomen, "Eagle high" from Utopia, "In a doleful train" from Patience, "When anger spreads his wing" and the Act II finale from Ida, the Iolanthe Act II finale, and "Eagle high" from Utopia Limited. The Ruddigore ghost scene was included, from "Painted emblems" through "When the night wind howls," with former D'Oyly Carte star Michael Buchan singing Sir Roderic (and, embarrassingly, forgetting some of the words).
In "When the foeman bares his steel" from Pirates, Ian Smith himself essayed the Major-General and, in a comical twist of an inside joke, left an audible silence for the word "damme" where "Yes, but damme you don't go" is usually sung. The afternoon concluded with "Dance a cachucha." To my relief, that most overused of G&S anthems, "Hail, Poetry," was not included.
After dinner, we returned to the octagon for "A Nostalgic Walk Down Memory Lane" with John Reed, Thomas Round, Patricia Leonard and Kenneth Sandford, with David Steadman (a former D'Oyly Carte répétiteur) as pianist and chief kibitzer. To paraphrase Jack Point, "'Tis ever thus with G&S fans. A former D'Oyly Carte principal has but to say, 'Pass the mustard,' and they roar their ribs out."
It is perhaps indicative of the spirit of the evening, that nearly half the jokes were about the participants' age. To be sure, these stars were among the best of their generation, and they mostly are still able to turn back the clock and remind us of their prime. But, the applause that evening was as much a collective "thank you" for nearly fifty years' worth of magical performances, as it was for the imperfect recreation of that magic that these stars actually presented to the festival audience.
Pat Leonard, the company's principal contralto in its last years, is the only one of the four who is still at her performing best. She opened the evening with an inebriated performance of "Come, bumpers, aye, ever so many," from The Grand Duke, by far the best that I had ever heard that song done. Tom Round performed Cyril's "kissing" song-slightly hoarse and a little rushed, but delicately nuanced. John Reed and Ken Sandford then came in with "When I go out of door." The three men gave us "If you go in," from Iolanthe, and Pat Leonard sang "Oh, foolish fay." Ken Sandford, playing her silent foil as Private Willis, gave us all an acting lesson, as we saw how a motionless sentry can still speak oceans with his eyes.
Reed and Round sang "My boy, you may take it from me," from Ruddigore, Sandford and Leonard "I once was a very abandoned person," and Reed joined them for the "matter" trio. Tom Round proved he can still sell a song, with "Take a pair of sparkling eyes," while Reed and Leonard provided the requisite baritone/contralto duet, "There is beauty in the bellow of the blast."
Between the musical numbers, the former Cartes talked about how they joined the Company, their favorite "stage mix-ups," and what they've been doing since they left the company. All have stayed active in the G&S world, though Round and Leonard have also had substantial careers in other spheres. Round, who joined the company earliest (1946) and left it longest ago (1963), is perhaps best known as co-founder (with Donald Adams) of "Gilbert and Sullivan for All." Sandford founded "The Magic of D'Oyly Carte" (now known as "The Magic of Gilbert and Sullivan") and is a frequent performer in G&S highlight programs all around the world. Reed seldom performs any more, but has made a career as a G&S director. Pat Leonard has a successful career both in G&S and other forms of theater.
Everyone present surely had the feeling of sharing in a vanishing piece of history. Only a handful of people now living can claim to have been stars with the former D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. They are an aging lot, and no one is currently on tap to replace them..
There is, of course, a new D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. This is not the place to critique that company's artistic direction, but two things can, I think, be definitively stated. The first is that, because the new company does not perform year-round, the old concept of "being a member of D'Oyly Carte" no longer exists: after each season, the performers disperse. The next season, some may well be back, but many will have found other work.
The second is that the new D'Oyly Carte has no concept of a repertory. None of their productions has had a life of more than two seasons, and many have lasted only one. Even within a given season, the two operas that they typically put on have different directors and largely different casts. As a consequence, each new D'Oyly Carte production is essentially a "one-off."
The old company was justly criticized for a failure to modernize their operation, but they had two things the new company does not have: a stable membership and a consciously-cultivated style that was uniquely their own. It seemed appropriate that David Steadman brought the evening to a close with the statement, "There will never be anything like you again. But," he added with a wink of his eye, "we're trying!"
South Anglia Savoy Players: The Pirates of Penzance
The South Anglia Savoy Players gave the festival's first formal production, The Pirates of Penzance. Though strictly an amateur company, South Anglia are clearly a group who take their G&S very seriously. Founded in 1977 by Derek Collins, who is both their director and principal comedian, they have performed in Portugal, Wales, Malta, Madeira and Italy. They are a fixture at the Waterford Festival of Lyric Opera, at which they have won over fifty trophies.
It was clearly no accident that Ian Smith entrusted South Anglia with getting the festival off on the right foot. Their Pirates was about as good as any I've seen, with no virtually no weaknesses among the principal players, and with a zippy production that had never a dull moment.
Like most of the English companies that came to Buxton, South Anglia brought their own set. Act I featured a deep-blue-sea background cloth and side cloths painted like rocks, Act II a small stone scenery piece up-stage with side cloths painted similarly. Both were highly suggestive, but highly portable.
By American standards, it was a traditional production, though I cannot say how Brits raised on orthodox D'Oyly Carte staging perceived it. The standard Pirates bits that we've learned to expect were mostly all there, but there were plenty of innovations. The production proved that superb G&S need not be radical.
You will not find a stronger chorus. Facial expressions and actions were perfectly wedded to the action at all times. And, they could sing, too: "Hail, Poetry" was marvelous, its finely-nuanced dynamics unsurpassable. "He's telling a terrible story" and "When the foeman bares his steel" also showed the chorus at their best. Included in the dramatis personae were James, a pirate, and P. C. Plank, presumably a policeman, but I could not discern what either of these characters did.
The women's chorus were a rambunctious lot, highlighted-some would say dominated-by a sexually overactive Kate, who clearly was ready to make hay with the first eligible bachelor that she might find. Her sisters' struggle to restrain her was the dominant theme throughout much of Act I, probably to a point of excess.
The strong, virile and long-haired Pirate King (Paul Lazell) combined rock-star looks with an opera singer's bass voice. Ruth (Eileen Barks-Marner), as perfect a contralto as you could hope for, had all the mannerisms of being a pirate herself. Frederic (Stephen Chalkley) combined a smooth tenor voice with an excellent acting ability. The Elvis routine in "Oh, is there not one maiden breast" (taken from the Papp production) had all the women's chorus swooning.
Mabel (Sally Brown) had a strong coloratura, but her voice sounded shrill at the top, and she seemed to take herself just a bit too seriously; she needed lighten up. Derek Collins was a classic Major-General; he had all the right mannerisms, but added nothing novel.
All three lead chorus girls (Edith, Kate, Isabel) were distinct characters, though Kate (Cheryl Grosse) was so appealing that one often forgot to watch the others, who were fine actresses in their own right. The Sergeant (Pat O'Connell) had a quirky midlands accent and a patter-baritone kind of voice. He had all the body flexibility and facial expressions for a keystone cop. Samuel (Leo Cooper) was the only weak link of the lot.
Act II highlights included "Oh, dry the glistening tear," the girls carrying candles that went out in clusters on the final chords of the music. In "When the foeman bares his steel," one of the cops kept trying to escape, but General Stanley's daughters restrained him. Then, Kate joined the policemen's line, hoping to find a new boy friend, only to be pulled back by her sisters. Later on, the cop who'd been trying to escape came back chained to one of his buddies. Overall, the police routines had an infectious "silent movie" spirit.
In the finale, after Ruth disclosed that the Pirates were noblemen, the Pirates changed into Peers' costumes, and a snippet from Iolanthe's "March of the Peers" was inserted. The change was managed neatly and got a laugh from the "in crowd," though some purists found the bit dramatically distracting.
Report of the Adjudicator
When the curtain fell, we had the first appearance of the Festival Adjudicator, Mr. David Turner, who gave an impromptu critique each evening after the curtain went down. Though apparently commonplace in Britain, this practice took the visiting Americans totally by surprise. Public adjudication, and the manner in which Mr. Turner performed it, were the subjects of continuous controversy throughout the Festival.
By English standards, Mr. Turner is evidently as qualified for this sensitive role as anyone could be. Still, many in the audience bristled at the idea that anyone, no matter how expert he is, should be authorized to publicly deliver an official critique after an amateur performing troupe have just finished singing their hearts out.
It also was a bit of a let-down, after South Anglia's outstanding performance, to sit in our seats for another fifteen minutes while a starchy, detached adjudicator told us what he thought (and, presumably, what we were supposed to have thought) about the performance just concluded. Many found adjudication a rude disruption to the theater-going experience-almost as if a magician explained how all the tricks had been done.
Those caveats stated, Mr. Turner's remarks were as delicately diplomatic as any critic's assessment could be under the circumstances. His observations were overwhelmingly favorable, and his criticisms were delivered with a tactful diplomacy. First, he commented on the overall production-from opening chorus through Act II finale. Then, he briefly assessed each performer, being careful both to praise and to find some area for improvement in each one. About then, we were all peering at our watches, and he made a graceful exit.
Of course, no one entirely agreed with all of Mr. Turner's comments, but mostly they were reasonable. I have been known to give a critique or two in my time, but never to six hundred people with only two or three minutes to think it through. If such a thing need be done at all, Mr. Turner seems to have been the right man to do it.
The performers' opinions of Mr. Turner were similarly mixed. The South Anglia Savoy Players may have disagreed with some of his specific criticisms, but as veterans of the Waterford Festival (which Mr. Turner has also adjudicated on occasion), they were certainly well aware of what they were getting into. And, as they were planning to enter their Pirates production at Waterford just a few months later, they probably welcomed an early chance to have their performance critiqued by a competent authority.
Yet, the Savoy Company of Philadelphia, who were due to present The Grand Duke the next evening and had not understood that their performance would be adjudicated this way, left the theater all but terrified. Surely, there was something unjust about submitting the visiting Americans to a competition they never realized they were entering!
The festival organizers claimed, in their own defense, that the participating companies had been told that the festival would be adjudicated. But, they mistakenly assumed that everyone knew what this meant. One sympathized with the Savoy Company members who complained, like Robin Oakapple, that they "had no idea it was anything like that!"
Cabaret: Trial By Committee
After the performance and adjudication, many of us repaired to the Paxton Suite for the first Festival Club, an informal nightclub atmosphere for food, drinks, conversation and entertainment. On the first night, at any rate, the club was an enormous success.
About an hour after the curtain had fallen on Pirates, the South Anglia Savoy Players returned to perform their burlesque Trial By Committee. The story concerns an actor (Edwin) with the annoying habit of falling in love with the leading lady in his latest show. These jilted ladies have jointly appealed their plight to a committee of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA), a theatrical governing body to which most amateur operatic societies in Britain belong.
Instead of a jury, we had a committee; instead of a judge, a chairman. Gilbert's bridesmaids became Edwin's former leading ladies, and Angelina merely the most-recently jilted. The words were cleverly altered to fit the changed circumstances, and most of them fit the music perfectly. The Trial finale was replaced with the closing strains of The Merry Widow, the joke of which was rather lost on me.
Many of the roles in Trial were filled by principals from Pirates, including the Chairman (Sergeant of Police), the Usher (Pirate King), Angelina (Mabel) and Edwin (Frederic). I was enormously impressed that these performers could come back at nearly midnight and give another spirited performance. After Trial, South Anglia (and whoever had the energy to stay up with them) sang G&S songs till two in the morning; if the authorities had not closed the bar, they might still be there.
Pirates Rehearsals Begin
I've mentioned that the festival included two productions that were cast, rehearsed and presented in a six-day span. Late Monday, Ian Smith mentioned that the production of Pirates was short of a full chorus. Hearing that, I offered to step in, and suddenly I was cast in a show that was to take the stage in less than a week.
It may be difficult to comprehend how a complete Gilbert and Sullivan opera, with all the trimmings such as costumes, props, orchestra and staging, could be assembled in less than a week, especially if you're accustomed to a rehearsal period of three or four months. Several factors made this possible.
The most important is that virtually everyone in the cast had done Pirates somewhere before (or, at least, was quite familiar with it). All were expected to arrive with the parts memorized on day one. Furthermore, everyone involved were experienced G&S performers, well-versed in the style and committed to do nothing but this for the six-day rehearsal period..
Finally, we had the services of a professional G&S director, former D'Oyly Carte mezzo Roberta Morrell. Such a production could only be possible given a director who could think on her feet, who knew the material cold, whose concept of the work was worked out minutely in advance, and who could convey her intentions rapidly and succinctly. In Roberta we had all that.
Equally important was the role of James Newby, the Festival Musical Director. With only a week to assemble the production, hardly any time was allowed for musical rehearsals (a defect which I hope will be corrected next year). This placed a premium on Jim's ability to convey his intentions through gestures and eye contact, without being able to stop and rehearse. Like Roberta Morrell, he knew what he wanted and how to get it.
Judging by the first day, we were in for an exhausting week. Roberta's concept of the show was demanding and physical. She told us that "doing simple things well" was the key to mounting a successful show in so short a time, but she had more action on stage than many productions I've seen that were not so pressed for time.
As a consequence of all this, she had the cast working harder than I can remember in any production that I've done. In every number, it seemed that someone was being manhandled, dropped to the floor, engaged in a struggle, or being carried bodily. All that activity was far more physically exhausting than the usual production, and I left rehearsal (with nearly all of Act I blocked at the end of the first day) completely drained. I was in for a demanding, but satisfying, week.
The Savoy Company: The Grand Duke
That evening's performance of The Grand Duke, by the Savoy Company of Philadelphia, was much anticipated by the festival audience. Many had never seen this opera before, and several drove up from London just for the performance.
The Savoy Company is the oldest amateur G&S performing society in the United States. Their archives boast a letter from W. S. Gilbert, who was gratified "to know that the joint works of Sir Arthur Sullivan & myself are of sufficient interest to justify the formation of an amateur company for the express purpose of interpreting them."
If any Company could pull off a successful Grand Duke, Savoy could, but even this venerable company faced enormous challenges in bringing the opera to Buxton. At home, the company features a cast of nearly 100 principals and chorus. Obviously, it was impractical to bring this many people to the festival. The Buxton Opera House could not accommodate them, and not all their cast-not even all their principals-were available for the trip. Bringing their own scenery and orchestra were equally impractical.
With the Opera House occupied every day, they had but one rehearsal in the theater-the day of the performance-to adapt to a stage, an orchestra, and makeshift scenery that were entirely new to them. (South Anglia Savoy Players, the previous evening's performers, also had just one rehearsal in the Opera House and had to adapt to an unfamiliar orchestra, but they at least had their full company and their own scenery.) With all of these obstacles, to attempt a performance of The Grand Duke, of all operas, seemed downright masochistic. It is in this context that Savoy Company's performance must be judged.
There's a peculiar thing about The Grand Duke: I have never seen a bad production of it (and I've seen three, and been in one myself). I've certainly seen bad Pinafores and Mikados, but never yet a bad Grand Duke. How can this be, considering that many people consider the opera one of the canon's worst?
Two factors contribute to this paradox, in my view. The first is that only a society that is very self-confident attempts this opera. Plenty of people attempt to perform The Mikado without the resources to do it properly, but no one in their right mind would dare do that with The Grand Duke. The second factor is that, frankly, Grand Duke is not nearly so bad an opera as its reputation would suggest. A masterpiece it is not. But, with a dedicated and experienced company, the chances for success are enormous.
The Savoy Company's Grand Duke was not the best I've ever seen; given the obstacles they faced, it's difficult to see how it could have been. Yet, despite the logistical difficulties that they had to overcome, and some directorial decisions with which I disagreed, the production still had much to recommend it, and no one I know left the theater disappointed.
The strength of this Grand Duke was in the principal roles. Savoy is a company that prides itself on lineage and continuity, and several top-flight comedians of many years' standing made the trip. As Ludwig, Michael Tunney has the perfect G&S light baritone voice-a smooth, beautiful tone and crisp enunciation. He was everything one could want in the part, and he commanded attention whenever he spoke.
Grand Duke is one of the few G&S operas with two equally-important soprano leads. Kathryn Kearns Craig (Lisa) was most impressive. Miss Craig has an ideal voice for musical comedy: a lovely tone that maintains its shape across a wide range (including a mellifluous mezzo register) and carries the importance of every word to the audience. Throughout most of Grand Duke, Lisa is a victim: she loves Ludwig, but all sorts of obstacles contrive keep them apart until the very end. In Miss Craig, we saw the single-minded goal of protecting the man she loved, and she did this without distracting the action or seeming monotonous. A superbly-nuanced performance, overall.
As Julia, Robin Greene was rather less successful. Miss Greene is certainly a capable singer and actress, and under other circumstances she might shine. But, she obviously had taken on this difficult role on short notice, and she was ultimately defeated by the need to maintain a German accent, a feat that even the best sopranos have been unable to manage. As the adjudicator remarked, it merely seemed as if Zsa Zsa Gabor was making a guest appearance. I've been saying for years that all references to Julia's German accent should be excised from The Grand Duke, and I'm convinced Gilbert himself would have done this, had the opera been revived in his lifetime. The burden it imposed was simply too much for Miss Greene to overcome. She evidently received little coaching on her challenging Act II aria ("So ends my dream"), and it was rather boring.
I was surprised to learn that Geoff Berwind, as the Notary, was also a last-minute replacement. His performance was so striking, and of such perfection, that I naturally assumed it had been practiced and refined for many months. The Notary is a rather humorless character whom Gilbert has introduced only to help advance the plot. Berwind turned this liability into an advantage by making the Notary a crotchety solicitor who is endlessly annoyed that no one around him understands the law as well as he does. The impatience was pitched at just the right level to be obvious without cloying, and he maintained it even in scenes where he had relatively little to say.
As Rudolph, we were privileged to see Samuel W.M. Griffin, from Savoy's venerable family of patter baritones. Rudolph is a challenging part, because the actor has but one scene in which to make an impression. He must be seen as a cheapskate, a "broken-down critter," and a detestable despot, all at once. Sam Griffin conveyed all of these attributes throughout the long scene, without overdoing any of them. The business with the Chamberlains worked particularly well, especially when they passed a clean handkerchief up the line, and then, after Rudolph soiled it, passed it back up the line in evident disgust.
As the Baroness, Betsy Walker shared Rudolph's miserliness. Yet, she was also his foil, by conveying a sense of dignity that he deliberately lacked. She had a slight tendency to swallow her vowels, but it was a superbly crafted performance nonetheless. Their duet (not cut in half, as in the D'Oyly Carte recording) never lost interest, though the concluding dance could have been more elaborate. In Act II, "Come bumpers, aye, ever so many" was wantonly inebriated.
As Ernest Dummkopf, Ross Drucker provided ample proof that a tenor can have a lovely voice and still act. He had all the assuredness of a theatrical manager, but it was a bit bland. The interpretation needed to be more expansive.
Guillermo Bosch made a strong impression in his brief appearance as the Herald, conveying just the right degree of annoyance at the chrous's constant interruptions. Robert Gawthrop was an imposing presence as the Prince of Monte Carlo, but his diction was a bit muddy-perhaps understandable when you consider the difficulty of the material. In the roulette song, the chorus cleverly mimed a giant roulette wheel with a soccer-sized ball. Carol Thompson Wright (Princess of Monte Carlo) impressed me. In the entire G&S canon, I can't think of a soprano role that is so short, yet, so challenging. The demanding florid passages in "We're rigged out in magnificent array" were technically perfect, and she acted just as a princess should.
The performance was quickly paced-only 2½ hours, which is short for this opera. The only musical cuts were half of Ernest and Julia's Act I duet, snippets of the Act I finale (poorly bridged, in my view), Ludwig's Act II aria ("At the outset I may mention") and Rudolph's "So you're a pretty kind of fellow." The dialogue was cut more mercilessly, particularly in Act II. The Ben Hashbaz character was gone (no great loss, in my mind), but a number of reliably funny lines were unaccountably omitted. There was no attempt to improve the slapdash final scene, and it seemed even more unmotivated than usual.
The most significant deficiency in the production was the chorus. This was the first show I'd seen in a long time that presented the traditional straight lines and semicircles that we all seem to remember from the old D'Oyly Carte productions. The irony, as one former D'Oyly Carter confirmed, was that even they were never as semi-circular as this Grand Duke was. The chorus were not complete statues, but there was a clear failure to respond consistently to the stage action. Even taking into account that this was a slimmed-down version of Savoy's Philadelphia production, with different personnel in many roles, this was still the dullest chorus work that I'd seen in a long time.
The Savoy Company had no idea what kind of set they were getting and evidently were quite pleased by the outcome. Rented drop-cloths vividly illustrated a Bavarian market-place in Act I and a grand ballroom in Act II. Some cafe tables in Act I and a throne in Act II (constructed by Ian Smith's crack set crew on just a few hours' notice) completed the scene.
The Savoy people were terrified about what the adjudicator, David Turner, might say, but his comments were largely favorable (with his only significant criticisms being, as one might expect, of the chorus). Several company members told me afterward that they fully agreed with virtually all that Mr. Turner said. The adjudication, though alien to American sensibilities, seemed eminently fair to them, and nowhere near as frightening in actuality as it had seemed in prospect.
That evening, at the cabaret, the company further demonstrated that they were a class act, with a most entertaining program of mostly Savoy opera excerpts (with two others thrown in, both of them drinking songs).
A Geoffrey Shovelton Master Class
On Wednesday, I caught most of a Geoffrey Shovelton master class, the first of four by former D'Oyly Carte principals to be held during the festival. Most of the students were chosen from the ranks of leads in the week's shows. Geoff is the ideal teacher at this kind of master class, because he is a trained singer who is also renowned as a fine actor. Not only did Geoff help his charges sing their selections better, he helped them act them better, too.
A consistent theme was the need to build the dynamics from the beginning of a song to the end. For example, if Josephine begins singing at the top of her lungs in "A simple sailor," she'll have nothing left to give when the number reaches its climax. As an illustration of his techniques, he gave his own interpretation of "sparkling eyes," which was naturally a highlight of the afternoon.
Warrington Light Opera: Iolanthe
That day's Pirates rehearsals were physically exhausting, and I left with virtually every muscle aching. As I walked to the Opera House that evening, feeling half-dead to the world, I could only hope that I was in for a performance of Iolanthe that would knock my socks off. Regrettably, the production by Warrington Light Opera was a dreary affair, probably the least-appealing G&S performance I'd seen in over a decade.
It is easy to criticize Warrington's production, but the festival owed them a vote of thanks. They were the replacement for another Iolanthe production that withdrew from the festival but six weeks earlier. That Ian Smith could find any company at such short notice, much less a replacement Iolanthe, is testament to the depth of G&S talent in the country. Had Warrington not stepped forward, the Opera House surely would have been dark that Wednesday night. And Warrington, for all that they did wrong, were still better than a dark theater.
That said, this production showed every sign of having been assembled in a hurry. Several principals were only barely sure of their lines, the staging was mostly senseless, and chorus action was nonexistent. No doubt, Warrington is due some slack on account of the hasty schedule, but not this much slack. The most basic fundamentals of stagecraft were missing here, and no amount of rehearsal could have compensated for that. This is a group desperately in need of a professional director.
There is no point in lingering on this awful affair. But, as an example, I'll just mention the March of the Peers, which was no march at all. The Peers entered nonchalantly with fishing poles, picnic baskets and badminton racquets, and basically stood there for the whole number. One or two of them dangled poles into the orchestra pit. Never mind the improbability that a Peer would wear his full regalia on a fishing trip. Clearly, they were short of coronets: one of the men wore a deerstalker cap, another a tweed had. Had the company done a production of Hound of the Baskervilles recently?
Most of the chorus seemed utterly bored with the production. I think the Lord Chancellor could have leaped into the orchestra pit, and half the chorus would not have noticed. This is a deficiency that cannot be attributed to lack of rehearsal time: paying attention to the action takes little practice, only direction. And, as David Turner advised the chorus, "If you can't smile, at least look pleasant!"
The principals' action was no better. I'm not sure who the characters were speaking to, but it was rarely to each other. Actors routinely upstaged one another, forcing their colleagues to speak with their heads pointed upstage. What was the director thinking when he sent Private Willis upstage just before "Oh, foolish fay," giving the Fairy Queen no one to address in her song?
A few positives are worth mentioning. Robert Wardle was an excellent Chancellor and belonged in a better production than this. He was the only performer consistently worth watching. The nightmare song was striking, with much of it delivered from a reclining position. He would be a worthy addition to any Iolanthe.
For most of the evening, Tecwyn Savage just barely bumbled his way through Strephon, and I shuddered at the impending doom when I heard the opening bars of "My bill has now been read a second time." But, to my pleasant surprise, this was his best moment of the evening. I am more impressed with "Fold your flapping wings" every time I hear it. Gilbert, it seems, was a subversive. Such a pointed attack on "politics as usual" is as relevant today as a century ago, and Savage carried the song brilliantly.
But, by far the evening's best moment was Iolanthe's appeal to the Lord Chancellor. I've always been disturbed at Iolanthe's obviously-contrived line, "Quick, my veil." She does not know when she enters that she will be making an appeal, so why would she be so lucky to have it so handy? Warrington was the first Society I've seen to recognize this and cut the line. Instead, Iolanthe achieved all the concealment she needed merely by turning a quarter-revolution away from the Chancellor. Although partly hidden, her face was visible to the Chancellor in profile, and this gave him an opportunity to recognize her much earlier than usual. His reactions were perfect, as he inched closer to her, and it gradually dawned on him who she was. The climax, on "Now, let me die," was moving to tears.
These memorable moments were far too few and far between. This was the kind of production that only the friends and relatives of the participants had any prayer of enjoying (and it might have been a struggle even for them). Frankly, I was hard pressed to stay awake through much of it. No festival of this length can escape having a few low moments, but as I walked back to my hotel, I certainly hoped that matters would go no lower than this.
I did not bother to stay up for that evening's cabaret.
St. Mary's School, Astley: The Gondoliers
When I got home from the theater Thursday night, I looked up "astonishing" in my computer's thesaurus. The synonyms I found were: startling, amazing, unusual, extraordinary and surprising. Yet, none of them do justice to the remarkable theatrical experience crafted by the teen-aged students of St. Mary's School, Astley, who turned the festival on its head with a unique production of The Gondoliers that will be remembered for decades to come.
Most G&S productions are a happy compromise between tradition and innovation. Occasionally, a production comes along that is totally new, that bears no perceptible resemblance to anything at all that has gone before. Such a production can have only two results: it either succeeds brilliantly or falls flat on its face. There can be no middle ground.
St. Mary's School dared to be different, and they took The Gondoliers where none of us imagined the opera could go. As one remarkable scene followed the next, we sat mouth-agape, filled with wonder that anyone could have thought of this, and filled with respect that it worked to such perfection.
As a reviewer, it's my job to explain what St. Mary's did and why it worked. But, at intermission, when several of us took some air outside the theater and ran into two friends who had not bought tickets, none of us was able to explain why they just had to forego dinner and buy standing-room places for the second act. We simply made them do it. They thanked us at the end: finally, they understood what we had been so hard-pressed to describe.
The set was like a candy box of which the front and lid had been removed. The back wall and sides were about 20 feet high, a white background painted with black geometric shapes that vaguely suggested gondolas, canals, and the dome of St. Marks, but were mostly abstract. The black-and-white checkerboard ground cloth had rectangular cells up-stage, but wavy shapes at the front, suggesting the ocean.
The chorus girls wore white leotards and dance skirts, the men black pants and T-shirts. The choreography was simple but hugely effective, with the contrast of black on white leveraged to maximum effect. Roses were suggested simply by two long white and red ribbons that snaked their way through the chorus. Remarkably, for a group of 33 girls and 24 boys, the ensemble was perfect-a beautiful, pristine, Vienna Boys' Choir kind of sound. Their cultivated upper-class accents were a deliberate contrast to the lower-class cockney of Tessa, Gianetta, Marco and Giuseppe.
Tessa (Michelle Daley) and Gianetta (Catherine Doherty) were played as tarts, with red micro skirts and halter tops. Mid-way through the opening chorus, they entered with shopping bags, as if they'd just been to a mall, then proceeded to join in the action rather half-heartedly, as if they found the rest of the girls a crashing bore. Their colorful costumes stood out garishly against the chorus whites. Marco (Robert Hughes) and Giuseppe (Lee Devlin) came in on skateboards, with spandex pants, crash helmets and knee pads. They wore large foam-rubber gondolas around their waists, which were held in place by ropes that looped around each shoulder.
The blindman's buff was a fixed game from the start. Gianetta and Tessa cordoned off the rest of the chorus with a ribbon, so the four principals had a large center-stage area to themselves. By the end of this section, each girl had tied up her gondolier with a bright red ribbon, lending special irony to the line, "I've at length achieved a capture." The final double chorus was transcendingly beautiful.
The Plaza-Toros, except for Luiz, all spoke with Spanish accents, and they pronounced their H's with a hard CH sound. Words like "hidalogo" and "horse" became chhhidalgo and chhhorse. The Duke (David Hurst) towered over everyone else. He was dressed like a stylized matador: black pants and shirt, bright yellow waistcoat, red tie, and mustache. He spoke in an amusing cultured monotone. Casilda (Donna-Marie Greene), with long dark blond hair and classic beauty, looked like everyone's model of a princess. Whenever the "seeks, desires, demands" sequence occurred, she made "desires" a word with sexual overtones. The Duchess (Gillian Roberts) was also a beautiful woman, and you could have easily believed that she was Casilda's mother. Like the others, Don Alhambra (Simon Rigby) spoke with a Spanish accent, and he wore a subdued red body-length clerical frock. The adjudicator loved him, but I thought he was the least interesting of the quintet; with so much happening on stage, this scarcely mattered.
Contrasting with the rest of the Ducal party, Luiz (Joshua Ellicott) spoke in a highly-refined, upper-class British accent. On references to royalty he pulled his ears away from his head, suggesting Prince Charles. He seemed thoroughly annoyed to be serving the Duke. To imitate a farmyard, he slowly got down on all-fours and said "Baaah" contemptuously. "In enterprise of martial kind" was sung by Luiz instead of the Duke; it was redesigned to show the contempt with which he viewed the ducal family.
The scene for Luiz and Casilda was a highlight of the evening. Both of their duets were taken at amazingly slow tempi. The recitative, "Oh rapture" went at about a third of its usual speed. Yet, far from being boring, these numbers took on a rare poignancy. The audience was entranced. Despite the contrast of accents, the scene never became campy. At one point, Luiz called her Camilla, then quickly corrected himself.
"Bridegroom and Bride" was also taken very slowly, and it sounded almost like a folk song. The quartet entered in new costumes-the men in loose shorts and Hawaiian shirts, the girls now in mini-skirts instead of micros. The Act I finale was another vocal gem. During the long slow section for Tessa and Gianetta, each girl gave her new husband a particularly hard squeeze in the groin, to illustrate the fate that would befall either man if he allowed his eyes to wander while in Barataria. For the final tableau, the chorus used a white ribbon to build the Xebeque for their journey. The act ended with the despondent Gianetta and Tessa the only ones left on stage.
For Act II, several panels of the "box" set were replaced with new ones colored in yellow and red, and painted with abstract shapes as before. A tall white ladder was at center stage. Giuseppe used the ladder as a prop for "Rising early in the morning." His ability to maintain perfect diction while manipulating the ladder in all kinds of ways was nothing short of amazing. Annibale was given to the shortest chorister, who spoke to Marco and Giuseppe in a pompous upper-class accent. The full men's chorus remained on-stage for "sparkling eyes." The song was captivating. Many tenors decorate the song with elaborate gestures and blocking. This Marco simply stood there and sang from the heart; a sincere depth of feeling made it succeed.
A couple of the second-act solos were a bit below the production's generally-high level. Marco and Giuseppe tried to illustrate "There lived a King" in pantomime, but their gestures were distracting and hard to follow. The Duchess's solo, "On the day that I was wedded," was unsuccessful for the opposite reason: lack of sufficient action. The Duke tried to pantomime the song, but he was short of ideas. I was also bothered by her pointedly British singing accent, which was not believable for a character who sounded so convincingly Spanish when speaking.
"In a contemplative fashion" was completely traditional-probably the only number in the show for which this statement could be made. Clearly, the director appreciated that the song was topsy-turvy enough and needed no enhancement. In "To help unhappy commoners," Casilda joined all the Duchess's refrains and was fully engaged in the staging. Several people noted that this innovation could be profitably incorporated in traditional productions, for Casilda otherwise has nothing to do. For the gavotte, although the words were unchanged, the Plaza-Toros taught the two Kings how to play cricket. It was acted out in slow-motion, and I think even Marcel Marceau would have been proud of the quality of the mime.
During Don Alhambra's dialogue with the two gondoliers, Tessa and Gianetta appeared in a window high above the stage, and so overheard the revelation that neither of them would be queen. When they entered, instead of "Well, upon my word," they said "G'blye me" in perfect cockney. (Earlier, Giuseppe had offered them "a buffet and a boogie.") The cachucha was sexually charged, with each principal girl landing on top of her man. The chorus remained unspeakably polite. Have I mentioned that St. Mary's is a Catholic school?
Inez (Alison Murray) was dressed in a white skirt, a blue sweater and a nurse's cap. While she sang, several chorus mimed turning a crank behind her, as if forcing her to get on with the story as fast as possible. When Luiz was announced as King, he appeared behind a window and gave the half-smile and mechanical wave that the Royal Family are so noted for.
No parody was attempted for the final number, and the choreography was kept simple, to give us one last chance to hear those ethereally lovely voices. For the curtain calls, of which there were several, they encored the dance and sang "Once more, gondolieri" again. It was most appropriate, for they had indeed left us with feelings of pleasure. The kids of St. Mary's had earned a most-deserved standing ovation.
I've been writing these reviews for over a decade, and never before have I felt so inadequately equipped to adequately describe what occurred. The performance had an electricity unmatched by any Gilbert and Sullivan performance I have ever seen. It was a production that most people there will remember for the rest of their lives.
To those who were not there, the production may sound merely like a collection of irreverent bits that have nothing to do with The Gondoliers. Yet, everyone I spoke to, including old-line traditionalists like John Reed, came away with the same impressions I did. How did such an unorthodox production manage to be adored by virtually everyone who saw it?
The most important factor was the abstract setting, which took the opera out of a particular time and place, and put it in a never-never land where the rules could be anything the kids wanted them to be. Though strange to us, the world of this Gondoliers was completely logical inside of itself. Whatever a character did-however shocking-was studiously maintained. The production was a tribute to Gilbert, because the world these kids had invented, though new to us, was just as topsy-turvy as anything created by the master himself.
What is even more remarkable is the sense of balance the performers had. It was not enough that the kids had invented a topsy-turvy world of their own. To succeed with the audience, that world had to be interesting. There had to be variety, with no element overwhelming the others or being taken to tasteless excess. In this production, every performer seemed to fit perfectly, each role was starkly drawn, and the chorus acted and sang with a precision remarkable for a group so large. As adjudicator Turner observed, "everyone on stage was a character, and you'll never forget any one of them."
The directors must be complimented for their sense of color. They are graphic artists of the first order, for having conceived the contrasts that decorated the stage all evening long. Like a Matisse painting, every scene was a picture that might be hung in a museum. The choreography looked far more complicated than it was; most of the mileage came from the simple effect of contrasting colors moving about the stage with great precision.
It was a fine night for Sullivan, too. The Festival Orchestra had the night off, and Damian Cunningham conducted from the keyboard. Every harmony came through beautifully, and attacks and cutoffs were crisp. Dynamics were varied and always appropriate. Cunningham had chosen slow tempos for most numbers, and the show ran for nearly three hours. But, it never dragged.
In the annals of Gilbert and Sullivan, this one was for the ages.
Report of the Adjudicator
Mr. Turner's comments on this Gondoliers were, of course, overwhelmingly positive, although even he seemed hard-pressed to put into words why the production had worked so well. Yet, one thing he said put a slight dent in an otherwise perfect evening. In his critique of Gianetta, he said that she was "a fine actress, but not the best singer." The statement was literally true, but at the same time manifestly unfair. Measured by adult standards, none of these kids had particularly strong voices, and Gianetta's was better than most. To single her out was an act of unintentional cruelty that, understandably, reduced the poor girl to tears. Mr. Turner probably would not have made the comment at all if he had had time to think about it. The instant analysis that adjudication requires is, perhaps, the practice's most troublesome element.
The Midnight Cabaret
It seems almost incredible that, after performing a three-hour opera, the cast of St. Mary's came to the Festival Club and put on another show. The boys were dressed now in black pants and white dress shirts, the girls in black cocktail dresses (some of them very provocative-I still can't believe this is a Catholic school).
Their performance spanned a variety of styles, including extended excerpts from Godspell and Cabaret, a Cole Porter number, and two Elvis imitations that had the audience in stitches. The Cabaret number about a ménage-à-trois, and the suggestive choreography that went with it, raised more than a few eyebrows: apparently, the nuns let the kids do anything these days.
But, what was most remarkable is that the cast had this hour-long program, fully-choreographed and superbly-polished, ready to go at midnight after a performance of a demanding opera like Gondoliers. It will come as no surprise that the kids had their second standing-ovation of the night.
The Essex Group: The Mikado
If the preceding evening's Gondoliers had shown that a creative approach to Gilbert and Sullivan could be a brilliant success, Thursday's performance of The Mikado reminded us that a poor application of creativity can fail horribly. The Essex Group's production, described as "1920s Style," hit the boards with a resounding thud. Not one person with whom I spoke could find a single good thing to say about it, despite the group's outstanding talent and technical excellence.
If the Essex Group's Mikado had been merely reset in the 1920s, perhaps the production would have worked, but the director was not content with that. For reasons impossible comprehend, the action was moved to a casino. Ko-Ko was not a cheap tailor, but a cheap casino operator. Nanki-Poo was not a second trombone, but "a crooner in a palm court band." Except for these and a few other superficial changes, the libretto was basically unaltered.
The set was dominated by a crescent-shaped bar, which stood upstage. Two homosexual bartenders stood behind the bar and were on stage for all but two numbers in the opera. The bartenders' reactions to the music and dialogue dominated the production, but their antics were frequently tasteless and nearly always distracting. Most characters either bought a drink, or were offered one, at some point in the opera. As David Turner observed, "the bartenders should have been given a few minutes off. Better yet, the entire night!"
Aside from some lettering on the scenery, nothing in this production suggested Japan. The men wore tuxedos. The girls wore English school dresses and carried field hockey sticks for their first entrance. They wore flapper dresses in Act II and got to dance the Charleston. Yum-Yum carried a book bag and at one point sat down at a cocktail table to do her homework; apparently, the director had ignored the line, "from scholastic trammels free."
No one wore oriental makeup or carried a fan. Pooh-Bah simply wore a tuxedo with medals attached. Pish-Tush was described in the program as "a Yorkshire Pit Owner." He was the only character that spoke in a lower-class accent, and he acted like he was the local bookie.
The Mikado (merely "a local hood" in the program, but still described as the Emperor of Japan by all the actors on stage) was dressed like a Mafia gangster; thugs dressed in black suits entered with him. When he said "I forget the punishment . . . ," one of the thugs produced a violin case, opened it, and removed a book of laws, which The Mikado consulted. The recommended punishment was not "something in boiling oil," but "something in concrete." Katisha wore a simple black dress and carried a fur wrap. She was not especially unattractive.
Despite all the tomfoolery, if you gave the characters kimonos and fans and put them on a standard Mikado set, much of the blocking and business would have been entirely appropriate. This made the production all the more bizarre. The audience could never quite get used to the juxtaposition of common-place Mikado staging superimposed on such out-of-place scenery and costumes.
Essex had assembled an excellent cast. Yum-Yum (Lorraine Ely) was leggy and lovely, with the singing voice to match. Pitti-Sing (Deborah Groves) had the best diction of anyone I've ever heard in the part. The Mikado (Philip Crapnell), with his operatic-quality bass, was truly fearsome; his laugh in "My object all sublime" scared the audience as much as the chorus. Ko-Ko (Ken Cooper) and Pooh-Bah (David Hylands) were less memorable, but certainly more than adequate.
So, this is a production that had all the talent to be superb, but sank faster than a leaky rowboat. I did not meet one person who liked it, and several of my fellow-Pirates cast members had the same trouble I had staying awake. Many patrons sincerely felt cheated-especially those who had come to Buxton specially for this performance and thought they would be getting a production that at least resembled a traditional Mikado.
How is it possible that creative approaches, played to essentially the same audience on consecutive nights, could have made such opposite impressions? Unlike the St. Mary's Gondoliers, which was set in an imaginary place, this Mikado was set in a very concrete place: a casino. We have definite preconceptions about what a casino is like, and we know that schoolgirls do not belong there, that Yum-Yum would not use a bar as the dressing room for her wedding, and that the Emperor of Japan would not come there (or anywhere) dressed as a Chicago-style Mafioso.
The St. Mary's Gondoliers also had the ingenuity to make sure that all the action, however bizarre, contributed to the telling of the story. This production was full of bits that had nothing to do with the story. Nearly everything that happened around the bar did nothing but distract from the opera. The bar never helped the show, it only hurt it.
Finally, unlike the Gondoliers, the Essex Mikado was visually dull. With a mostly gray set and black costumes for the men, the production had a chromatic monotony that slowly put even the most attentive observer to sleep. David Turner made a point of mentioning that gray is one of the worst colors for theatrical scenery. How right he was!
In his post-performance comments, Mr. Turner remarked that when you see a "new concept" applied to a classic, "you either love it or you loathe it." He added, "I've made up my mind. Have you?"
Mikado Rehearsals Begin
Though Ian Smith never publicly admitted it, one of the festival's minor disappointments was the relative lack of interest in the two Festival Productions. It seemed logical to assume that people would jump at the chance to appear in an international cast directed by former D'Oyly Carte principals. But, logical or not, Ian and the directors had to scramble to recruit a respectable chorus for the two shows. I was one of several people drafted into The Mikado relatively late in the first week, just a day before rehearsals were to begin.
With several people appearing in the casts of both shows, schedules had to be reorganized. Since only three days separated the two productions, it was clear that the start of Mikado rehearsals could not be delayed until after Pirates was finished. To Roberta Morrell's consternation, she gave up most of Saturday, so that Mikado rehearsals could start.
In some ways, Alistair Donkin, the former D'Oyly Carte patter comedian who was directing The Mikado, had the easier task of the two festival directors. Even though Mikado is a longer opera, the chorus spends considerably less time on stage than they do in Pirates, and even when they do appear, far less is expected of them.
In Pirates, the chorus are an integral part of the action. In Mikado, the chorus do little more than comment on the action happening in front of them. Of course, the relative lack of chorus interest places more burden on the principals. But, it is far easier to get a handful of principals to act in concert than a chorus of twenty or thirty people. So, while I do not minimize the task, Mikado is clearly the easier of the two operas to put on in a week's time.
However, working against Alistair were two major distractions. Since he was appearing as Jack Point in the performance of Yeomen to be given on Sunday, there would be no Mikado rehearsals that day. And, with Pirates taking the boards on Monday, he would have only principals at his disposal. So, the only chorus rehearsals would be most, but not all, of Saturday; Tuesday and Wednesday. Little wonder that several of us started calling this the "three-day Mikado."
As Alistair started blocking Act I, I began to see both the similarities and the differences in style between him and Roberta Morrell. Both directors were teaching the cast productions which they had mounted before in other places. Both had clear notions of what they wanted the cast to do, could explain themselves quickly and clearly, and could instantly detect when something was wrong and how to fix it.
But, although neither production was experimental, Roberta nevertheless allowed a fair amount of improvisation in the mass choral scenes, while Alistair did not. Roberta coached the principals by getting them to think and feel what their characters were saying, while Alistair concentrated on getting every cross, gesture, and fan move executed to precision.
A comparison of the two productions' opening numbers will illustrate the difference. In Pirates, "Pour, oh pour," was designed to show the chorus in a moment of uncontained revelry. Roberta's job was to make sure that every pirate was part of the action, that there were no "dead spots" on the stage, and that nothing too distracting interfered with the flow of the action. By the night of the performance, every actor knew exactly what he was going to do for every moment of that scene, but the final product emerged from a lot of improvisation during rehearsals.
In The Mikado, every movement in "If you want to know who we are" was given to us in the first rehearsal. In its way, it was a thing of beauty-a colorful display of fans opening and shutting on just the right beats of the music. But, from that moment, we all knew exactly what that opening number had to look like. Repetitions (of which there were many) were not, as in Pirates, to add more detail, but to ensure that the choreography we had already learned was executed to perfection.
Clearly, the chorus showcase in this Mikado was the opening number. After that, we had relatively little to do, besides enter at the right time, sing, and perform a small repertoire of simple gestures (many of which involved the fans). This is not to say that it was trivial, but in a normal rehearsal schedule of several months, this is the kind of production that a chorus member could find a bit tedious.
I've not yet mentioned the outstanding technical support that Ian Smith had in place for the festival. Stage Manager Tom Mills and his team provided sets for both Festival Productions and for several of the visiting companies, with scenery pieces often constructed on just a few hours' notice. Ben and Margaret Chalmley managed the props; whatever our demanding directors needed, Ben and Margaret could get it or build it on short notice. Costumes for both Festival Productions were rented, but someone still needed to take all the measurements, make last-minute alterations, and ensure nothing was lost. Tom Mills's wife Judith had the entire effort well under control, in addition to playing Peep-Bo in The Mikado.
The Ardensingers: Cox & Box
That night's performance at the Opera House provided a change of pace: Burnand and Sullivan's Cox & Box, performed by the Ardensingers of Arden, Delaware. Like all the visiting companies, the Ardensingers had just one day to rehearse in the Buxton Opera House. They were also provided with a set which, I gathered, was much larger than they are used to. Unlike all the other visiting companies, their musical director did not make the trip, so they had only one rehearsal under the beat of Festival MD James Newby.
Considering all of this, the Ardensingers' Cox & Box was respectable, if not excellent. Ron Fava literally impersonated the name Bouncer: he seemed to have the proverbial bounce in his step, and in his voice, whenever he entered. The only drawback, as the adjudicator noted, was the lack of a military demeanor in the "rataplan" numbers.
John Dennison, a former D'Oyly Carte baritone who now lives stateside, was a commanding presence as Cox, though perhaps a bit too grim. Robert Manley, as Box, was the only one of the three to speak in an American accent, and it made him seem a bit misplaced, but the narrative song ("Some years ago") was a highlight of the performance.
The festival provided an impromptu set that was quite impressive considering the short time available to build it. Large flats formed three walls of the room where the opera takes place. There were three practical doors (one for the main entrance and one for each lodger's closet) and a window where the chop and the bacon were tossed out. There was no bed; Box took his nap in a wing chair in the back of the large room.
The production's largest drawback was a lack of tightness and focus in the blocking. I attributed this to the short time the performers had to acclimate to such unfamiliar surroundings. The adjudicator attributed it to bad direction. James Newby led the Festival Orchestra through a polished reading of the score-though, understandably, there were some synchronization difficulties between him and the singers, especially Box.
I was a little disappointed that the troupe made all the traditional D'Oyly Carte cuts. Even the final trio ("My hand upon it") was cut, which led to an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. Operas should end with music, not a line of dialogue ("Then, it is he!").
I've long been a fan of Cox & Box. It is full of fun music and hilarious situations. Those in the audience who knew the opera were pleased to make its reacquaintance with this performance, and those who were new to it found this an excellent introduction.
As Cox & Box is a short opera, the evening needed a second half, which was provided by Dr. Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket. Hinge and Bracket are actually two female impersonators who do topical operatic and musical parodies. Their impersonation is actually quite convincing (especially Hinge's), and it would have taken me a while to guess they were men, if I hadn't been told in advance. A lot of their jokes were hard for an American to appreciate. If the festival has a free half-evening again next year, I would prefer that some other form of entertainment be found.
Former D'Oyly Carte Principals Present The Yeomen of the Guard
Sunday's event was surely the festival's most anticipated: a performance of The Yeomen of the Guard with former D'Oyly Carte principals playing all the lead parts. The cast was, in fact, remarkably close to what one might have seen in performances during the company's final season, in 1982.
The original plan was to perform the opera with full costumes and scenery, but the lead singers demurred at the last moment-apparently, they were afraid of getting "stuck" with ill-fitting costumes. So, the performance was a bit of a compromise. The leads and chorus wore tuxedos and evening dresses, and the set was no more than some elevated platforms at the rear of the stage. There was little chorus blocking to speak of, except that they entered and left the stage as called for in the script. The principals' blocking, however, was completely worked-out-indeed, you could hardly have asked for anything more thorough even in a fully-staged production.
Once the audience adjusted to the performance's odd compromises, it quickly became clear that this was as solid a Yeomen as one could ever hope to see. These are artists who love the material, who caress every word as if it were precious, and whose delicate phrasing cannot be equaled by anyone now living. That such a lineup can still be assembled over a decade after the Company disbanded is remarkable. Certainly, there was a sense among the audience that posterity is running out of such opportunities. Best enjoy them while we can.
Most impressive was Kenneth Sandford. His Shadbolt had lost nothing in the intervening years. He was fearsome, and yet evoked our sympathy. He was just dense enough to bring out the double-meanings in all his dialogue with Phoebe. A friend who has played Shadbolt in amateur productions said that the performance was a revelation to him. It was that good.
I have never seen Dame Carruthers played to my satisfaction by an amateur. Most directors are happy enough if they find someone who can sing the part. Acting rarely comes with the package. Not a problem with Patricia Leonard, who made an instant impression of strength and seemed to be as resolute as the Tower itself.
Fairfax was one of Geoffrey Shovelton's signature roles with the D'Oyly Carte, and this performance reminded us why. He conveyed all of Fairfax's caddish rakishness while singing the two arias beautifully. For his first entrance, he was wearing black trousers, a white shirt with an open color, and a false beard. For the Act I finale, he added a bow tie and jacket. For the Act II finale, he was most striking in a white dinner jacket and red tie.
John Ayldon's Meryll also made a strong impression. I especially liked his conspiratorial cleverness when planning Fairfax's escape, and his sense of panic when Fairfax, disguised as Leonard, failed to recognize Phoebe. As Phoebe, Lorraine Daniels was at her best when she had Kenneth Sandford to play off of, but she also made the most of her interaction with Fairfax in the Act I finale.
Michael Buchan was weak vocally, but acted the Lieutenant brilliantly. He made the Lieutenant a bit of a dunce, someone who never quite seemed to understand what was going on around him. The libretto supports this interpretation, and I found it refreshing.
Alistair Donkin held my attention in all his scenes as Point. No individual moment stands out, but the performance was uniformly strong. At the end, he entered without his jacket, his bow tie undone. He grabbed hold of the hem of Elsie's dressed, and as Fairfax pulled her away, fell backward on his legs, as the final pulsating chords were heard in the orchestra.
The lone disappointment was Jane Stanford, who as Elsie was less believable than several good amateurs that I recall. She did little more than stand like a stick and sing her lines without expression. Vocally, she seemed shrill and not completely prepared. Hard to imagine, but evidently she did sing the role with D'Oyly Carte as an understudy.
David Steadman conducted the Festival Orchestra with vigor and finesse. For the first time in the festival, I seriously missed a "full band." The Yeomen overture with only one trombone is an effect even James Newby's orchestrations could not quite manage. However, Newby made up for it with some delicious added timpani strokes in the opera's final measures.
Collectively, it seemed as if the former D'Oyly Carte performers had turned back the clock. It was once again 1982, and these performers at their prime were showing the world how Gilbert and Sullivan ought to be performed. Alas, it was just a one-night reunion, with, at the moment, only the unfulfilled promise of the same crew uniting again next year-this time, we hope, for a full production with costumes and scenery. It is a prospect devoutly to be wished!
Festival Production of The Pirates of Penzance
In my performing days at the University of Michigan, we always had a technical rehearsal on a Sunday, dress rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday, and opened the show on a Wednesday. In recent years, the opening has been pushed back to Thursday, with Wednesday billed officially as a "preview" performance. So, the troupe has four full days in the theater before facing the legendary jitters of opening night.
In the festival, the technical rehearsal, dress rehearsal and performance were compressed into a single busy day. Certainly, these are not ideal conditions for any performer. But, the schedule had a hidden advantage. With the knowledge that our opening night was also our closing night, we were free to pour every ounce of energy we had into that one eventful day. It was not a schedule that we could have maintained for a long run, but for one night only, it was an exertion to which we all happily submitted.
More than any show that I recall, this was a show that depended on energy. And, knowing that we only had to do it once, energy was the one commodity the troupe had in abundance. Roberta Morrell had poured as much action and variety into each scene as the six-day schedule allowed. Each chorister was an integral part of the action, and many had their own humorous cameos to play. The production had an ensemble feeling that, I think, was keenly felt by the audience.
Jim Newby, the musical director, said he believed that many amateur societies would have been pleased to put on a production like this after many months of rehearsal. It was certainly among the top three or four shows that I've ever done, and with only a week's rehearsal, it could only have been possible with a strong cast, a professional director and a crackerjack technical staff.
Obviously, I cannot be unbiased, but I'll mention some of the highlights. "Pour, oh pour" was played as a drunken revel, with the Pirate King leading Frederic around blindfolded, in his long-johns, as pirates poured sherry down his throat. The pirates made all the usual fun of Ruth, although the long dialogue lacked the precise comic timing I've enjoyed in some productions.
"Climbing over" was, like "Pour, oh pour," played for uncontained revelry, with girls playing ball, badminton, "keep-away," and rock-climbing. I would have liked a little more dancing in the end section, but the approach was sensible given the short rehearsal schedule. Mabel entered and sang with the chorus. She wore glasses and read a small book; though the least playful of the bunch, no one would have guessed she was Mabel until she cast her spectacles and the book aside, to claim Frederic. It's an approach I heartily recommend: our women's chorus needed her voice, and it seems more egalitarian to treat Mabel, initially, as just another of General Stanley's wards.
Several of the older choristers were designated as chaperones. In "Climbing over" and the ensuing dialogue, they sat on beach chairs and occasionally scolded the younger girls for naughty behavior. During Frederic's solo, the chaperones were taxed to their limits to keep the over-sexed young girls from accepting his proposal on the spot. I never quite understood why they offered no objection when Mabel threw herself on Frederic.
For most of the week, I did not like Roberta's treatment of the Major-General's song, but it played brilliantly, and I eventually became persuaded that it had worked. In most productions, when the pirates enter for "Here's a first-rate opportunity," there is a brief struggle between the pirates and General Stanley's daughters. But, for the song, everyone sings demurely and makes standard G&S hand gestures.
Roberta's idea was to play the scene as a constant struggle between the pirates and daughters. Each verse of the Major-General's song showed a different compromising position, with pirates having the upper hand in some verses, and daughters having the upper hand in others. These positions were held in a freeze while the Major-General sang. At each refrain the chorus stopped the struggle momentarily and sang their bit in a prim, innocent pose. Then, the struggle would begin again, with the full company going into "freeze" the moment the Major-General would start to sing again.
This approach was extremely tiring to rehearse. At first, the freezes seemed ineffective, and I was afraid they would detract from the Major-General's signature moment in the opera. But, on the last day of rehearsals, the number came together, the freezes were finally accurate, and I saw that the Major-General's song wasn't ruined, and in fact was enhanced. Roberta left the actual moves to each pair's imagination, and with planning they seemed far less of an exertion in performance than they had in rehearsal. Everyone in the audience that I spoke to said that the song had worked. Score one for the director!
The Act I finale had a simple but effective dance sequence for "Pray observe the magnanimity," but was otherwise a bit more static than I would have liked. For "Hail, Poetry" the chorus were arranged on risers, and the King conducted.
The policemen's routines in Act II were a highlight for me. Roberta seemed to view them as a centerpiece of the opera, and she spent more time on the police bits than any other element of the production. It was very much a Keystone Cops approach, with policemen jumping into each other's arms, the Sergeant bopping misbehavers on the head with his billy club, and with contained confusion ruling the day. Being the shortest policeman, I was the butt of much of this humor, a role I enjoyed immensely. "When the foeman bares his steel" was given the one planned encore of the production, the famous "silent encore" of D'Oyly Carte days.
"With cat-like tread" was made as noisy as possible, and the audience loved it. Roberta brought in several extra male choristers for Act II, with the happy consequence that both pirates and police were at full strength. We did only one verse of "Sighing softly," and I think it was as funny as I've seen, with the teddy-bear Major-General doing a kind of ballet, skeleton limbs and policemen's white gloves appearing from behind the cemetery monuments.
The principals were generally strong. The adjudicator described Ross Bryant as a "cuddly" Major-General who was always calling his daughters "sweetheart," "pumpkin" or "petal." His guilt at the beginning of Act II, as he lay collapsed in front of one of the funeral monuments in the ruined chapel, was about as believable as I've ever seen.
Stella Whitehouse was the most appealing Mabel I've heard in long time. "Poor wand'ring one" seemed smooth and effortless. The adjudicator described her as "a very knowing Mabel," not the innocent, naive girl that we usually see. James Allen (Frederic) had a rugged look that made him a thoroughly believable Pirate, an attribute usually missing in the part. He had a tendency to shout his top notes rather than sing them, but the duet sequence with Mabel in Act II was as beautiful and wrenching as could be.
Philadelphian Robert Gawthrop, who had appeared as The Prince of Monte Carlo with the Savoy Company's Grand Duke, was the Pirate King. A tall, solidly-built man with a booming bass voice, he was a strong King that commanded attention. As his lieutenant Samuel, Vic Golding acted a grubby but gentle pirate, and made the part far memorable than it usually is.
Tony Smith, had the perfect low bass voice, and with his handlebar mustache and tall frame, looked every bit the Sergeant of Police. This bit of "type" casting made the antics going on behind him all the more believable.
Only Ruth (Audrey Pearce), was a relative disappointment. She had all the native abilities to be successful in the part, but spent most of the week merely struggling to learn her lines and music. "When Frederic was a little lad" was a confused jumble, while "Away, away" was essentially a duet for Frederic and the King, as she did not know it well enough to sing full voice. About the best that can be said is that it was not as bad as we feared.
If the performance had a down side, it was an occasional lack of fidelity to the words and music. I do not believe in paraphrasing Gilbert. Unless you are deliberately introducing a topical reference, Gilbert's words should be spoken and sung as exactly he wrote them, and the performance had, for my taste, too many lines that were almost but not quite right.
Jim Newby certainly deserves an award for conducting a solid performance with virtually no time allotted for musical rehearsals. Granting that almost everyone knew the score in advance, a conductor still needs time to convey his interpretation of the score-the changes of tempo, dynamics, and attack that make a performance musically interesting. In this production, people mostly fended for themselves-I made a point of checking notes whenever there was a rehearsal break, for example-and Jim had to convey his intentions through some very expressive conducting in rehearsals. All things considered, the results were admirable, but I think the assembled talent were capable of better.
The performance got a rave review in the local newspaper. It exceeded our expectations for a one-week production, but it needed few excuses on that account. This was a compelling Pirates that I would happily submit in comparison to most amateur productions. The chance to be part of it was the highlight of my two weeks in Buxton.
The Preston Gilbert and Sullivan Society: Princess Ida
Any amateur festival of this length was bound to have a few duds, and there was alas one more clunker to go: Princess Ida presented by the Preston Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I've criticized two productions in this festival for static choruses: the Savoy Company's Grand Duke and Warrington Light Opera's Iolanthe. But Savoy at least had a dashing tarantella and some chorus movement throughout the rest of the opera, just not enough of it by contemporary standards. Warrington, clearly, was operating under the burden of a performance hastily thrown together at the last minute. I don't know what Preston's excuse was, but they were the most static yet. Indeed, at several points I thought the chorus might as well stand on risers and do a concert version.
The production's men were generally stronger than the women, scant consolation in an opera dominated by ladies' parts. Hilarion (David Chard), Cyril (Andrew Follin) and Florian (Robert Feeley) were all strong, and the middle section of Act II, when they are all on stage, was the production's strongest sequence. Hildebrand (Barrie Wright) was also a commanding presence, and he was particularly engaging in the dialogue. Gama (Arthur Baines) was acceptable, but far too bland. Arac (Peter Calley) was the lone weak spot among the men: he had a beautiful bass voice but totally butchered "This helmet I suppose."
As soon as I heard Sally Shaw as Princess Ida, I knew for sure that we were in for a long and dull evening. Every line of dialogue was delivered in a shrill monotone that grated on the ears. She spoke in a thick Lancashire accent that was hard to understand and most un-Princess-like. Most directors faced with an Ida who cannot act make substantial cuts in the Act II soliloquy, but her father, A. G. Shaw, was apparently too blinded by nepotism to see what a debacle he had on his hands. I was also shocked to see that her name was printed in triple the font size of any other in the program, an offense to the spirit of amateur G&S.
Ms. Shaw at least had a passable singing voice, though one which is probably not getting the direction it needs. The same cannot be said of Susan Dillon (Lady Psyche), whose fog-horn mezzo-soprano was no match for the part. "A lady fair of lineage high" was nothing short of disaster. Like Princess Ida, she spoke in a heavy Lancashire accent that was very difficult to understand.
Lady Blanche (Una Bird) was considerably more pleasing, though probably a bit underplayed. Melissa (Julie Winckless) was certainly the best of the women. Her coquettish flirting with Florian and her mocking of Lady Blanche were the production's best moments, and she sung with strong assuredness. This is a performer who has many fine roles ahead of her.
This was not a good night for Sullivan, either. The usual reason for a static chorus is that the people in it are musicians, not actors or dancers. But, this performance had the sloppiest choral singing of the festival, with muffed attacks and dirty cutoffs. There is a nucleus of talent in this group, but it desperately wants innovation and fresh direction. One senses that Preston G&S is capable of far better.
The Hancock County, Maine, Gilbert and Sullivan Society: Utopia Limited
Utopia Limited has been, and remains, one of my least favorite G&S operas. The score is uneven, the libretto a mess, the plot incoherent and unsatisfying. Unlike The Grand Duke, which can be fixed with the right cuts, many of Utopia's problems are inherently irreparable. The Scaphio/Phantis/Zara love triangle, which takes up so much time in Act I, finds no mention or resolution in Act II. The Goldbury/Dramaleigh/Nekaya/Kalyba wooing scene in Act II, though delightful, finds no antecedent in Act I. One never quite understands how the King is able to elude Scaphio and Phantis simply by incorporating, or how Scaphio and Phantis are so easily able to bring matters to a crisis at the end of Act II. Lady Sophy is, frankly, too pure to be interesting, and Paramount is often dull. Most amateur companies do not have the resources to cast the Flowers of Progress satisfactorily.
I make these observations to make clear just how remarkable the production by the Hancock County, Maine, Gilbert and Sullivan Society really was. This was certainly the best Utopia that I have seen (among four), and probably one of the best that the opera has ever enjoyed. Full credit to director Dede Johnson (who played Kate in the Festival Pirates two nights earlier) for this enormously creative and energetic interpretation of such a problematic opera.
Most productions of this opera are too polite. Dede Johnson's idea was to make the Utopian's as uncivilized as possible. They wore reed necklaces with polished rock ornaments and dark makeup with stripes resembling war paint across their faces. Most of the male chorus did not wear shirts, and the women were scantily clad. Several of the men were designated as the King's guard. They were physically enormous and looked like Sumo wrestlers. All of the chorus displayed fantastic energy and showed genuine wonder at all things English. In short, they were the perfect embodiment of a Polynesian barbarian society that had only recently come in contact with British culture.
The set was, to use that clichéd expression, simple but effective. The festival provided a colorful backdrop suggesting a colorful South Pacific island. Potted palms and Easter Island idols adorned the rest of the stage and provided all the suggestion needed of a Utopian never-never-land.
Lee Patterson (Tarara) had a marvelous tenor voice, but is crippled in real life and can walk only on crutches. The director got around this difficulty by having it supposed that Tarara has been experimenting with dynamite and making some mistakes at it. He entered wearing bandages and spoke with a quiver in his voice. The long opening dialogue was about the best I've seen it. For the "private plot" scene in Act II, Tarara entered in a wheelchair, bandages covering the multiple injuries that had presumably come from his continued flirtations with explosives.
Scaphio (Daniel B. Mills) and Phantis (Steven P. Johnson) were dressed like tribal warlords and were visually frightening. They played their opening scene for all the high camp it deserves. King Paramount was carried in on an enormous bier decorated with ornate carvings. Much humor was extracted from the King's frustrated attempts to get the throne-bearers to set him down; so casual were they about the royal presence that they barely paid attention to him. Paramount (John Mason Cunningham) was satisfactory, but for some reason unmemorable.
Nekaya (Frances R. Jacobs) and Kalyba (Amy Patterson) were delightful: two young girls (about fifteen, I'd guess) with matching height, long hair, taffeta pink dresses and black pumps. They looked closer to being twins than in any other production I've seen, and they truly were "what good young ladies ought to be." Debra Hangge (Lady Sophy) had the perfect diction to make "Bold-faced ranger" a success.
No Utopia can succeed without a strong singer/actress as Princess Zara. Tall, lovely, refined, well-spoken and equally well-sung, Sandra Blanchette was everything the part requires. Fitzbattleaxe (Chandler Williams) was self-assured, with an open, brash-sounding voice and a winning smile. In Act II, "A tenor all singers above" won vigorous applause, but perhaps a singer with stronger technique could have extracted more of the song's humor.
The entry of the First Life Guards is the opera's one great production number, and it was played here to vocal perfection, while the precision marching of the guards provided visual interest. During the ensuing dialogue, the Utopian maidens descended on the Guards with fervor; by the time the exit music had started, each one had lost his helmet and breastplate and had been decorated in reeds, tribal necklaces and war paint by the Utopians.
The group took wide liberties with the libretto, but none more clever than eliminating the character of Mr. Blushington. Of all the Flowers, he is by far the least interesting: he plays no role in the plot, his music is a repeat of Lord Dramaleigh's, and most Americans don't understand the concept of a County Councilor anyway. Finally, the role is normally given to a company's sixth- or seventh-best baritone, which in an amateur group is liable to be a very poor singer indeed.
The remaining Flowers were generally successful, except for Captain Corcoran (William D. WIlliams), who was thoroughly befuddled by the music and blew one of the opera's great comedic opportunities. (At this point, the decision not to cast a Blushington was looking better and better!)
Jason Mills, the son of the actor playing Scaphio, played Mr. Goldbury with a lively voice, a gleam in his eye, and the crisp diction the part requires. Clearly, there will be successful patter baritones in the Mills family for many years to come. "Some seven men form an association" was illustrated with colorful charts and graphs, a dig at Ross Perot. After this joke made its impact, I think a few more props were needed, to illustrate the song's complicated subject.
In Act II, after the opening scene for Zara and Fitzbattleaxe, the company introduced an original song, "Elegantly Refined," for Phylla (Mary Ellen Marte), Salata (Virginia Cunningham) and Melene (Lily Christian), in which each girl described the difficulties of adapting to English hairdos, stockings and corsets. Cleverly orchestrated by Festival MD Jim Newby on just a few hours' notice, the song was more Sondheim than Sullivan, but it fit the situation perfectly and was a smash hit with the audience.
For the Drawing Room, a red frame decorated with reeds descended from the fly space; Lord Dramaleigh (Chandler F. Williams) sneeringly referred to it as the Palace. The King's guests entered dressed in English costumes, but still bare-footed and made up in war paint. The women moved with the exaggerated gestures of someone trying to act refined but doing a poor job of it.
Several of the Drawing Room visitors were evidently invented at the last moment, such as "Neil 'No Problem' Smith," "Ian OnAndOnAndOn" (a reference to Neil's sometimes loquacious father), and Lady Pine Peas (a reference to the menu at the Festival Club each night). "Eagle High" was sung with a brash confidence that made one sit up and take notice. The words "Glory anyway" were replaced with "Glory come what may," a phrase that the chorus attacked deliciously.
The wooing scene between Goldbury, Dramaleigh, Nekaya and Kalyba is one of my favorites, and it was played to near-perfection here. The two men had a crafty twinkle in their eyes as they seized their romantic opportunity, while the two pretty girls seemed ready to abandon Lady Sophy's training given the reasonable pretext that the gentlemen eagerly supplied. Mr. Goldbury's aria was cut down rather clumsily.
The usual purpose of the Tarantella (a dance for the romantic couples) was ignored. Instead, while strobe lamps blitzed the stage, Scaphio and Phantis entered and directed the chorus in a tribal dance of increasing frenzy that seemed to symbolize the fomenting revolution. I don't know how clear it was to the audience, but the troupe was filling in the plot gap that usually makes "Upon our sea-girt land" seem so unmotivated. The finale was uneventful, except for the two green leprechauns that entered on the reference to Ireland.
Throughout the evening, the chorus sang with superlative diction. After a fortnight in England, the cultivated American accent took some adjusting to, but it contrasted marvelously with the English accents that Zara and the Flowers adopted. John Haskell conducted the well-honed ensemble with a professional assurance.
One of my friends was displeased with the many alterations in the libretto, but I think the group was on target. Any way you look at it, Utopia is far from a masterpiece and deserves all the help it can get. As the director told me, there are so many places in this opera where Gilbert takes a paragraph when a sentence would do. Many of the references are obscure, at least to Americans. Who can object to replacing "asinorum pons" with "matrimonial bridge?" In Act II, Phantis complained to the King that "Lord Dramaleigh has declared that all theatrical performances must be publicly adjudicated, as in England," a perfectly topical joke for the festival.
Utopia is basically a parody of England's self-appointed Victorian superiority. Lines like "I am told that in that in the language of that great and pure nation, strong expressions don't exist" are meant to poke holes in the notions of propriety that Gilbert knew were outrageously exaggerated. For the first time, I appreciated why G. B. Shaw loved the opera so much. These jokes play far better in a British theater than anywhere else.
To most overseas visitors, and certainly to the English, the Hancock County, Maine, Gilbert and Sullivan Society were the festival's dark horse. The group does not publish a newsletter (like New England, Ann Arbor or Austin), and their performing venue is too far away for non-locals ever to have seen its productions. Their performance of Utopia Limited, the last fully-adjudicated event of the Festival, set the established order on its head. A star shines brightly in the G&S universe, in the lively precincts of Hancock County, Maine.
Festival Production of The Mikado
Thursday night brought the final performance at the Buxton Opera House, the Festival Production of The Mikado. Like the Festival Pirates three days earlier, the performance was remarkably good for the amount of rehearsal it had. But, unlike Pirates, the effects of such a short rehearsal period were reasonably evident to the aware theatergoer.
The production's chief strength was also its greatest obstacle: an extraordinary reliance on the precise execution of standard business, often involving the opening and shutting of Japanese fans. Such business can be a thing of beauty when worked to perfection, but was obviously impossible to fully master in such a short time. The production could only be as good as it was precise, and the precision was only about 80% there-still commendable under the circumstances, but below the standard that productions like it have enjoyed under more favorable conditions.
The production, according to Alistair Donkin, was essentially the old D'Oyly Carte production with judicious enhancements (an observation I later confirmed when I got home and put on the 1966 video). At the beginning of the festival, one of David Turner's acquaintances told him that, "I like my whisky neat and my G&S traditional." Said David after the performance, "I don't know how he found the whisky, but in this production, he certainly got his G&S traditional."
The opening number was certainly the most demanding passage in either of the two productions I appeared in. Best described as a ballet for fans and orchestra, it required the opening, waving, and shutting of fans with precision timing. The accompanying dance movements made the stage look like a kaleidoscope, but sapped whatever breath the singers had left. The effort was worth it, however, as several people told me the effect was visually stunning.
Having given the chorus its moment to shine, Alistair was pretty much content to let us stand as observers for most of the remaining action, reacting and perhaps punctuating the plot by opening our fans at judicious moments, but otherwise not moving terribly much. Dance movements, mostly executed in place, were entirely the province of the ladies.
Pirates, earlier in the week, had been non-stop action, so I was grateful for a Mikado production that demanded concentration but not an enormous amount of energy (aside from that opening number). Still, I can't help thinking that this Mikado would have been artistically better if the chorus had been moving more. To Alistair, who surely will direct this opera again, I might suggest rethinking the Act I finale: Gilbert himself used the words "song and dance," so a little more movement is surely in the spirit of the piece.
In both Festival Productions, with choruses shy of the ideal number, principals were brought in early to help bolster the volume. In Pirates, Mabel sang "Climbing over rocky mountain," which I cannot recall in any other production. Likewise, in The Mikado, Pooh-Bah was on stage for "If you want to know who we are," "A wand'ring minstrel" and "Our great Mikado" (thus depriving him of one of the Savoy operas' best grand entrances). And, the three little maids entered with the rest of the ladies for "Comes a train."
The principals were uniformly good, though none stood out. Ron Fava (the Ardensingers' Bouncer in Cox & Box the preceding Saturday) was a nimble Ko-Ko-seemingly made of rubber, the way he was so often thrown to the stage and bounced right up again. The "little list" song was superb, featuring a list that unrolled from one edge of the proscenium arch to the other, and which the men's chorus helped him read. "The theatrical adjudicator, so often out of place" was one of the list's entries, but the song was otherwise played straight. Fava had all the traditional Ko-Ko mannerisms, but he was a bit mechanical and clownish. He evoked laughter, but probably not much sympathy.
David Lace has made a career of playing Nanki-Poo, and he brought a suave sophistication to the part. "A wand'ring minstrel" was sung with perfect ease, while the dialogue had a regal confidence that truly suggested an heir apparent. Sheila Downing (Yum-Yum), a vivacious pretty girl from Liverpool, was someone I could look at all day. The only thing wanting in her singing voice was a bit better diction. The adjudicator found her "too knowing," but perhaps he's old-fashioned. She had a soft, innocent-sounding voice, but added enough playfulness to make her affair with Nanki-Poo believable. The inflections on "The laws against flirting are excessively severe" were deliciously seductive. She also got one of the best visual jokes. In Act II, as she and Nanki-Poo entered on the way to their honeymoon, she was carrying all the luggage, while he carried nothing but a sword.
Pooh-Bah was curiously underplayed. The actor had a solid bass voice, was clearly comfortable in the role and had the stage presence to make more of it, but for some reason chose not to. American Kevin Conn had the excellent diction and smooth baritone required for Pish-Tush, though he wasn't as memorable a character as some other performers I've seen. Pitti-Sing was the ideal pert soubrette, who seemed every bit Katisha's match in the Act I finale. Judith Mills, who also was the Festival costume mistress, imbued Peep-Bo with charm and energy.
Tom Mills, Judith's husband and also the Festival Stage Manager, was a commanding Mikado. His "object all sublime" left no doubt that all those punishments really would be meted out, and his laugh still terrified the chorus after a week of rehearsals. Throughout the week, when not rehearsing, he could usually be found supervising preparations for whatever opera was being presented that evening. Kathleen Wilkinson's Katisha was flawless. Her mellifluous contralto seemed to caress the vocal line, while in the dialogue she managed to be fearsome without overplaying. Her reactions after "Tit-willow" were probably the best I've seen.
Thus ended the festival's last performance in the Buxton Opera House, a fitting conclusion to eleven nights of (mostly) superb theater, surrounded by old and new friends who know and love the G&S operas. If there's a happier way to spend a fortnight of theater-going, I can't imagine what it is!
Ever the showmen, Ian and Neil Smith had one last treat in store for us: a concluding gala dinner, concert and awards ceremony, where we would have one last chance to say good-bye to our comrades of the last two weeks, and where we would learn the adjudicator's final thoughts on the festival's performances. The Octagon was filled to capacity, with anxious societies eager to hear the verdict, and with fans like me content merely to soak up the atmosphere.
Trial By Jury
The evening's featured entertainment was semi-staged Trial By Jury featuring, once again, former stars of the D'Oyly Carte. The original plan had been for the audience to serve as chorus, but Musical Director David Steadman rightly observed that it would probably ruin an otherwise memorable performance. So, at the last minute, a chorus was rounded up, of which I was privileged to be a part, and we had a 2½-hour rehearsal Friday afternoon to pull things together, under Roberta Morrell's direction.
Obviously, in 2½ hours nothing terribly elaborate was going to be done, but you'd be amazed what can be achieved with a motivated chorus who already know the material well. Several delightful bits were worked in, such as the jury holding up Trial By Jury scores, instead of newspapers, during the Defendant's second aria.
The Octagon theater is not well-suited to a large choral presentation. The eight walls seem to reflect sound in a thousand directions, which has the advantage of making a chorus of twenty sound like two hundred, but drives a conductor to despair. David Steadman had the additional burden of being off to the side, making it impossible for him to face both the singers and the orchestra simultaneously. Though prone to the occasional temper tantrum, Steadman has superb musical instincts, and the performance was beautiful.
The principals took advantage of the festive atmosphere, and hammed their performances to the best effect. Individual reviews in this context would be inappropriate, so I'll merely congratulate them all: Alistair Donkin (Judge), Evette Davis (Plaintiff), Geoffrey Shovelton (Defendant), Kenneth Sandford (Counsel), John Ayldon (Usher) and Festival Stage Manager Tom Mills (Foreman). It was an honor to join these celebrity names in such a performance.
After a brief break, the same group of principals were joined by Patricia Leonard and Roberta Morrell for a concert of G&S excerpts, with David Steadman at the piano. The selections included "It's clear that medieval art" and "If Saphir I choose to marry" from Patience, "Time was when love and I" and "I rejoice that it's decided" from Sorcerer, "So go to him" (Patience again), and the Iolanthe Act II finale. The selections followed the usual custom in such concerts, of including large portions of dialogue, so that the audience could enjoy these performers as actors as well as singers.
And The Envelope Please . . . .
Of course, the moment we had all been waiting for was the decision of the adjudicator, Mr. David Turner, whose task it was to award trophies to the outstanding productions and performers. Before reporting the winners, I should explain how the process worked. Each of the eight visiting productions was "fully adjudicated." These productions were eligible for any of the fifteen available awards. Performers in the two Festival Productions (Pirates and Mikado) were eligible for individual awards (such as Best Male Singer), but these productions were not eligible for the first-, second- or third-place trophies, Best Producer, or Best Musical Director.
Though it was not explained to the audience, I later learned that the overall trophies were awarded according to a point system. Each performance was scored according to specific criteria, and the Grand Prize went to the highest-scoring society. Of course, as in figure skating, the system leaves much to the adjudicator's discretion, but there is at least some method to the madness. By contrast, the individual awards were completely subjective.
With those preliminaries understood, here were Mr. Turner's decisions:
Such choices are highly subjective, but most people at my table found them sensible, except in two cases. No one quite understood why Mr. Turner liked Simon Rigby so much. His Don Alhambra seemed one of the least memorable characters in the St. Mary's Gondoliers; over the eleven days, any of a dozen performers was more deserving of the Best Supporting Male Performer award than he was. Even more incomprehensible was Phil Gibbons (Princess Ida) as Best Musical Director, a choice that left everyone at my table shaking their heads in disbelief; had Mr. Turner drawn names from a hat, he'd have probably arrived at a better selection.
Still, at least Mr. Turner got the big decisions right. Most people I queried agreed that South Anglia, St. Mary's and Hancock County were the three best societies at the festival, though there were differing opinions on the exact order. My own choice for the Grand Prize was St. Mary's, but only barely. Hancock County was certainly a worthy winner, and many people agreed with Mr. Turner that such an offbeat production as their Gondoliers should not earn first place. Meanwhile, South Anglia, which is accustomed to winning most festivals that it enters, was the most disconsolate third-place winner that I've ever seen, but I quite agreed with Mr. Turner's ranking.
Exactly how Mr. Turner distinguished a "supporting performer" from a "lead performer" was far from clear. Both Kathleen Wilkinson and Betsy Walker were deserving winners, but as they are both contraltos, and the parts they played were of comparable size and importance, the choice between the two awards seemed nearly arbitrary. All the other individual performance awards were perfectly on-the-mark.
The winners for "Best Concerted Number" and "Best Choral Presentation" seemed defensible, but how Mr. Turner selected them from among the scores of possibilities was impossible to comprehend. Andrea Atherton was a most deserving recipient of the Best Producer award. Mr. Turner later told me that it is most unusual for Best Producer and Best Production to go to different societies; in his view, St. Mary's fell to second place because of a lower musical standard.
I found the Best Overseas Society award particularly distasteful-not the eminently-deserving recipients (Hancock County, Maine), but the mere existence of it. The idea seemed to be that the overseas societies needed an award of their own, to ensure that they would not be shut out by the superior British societies. As the results showed, the American societies were perfectly capable of holding their own and did not need a special category.
The award trophies were donated by Josiah Wedgwood. If Wedgwood's largesse can be extended next year, I would suggest adding some award categories. It struck me that players of small-part roles (like Samuel in Pirates, Peep-Bo in The Mikado, or Annibale in The Gondoliers) had no opportunity to win anything, such roles being too small to qualify in the "Best Supporting" categories. The festival featured several outstanding cameos in these roles, and I think there should be a category specially for them. Technical categories like sets, costumes and make-up would also be worthy of recognition. Conversely, the awards for Best Concerted Number, Best Choral Presentation and Best Overseas Society could be omitted without regret.
At the beginning of the festival, many people were put off by the adjudication. It is not a custom that can satisfy everyone, but I came home convinced that it enhanced the experience, at least for me. We've all heard the old saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Strange as it was to us Americans, the practice is evidently commonplace in Britain, and I would favor its return next year.
Plans for Next Year
A year ago, it seemed improbable that Ian and Neil Smith could make this festival a reality. Undaunted by the naysayers, they succeeded brilliantly. But, the Smiths have an even loftier goal: to make this an annual ritual. Already, they've announced that next year's festival will be held again in Buxton, from July 30-August 12, a day longer than Buxton '94. They hope, in time, to alternate years between Britain and North America. I am doubtful that a two-week affair is possible on this side of the Atlantic, but if anyone can make it happen, the Smiths can.
As successful as the festival was, the Smiths are not short of ideas for making it even better. Ian Smith's own company, the West Yorkshire Savoyards, established a Guinness world record a few years back for their marathon performance of all the G&S operas in sequence. Ian had hoped to stage an attempt at breaking that record on the first day of this year's festival. For a variety of reasons, it did not come to pass, but there are thoughts of a try next year.
Ian's original plan was actually to run two competitions side-by-side: one for adult societies each evening in the Opera House, and one for junior societies each afternoon in the adjoining Paxton Suite. This plan had ultimately to be abandoned, but there are good reasons to believe that next year's festival will get far more attention from the British societies. If you think about it, there is something a bit odd about three of eight visiting societies, or nearly half, being American, as was the case this year. Considering how little distance they had to travel, you would have expected a far stronger showing from the Brits. Several people attributed this to a characteristic English snobbery towards things new. Now that the festival has proved itself, the idea of parallel competitions may no longer seem far-fetched. At the very least, the performance standard-certainly by no means a disappointment this year-should be even higher.
The celebrity performance of The Yeomen of the Guard was a highlight of the festival, yet disappointing, because of what it could have been if the principals had agreed to wear costumes and make a proper performance of it. Dame Rumour whispered that the former Carte stars realized they made a mistake and will likely be back next year in a fully-staged production, though of what opera we don't yet know.
The idea of staging two full productions during the course of the festival was forced by necessity: the Smiths simply did not have enough visiting productions to fill the Opera House for the full eleven nights. Yet, this is one feature that I hope will be retained next year. Of course, I cannot be unbiased, but I believe the two Festival Productions more than held their own against the competition, and they provided visitors who were not with a particular society with the chance to be part of the entertainment, not just witnesses to it.
Next year, I suspect the Smiths will be more skilled at coordinating the rehearsal schedules, so that the second production is not shortchanged (as The Mikado was this year). I would also suggest allowing a bit more time for musical rehearsals; even on such a short schedule, the music could have been given more attention than it got, perhaps by starting rehearsals at 8:00 or 8:30 each morning instead of 9:00. Even though everyone knew the music (or, at least, was supposed to) the Musical Director deserved a chance to rehearse the tough spots.
The nightly Festival Club got mixed reviews. With so little of consequence going on during the day (other than rehearsals for the Festival Productions), the Club was the one legitimate opportunity for just plain socializing. And, on at least a few evenings, the entertainment was spectacular. But, on other nights it was frankly embarrassing, with Ian Smith thrusting people into principal roles they barely knew. The Paxton Suite's acoustic was also most unhelpful.
Each night in the Opera House, Ian Smith invited the audience to the Club and promised a supper of "the most wonderful pie and peas." After a while, he could not say this without being greeted by hoots of laughter. Surely, next year they can find some way to vary the menu. A good deal of ill will was generated on the first few evenings, when the organizers insisted that everyone must pay £3 for this repast, whether they wanted it or not. The policy seemed to change each evening, until about the fifth night, when it was finally settled that admission to the Club was free, with the supper costing £1.50 to only those who wanted it. I am hopeful the confusion will not recur next year.
Considering the Smiths' obvious talent for marketing, the festival was rather short on memorabilia. T-shirts with the festival logo and the words "I was there" were offered (until they ran out, about ten days into the fortnight), but so much more could have been done: coffee mugs, sweatshirts, jackets, posters, and so forth. Wilfrid de Freitas, a visiting second-hand bookseller, was given a few hours on the middle Saturday to offer his wares at the information table, but this is really far less than I expected.
From those not cast in either of the Festival Productions, perhaps the most common complaint was about the lack of daytime activities. Except for the four master classes, which occupied only part of an afternoon, there were no festival events earlier than 7:30 p.m. Luckily, Buxton and the surrounding area offered a fair amount of sightseeing for a tourist of reasonable imagination and industry. Still, it did not seem quite enough.
It is remarkable that the Smiths built as full a schedule as they did, given the short lead time. Nevertheless, I quite sympathize with those who wanted more, and I suspect next year's festival will include more daytime activities. Perhaps Ian Smith's dream of side-by-side adult and junior competitions will come to fruition, for example. Other possibilities include:
There have been preliminary discussions of perhaps a joint festival with the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, though it's far too early to know if this will happen. No doubt, the imaginative Smiths have other ideas that we've not yet dreamed of!
All too soon, the festival was over. As the crowd circulated after the gala dinner, exchanging addresses, hugs and handshakes, it felt like the last day of summer camp. For those who had stayed the entire fortnight, it felt as if we had become a kind of family. And, in a way, we had done exactly that, united by our love of Gilbert and Sullivan, the shows we'd been in, and the many others we had seen. Naturally, there were the familiar refrains of "See you next year," knowing of course that some would not be back, but that word of the festival's success would probably attract many more in their place next year.
It has become fashionable to predict the decline of the G&S operas' popularity. I keep hearing that the community of G&S fans is graying-that, as they grow old and die, younger folks are not growing up to replace them. To my mind, this festival, with its wealth of participation from people of all ages, from all over the world, flies in the face of this supposed decline. If indeed Ian Smith can realize his dream of an annual festival, we may even hope that these operas are entering a period of glorious renaissance.
Page created 24 Aug 1997