Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

Buxton 1997 Diary

Fourth International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival
Buxton, England

August 2 through 17, 1997

by Marc Shepherd


This was my first trip to Buxton since the Festival's first year, and I had forgotten what a glorious atmosphere it is. Festival skeptics who have only experienced it in Philly or Berkeley really need to see it in Buxton, as it is totally different. The whole town is taken over by the Festival. The Victorian and Edwardian architecture is a perfect setting for G&S.

The first thing that struck me is that, unlike Philadelphia, the whole thing doesn't seem to lie on the Smiths' shoulders. There are volunteers by the dozen staffing the portakabin (the Festival's memorabilia shop), taking tickets at events, and so forth. Properly organized, I think the Smiths could have had volunteers in Philadelphia too, but for whatever reason that hasn't happened these two years.

Changes in public perception are gradual. Yet, virtually no one disputes that public interest in G&S has gradually sagged over the last thirty to forty years. Many people detect the beginnings of a reversal, and perhaps the Festival has something to do with it. Two separate BBC crews were filming Festival events in Buxton while I was there, and Ian Smith was interviewed by a third, in London. One of the BBC crews was filming an hour-long documentary on G&S that will be broadcast late this year or early next year. Several of us were interviewed for this program.

Meanwhile, noted English film director Mike Leigh has announced he will be directing a picture next year based on the original production of The Mikado. A researcher for that film, as well as the actor contracted to play Gilbert, were in Buxton for part of the Festival, taking notes and gathering background material.

So, while the Berkeley and Philly festivals must be accounted failures (notwithstanding that many of us attended and had a wonderful time), the International Festival in Buxton goes from strength to strength, with each year an improvement on its predecessor

The Festival used a full-sized Sullivan orchestra for the first time this year, with parts rented from the D'Oyly Carte music library. So much for the conspiracy theorists who claimed that the reduced Newby orchestrations were being used so that Jim and Ian could line each others' pockets.

The orchestra is one of the largest expenses, and to keep costs in line, the wind players were taken from a Birmingham conservatory. Unfortunately, some of them seemed to have little pit experience, and on some nights they were positively awful. Even on the best nights, major woodwind passages were totally wrong or omitted entirely.

The fault here lay with Ian Smith, who tried to get a larger orchestra for the same price as last year. You get what you pay for. However, I hope this setback won't be taken as an inducement to return to non-Sullivan orchestrations. I am certainly willing to pay a quid or two extra for an authentic sound.

Thursday, August 7, 1997 (Day 6)

I arrived in Buxton on Thursday, August 7, the sixth day of the fourth international festival. My first afternoon in town, the St. Leonards Gilbert and Sullivan Group performed a piece called "Savoyard Express," a recreation of life on tour during the 1870s, '80s and '90s, told through the experiences of Charles Walenn, who joined the D'Oyly Carte Company as a chorister and would eventually be the principal touring comedian.

The program, conceived and directed by Philip Walsh (who also played D'Oyly Carte--most convincingly), was an extremely clever piece of work, ably mixing Savoy Opera favorites with a dose of history. The show began with an 1879 tour of Pinafore to the Pavilion Theatre in Buxton, the set designer convincingly portraying the railway station where Mr. D'Oyly Carte's company arrived in Buxton to give the opera.

The show went on to portray Charles Walenn's successful audition with Carte and François Cellier and his rise to lead comedian. A large, central section of the piece portrayed Mr. Walenn's "nightmare," bookended with the eponymous song. The whole canon was covered, with even the Thespis railroad song interpolated.

At 2 1/2 hours, with two intermissions, the program was a bit long. There were a total of seventeen scenes, spread over three acts, and the transitions between them often required tedious pauses. For a production that was obviously assembled for just this festival, however, it was a spectacular show, the result of a long labor of love by Mr. Walsh and his company.

The evening's performance was Utopia Limited by the Rose Hill G&S Society, the second performance of this opera in the Festival. Unlike the dreadfully dull Utopia we saw in Philadelphia, this was the opera at its best, a production that delighted and sparkled from beginning to end.

This was the only Utopia I'd ever seen where the men were better than the women. Down to the last Flower of Progress, all the men's parts were memorably portrayed. King Paramount, as skilled an actor-comedian as they come, portrayed royalty so convincingly that I wouldn't be surprised if he and Prince Charles were accidentally switched at birth. Scaphio and Phantis, in their Fu Manchu mustaches, were truly frightening; Scaphio's intoxicating infatuation with Princess Zara was so believable that you'd have thought he needed an ambulance.

The women were perhaps a notch below this level, but still more than capable. Princess Zara sang beautifully but didn't quite match the charisma of her male counterparts. Lady Sophy was a bit of a cipher; this was the only character done better in the Philadelphia production than here. The two younger princesses were delightful; even in "Bold-faced ranger," they seemed ready to defy their straight-laced governess at every opportunity.

The setting of the opera was transferred from the South Pacific to Persia. The Arabian costumes in Act I were extremely convincing and colorful. The director moved the chorus about the stage with great skill, always creating visually interesting patterns. There was one set--King Paramount's throne room--but subtle differences in lighting and decoration made it almost appear like a new scene in Act II. David Turner said it was the best lighting work in the Festival's four-year history.

"Society has quite foresaken" was the highlight of the production, receiving three planned encores. For the second of these, the lights went out to reveal gloves and hats that glowed in the dark. For the third, the Flowers of Progress re-entered in tap shoes.

Unlike the Montreal group, Rose Hill understood that the opera needed significant cuts. Act I ran to a svelte seventy minutes, a combination both of libretto-pruning and brisk tempi. Overall, the only cut I lamented was the tarantella in Act II. The production was full of wonderful creative touches. Yet, despite the shift to a Persian setting, it was not a "concept" production. Utopia Limited has no tradition, but if it did, one hopes it would be like this. In all aspects, it was first-class.

Buxton audiences are accustomed now to adjudication, and unlike Philadelphia, nearly everyone remained glued to their seats afterwards and waited patiently for David Turner to appear. As he spoke, people would quitely say "Yes", as he made remarks with which they agreed. Mr. Turner was suitably impressed with Rose Hill's Utopia. As I saw it, the battle for first place at this stage stood neck and neck between this Utopia and the entry of their nearby rivals, the Derby Princess Ida that we saw in Philadelphia.

The Festival Club is an institution that has never worked quite as intended at either of the American venues. To be sure, it has always been a great social event, but Ian Smith has never found a place comfortable enough to relax, yet intimate enough where the cabaret performance can be heard. In Buxton, he has such a place, just two minutes' walk from the theater.

Rose Hill performed a masterful cabaret, although I must confess that much of the humour was lost on me. The first half was virtually a stand-up routine by the actor who played Paramount. He and a colleague did a comedy sketch around the idea of what the plot of Iolanthe would be like if all the words were given Welsh pronunciations. He also did a comic song about "Mrs. Peer Gynt," sung to the famous Grieg music. The second half was a parody of The Yeomen of the Guard, with characters based on a popular British sitcom. I hardly understood it at all, but as the rest of the audience were roaring their ribs out, I have to assume it was a success.

Prices have risen steadily over the Festival's four years, exceeding the rate of inflation. This year, the Festival Club has risen to 3 quid just for entry (5 quid if you want supper). Many people quite fairly consider these prices exorbitant and stay away. The hall was comfortably full, but not packed as in earlier years.

During the day-time, there is a G&S film festival. The price is five quid, a rate comparable to what one pays for a first-run film. Given the quality (or lack thereof) of some festival videos, anything more than two pounds is totally out of reason.

I didn't see The Sorcerer a few nights earlier, but someone told me that the best laugh of the Festival came when Alexis said, "I may mention that I am a member of the Friends of the Festival," and Mr. Wells replied, "In that case, we charge 25% more." The Smiths should remember that all good jokes come from a vein of truth, and they should think again about how much they charge for some of the ancillary events.

Friday, August 8, 1997 (Day 7)

It was a Friday, and we had a busy day in store. In the morning, Stephen Turnbull, of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, gave a lecture on foreign recordings of G&S. Turnbull is probably the world's greatest living expert on G&S recordings; off the top of his head, he seems to be able to give the details of just about any recording that has ever been made.

The subject of foreign G&S recordings took him on a diversion, and he started by asking, and answering, the question how many languages Arthur Sullivan set to music. Turnbull counted ten languages and proved them with recorded examples, though he seemed to be cheating in a couple of cases (counting "Opoponax! Eloia!" in The Grand Duke as Greek). For the record, the ten languages he counted were: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Arabic, Gaelic, Latin, Greek, and Japanese.

For the rest of his talk, he played G&S examples in a variety of translations, such as German, Danish, Catalan and French. The biggest surprise to me was just how many non-English G&S translations there have been over the years--scuttling the conventional wisdom that the Savoy Operas "don't travel well."

In the afternoon, mezzo-soprano Janet Cowley reprised her show from last year's Buxton and this year's Philly festivals, "Dear Jessie," based on the life of Jessie Bond. Tenor Adrian Martin assisted with both narration and musical examples. Ms. Cowley kept a substantial audience riveted to their seats for two hours in a hot, un-airconditioned theater, which is all you need to know about how skillfully "Dear Jessie" is put together. It is no small feat to write, direct and star in your own piece, and Ms. Cowley did them all brilliantly.

Both Gilbert and Sullivan had a great deal of affection for Jessie Bond, and she evidently was a huge favorite with the public--receiving, and rebuffing, numerous proposals of marriage during her career before finally settling down in the late 1890s after twenty years on the stage. Ms. Cowley couldn't quite duplicate her subject's charisma, but I certainly learned a lot about the Savoy soubrette that I hadn't known before. Perhaps the most interesting anecdote was about the production of Ruddigore, for which she was forced to "audition" for the role of Mad Margaret, apparently because Sullivan was not convinced she was ready for so large a part.

The evening performance was Ruddigore by West Norfolk G&S. Their director was Derek Collins, who also directs South Anglia Savoy Players, and this production was almost exactly a duplicate of the show South Anglia brought to the Festival two years ago. I didn't see it then, but West Norfolk is a notch or two below South Anglia, and several people told me that this year's edition wasn't a patch on the brilliant comic timing South Anglia had two years ago.

Having said that, this was a Ruddigore most societies would be very proud to do. Aside from an extremely weak Dick Dauntless and Dame Hannah, the cast were all capable, with the Robin and the Margaret particularly strong. The "star", however, was Derek Collins's direction, which kept the action moving briskly. The transformation to the ghost scene was one of the best I've ever seen, leaving even some in the audience momentarily terrified.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding Dame Hannah's Act II song, "There grew a little flower." I've long considered this one of the worst songs in the G&S canon. It's pleasant enough on its own, but it slows down a very long opera. Evidently, Derek Collins agrees with me. Two years ago, he introduced a comic bit in which Old Adam follows Roderic and Hannah around the stage trying to interest them in a pot of tea. Finally, he tires of chasing them, sits down, and quaffs the tea himself.

When the bit first appeared two years ago, David Turner criticized it heavily, as it is so funny that it completely ruins Dame Hannah's song. South Anglia excised the tea bit (and several other things Turner didn't like), took the production to the Waterford (which he also adjudicated), and won. So, it was perhaps a little surprising to see the bit back in, since Derek Collins clearly knew David Turner would criticize it again.

Some people cynically suggested that as Collins knew he wasn't going to win the Festival with the West Norfolk cast, he decided simply to do the opera the way he wanted, never minding David Turner. Collins told another Savoynetter that he left it up to the Company to decide whether the bit would stay in. Collins also said that the actor playing Old Adam had disregarded instructions to avoid any business that would interfere with the song. The group clearly knew they would be docked for this, as a parody of the tea bit was included in their cabaret show.

I continue to believe that "There grew a little flower" brings Ruddigore to a dead stop, but I agreed with most observers that it's unfair to leave the song in, yet upstage it with irrelevant funny business.

Saturday, August 9, 1997 (Day 8)

Saturday morning, Stephen Turnbull gave a lecture on The Beauty Stone which I unfortunately missed, but I understand it played to a packed house. That afternoon came a double-bill of The Beauty Stone and a children's Festival Production of Trial By Jury The program ran three and a half hours, but those with the patience to stick it out were amply repaid for their time.

A detailed review of the children's Trial would be pointless, but the cast, under American director Pamela Leighton-Bilik, did themselves proud. The judge was probably he best of the lot, doing a comic turn better than many adults I've seen. The performance had piano accompaniment and was musically complete except for the repeat in "A nice dilemma." I was pleased that musical values had received as much attention in rehearsal as the dramatics: with young singers, it is tempting to ignore the harder musical passages. This was a production that took no such shortcuts.

The Beauty Stone was Sullivan's least-successful opera, running for a scant fifty performances--an abysmal failure by any measure. Critics agree: the fault lay with the turgid libretto, a sad exercise in the "yea, verily" school of writing. Unlike other great composers, it seemed Sullivan could never coax his librettists into fixing the deficiencies in a bad book.

Yet, the story produced some of his best work. I think The Beauty Stone has vaulted into first place in my ranking of Sullivan's non-Gilbert operas, and indeed, it is a better score than many of the G&S works. It is not a comic work, and some say it is the grand opera Sullivan should have written. It certainly seems to have inspired him far better than Ivanhoe. There are leitmotives, extended dance music, and plenty of numbers featuring Sullivan at his most memorable. The composer clearly put his heart into it, and it must have pained him sorely to see it fail.

The performance here was by Generally G&S, a group run by Martin Yates, who is one of the leaders of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. The group has performed most of the 1890s Sullivan operas--not ideal productions, perhaps, but more than enough to suggest the many treasures that lie in the non-Gilbert works.

The Beauty Stone requires a large cast, and the choral work is extensive. The Generally G&S production was full of wonderful detail, with some superb work from the corps de ballet. A few of the leads were weak on diction, but I followed the plot without too much trouble. Some people just relaxed and enjoyed the glorious score, whose praises I can't sing emphatically enough. At only 350 people or so, attendance was disappointing. Those who came certainly felt they'd gotten their money's worth.

The evening show was The Mikado by the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company. The Buxton Opera House was filled to standing-room capacity-a new record, Ian Smith informed us. Ian said, too, that ticket sales to this point had already broken last year's G&S Festival record. This was especially remarkable considering that, for the first time, there was no visiting American company; indeed, I counted less than a dozen Americans while I was there. So much for the amateur economists who claimed that the Festival needed overseas visitors to survive!

However, there certainly will be plenty of American visitors next year, as Ian has already publicly announced that he has three American companies definitely lined up, with two or three more in negotiations. The Buxton shopkeepers will certainly be pleased with this news.

Back to The Mikado: here, finally, was a performance that lived up to the praise this production has received. There was the odd flub here and there, but only things the specialists would notice. Adrian Martin gave his best performance so far. Yes, for those who are counting, "Now comes the blow" was still wrong, as were assorted other things, but given his abysmal record, this had to be accounted a strong outing for him. Everyone else sparkled and sizzled, particularly Eric Roberts (Ko-Ko) and Gareth Jones (Pooh-Bah). Peter Mulloy (Pish-Tush) and Gillian Knight (Katisha) were already terrific in the earlier performances; all of the others were now at their level.

I am a convert to Eric Roberts's Ko-Ko: the voice may be a bit heavy for the part, but he is a first-class comedian. His struggles with the snickersnee in "Taken from a county jail" and his "buried alive" dialogue in Act II were particular highlights. Kenneth Sandford was offered, and declined, the chance to Pooh-Bah in this production. I heard second-hand that he regretted this after he saw how good the Ko-Ko was.

The costumes, scenery, and chorus were not the same as Philadelphia. These were the most realistic-looking Mikado sets I had ever seen, and the opulence of the costumes matched it. Peter Mulloy (Pish-Tush) had located original 1885 costumes and had them restored. The chorus were not as precise as one would like in a professional production, but they certainly did not detract from the performance.

It was, overall, a brilliant evening of theater.

Sunday, August 10, 1997 (Day 9)

The day's first event was the Savoynet Cox & Box Ten-thirty on a Sunday morning is not the ideal time slot. On top of it, rehearsals were going on for a BBC television program called "Songs of Praise," featuring G&S excerpts, which was due to be taped later in the afternoon. Considering all that, the house of 30 people or so was respectable.

Cast and crew were as follows:

CoxKelsey Thornton
BoxNick Sales
BouncerMike Nash
Musical DirectorNick Sales
ProducerMike Nash
AccompanistClive Woods
Page-TurnerKaren Ann Loxley
Props, Set Coord.Stephen Hill
Make-up & LightsIan Hollamby
Stage CrewGordon Pascoe, Don Smith, Peter Zavon

The production had one or two "judicious innovations." Mike Nash is the typical G&S "little man," and much was made of the size disparity between him and the other two principals. The "rataplan" section of "Stay, Bouncer, stay" ended with Nash on the floor and Kelsey Thornton threatening him with an umbrella. The "Who are you sir" section had Nick threatening Kelsey with the fork (the bacon still on it), while Kelsey defended himself with the frying pan.

Review and criticism is obviously inappropriate here, but I will write a word of complaint about the program, which said: "The performing edition of this work usually used nowadays was edited in 1921, and is considerably shorter than the original version which was intended solely as an occasional private entertainment rather than as a piece for regular public performance."

I've no objection to the first part of the statement: the 1921 Savoy Version is indeed the form in which the work is most often performed, but the remainder of it incorrectly suggests that Sullivan never designed Cox & Box for public performance. True enough, it started as a private entertainment, but after modifications, it had a successful public run at German Reed's Gallery of Illustration. Some years later, Sullivan prepared an abridged version (but not so heavily abridged as the Savoy version) as a curtain-raiser for The Chieftain. There are, of course, defensible and good reasons for performing the Savoy version, but not the reason given.

In his introduction, Neil Smith described this as the first fully-staged Savoynet production, and he said he hopes it is a sign of bigger things to come. Afterwards, I humbly suggested to Nick Sales that Ages Ago would be an excellent Savoynet production for next year. It has never been done at the Festival, it requires only a small cast, and it is very funny. Against this, as Don Smith pointed out, the mise-en-scene is considerably more complex-requiring portraits that come to life.

In the afternoon, Thomas Round performed his one-man show entitled "Musical Memories." The show is a combination of Round's reminiscences of his half-century theatrical career, recorded excerpts from his career, and some live singing. Round spent about a decade with D'Oyly Carte (but not all at once), leaving a career of many years in which G&S was an important part, but by no means all, of what he did. During his heyday, he seems to have been one of Great Britain's most popular light operatic tenors.

The recorded examples provided numerous examples of Round's non-G&S output, such as Alfredo's aria from Act II of La Traviata and Don Jose's Flower Song from Carmen. He also played a recording of himself and Peter Pratt singing Offenbach's gendarmes duet--would that that could be issued!

Not all the recorded examples included himself: he also played excerpts from the careers of Donald Adams and John Cartier, who were his long-time colleagues in Gilbert & Sullivan for All. Many of the artists he talked about are gone now, a sad reminder that Round is the last of his generation.

Unlike Lady Psyche, Round is no longer "up in dates." Some of the chronologies he gives are faulty. Never minding that, his talk was filled with wonderful anecdotes. It especially interested me to learn that D'Oyly Carte's 1960 Pinafore recording was the first for which the artists received royalties for sales, instead of a flat fee. Those royalties have served Tom Round well, as that Pinafore is one of the best-selling recordings the Company ever made.

Round's live selections were not G&S, and that made sense: he is not, at this stage, going to better the recordings he made between twenty-five and forty years ago. The voice is a bit strained on top, but the basic instrument is still intact, and he can sell a song with the best of 'em.

Most remarkable is his enthusiasm. Despite stifling heat, he went for over two straight hours without a break, including several encores. He certainly could have stopped forty-five minutes earlier, and no one would have thought they'd been cheated. A couple of hours later, I saw him and his wife milling about town: Tom Round was, and is, far from calling it a day.

The evening performance was Patience by the South Anglia Savoy Players, last year's international festival champions, and the only group to have brought a G&S show to Buxton all four years. (They also brought their Yeomen to Philadelphia last year, and their Patience to Berkeley this year.)

Having won the prestigious Waterford Festival numerous times, South Anglia are arguably the country's leading amateur G&S company. That said, this was clearly one of their weaker efforts. The Grosvenor and the Patience were at best mediocre, while the Bunthorne delivered one of the most monumentally misjudged interpretations I have ever seen. The remaining principals were all capable yet unmemorable.

Bunthorne's dialogue seems effeminate by today's standards, but there's no question in my mind that Gilbert intended the character genuinely to appeal to women. South Anglia's Bunthorne took effeminacy to the point of a circus caricature. Even in aestheticism's heyday, no one could have found such swishy posturing attractive. The costume-pea green jacket and knickers, and a black afro wig with a shock of grey--merely reinforced the pointless exaggeration in an all-too-cloying interpretation that completely lacked in warmth or believability.

Grosvenor, too, was not helped by his costume, particularly a long blonde wig that often obscured his face. Beset by nervousness, this actor never did capture much of the role's fun. The Patience was just plain dull.

The director, Derek Collins, has four shows entered in this year's Festival (counting the professional Mikado). He is a craftsman of stage movement and design, always filling the action with interesting situations. His staging of the magnet and the churn--with chorus lying on their stomachs, chins propped on elbows, changing their attitudes in time to the music--was as fresh and clever as any I've seen.

Collins sometimes drifts too far, as when the maidens mobbed Grosvenor at the end of Act I, and the curtain fell as his trousers went flying in the air. But, when he steers clear of such lapses in good taste, Collins is as good as they come. This year, he just didn't have the cast to do the opera justice.

South Anglia's cabaret performance was a re-interpretation of Pinafore set aboard the Star Ship Enterprise. Here, Josephine's dilemma was between Ralph (a mechanic in the engine room) and Sir Jean Luc Picard, first lord of the galaxy. The villain was "Data", a robot who finds the lovers' actions "illogical."

There were many funny rewrites, such as: "Sir Jean Luc's spacecraft approaches, manned by twelve trusty robots and accompanied by that admiring crowd....Take this, his hologram with you. It may help to bring you to a more proper frame of mind." Josephine, in spike heels, leather pants, and a gold bustier, was a feast for the eyes.

When Sir Jean Luc was a lad, he served a term as programmer in a computer firm; he cleaned the printers and the floppy discs, and he copied all the data in a big round hand. Later, he said to Ralph: "Can you split infinitives? No? That's a pity. All astronauts should split infinitives. After dinner, I'll teach you to boldly split infinitives where no astronaut has split them before."

And so on: a delightful end to the day, and a remarkable piece of work from a company that had just finished putting on a 2 1/2 hour opera.

Monday, August 11, 1997 (Day 10)

The weekend over with, the pace slowed down a bit. Several of us spent a morning chatting with Ian Smith about his future American plans (of which more later). Some were interviewed by the BBC documentary crew from the "Omnibus" program. There was a master class in the afternoon that I did not attend.

The evening performance was Iolanthe by the Edmund Rice group of Waterford, Ireland--the first Irish group to appear at the Festival. The group had evidently brought some of their own partisans, who applauded the performance with rapture beyond reason. The gentleman next to me was so obnoxious that I was forced to move to standing room for Act II.

This was the fourth Derek Collins production in as many nights, and I concurred with the person who said he'd seen enough Derek Collins for the time being. Act I was filled with irrelevant bits, few of them executed with much skill. Collins evidently wanted the Peers each to assume individual characters, but the March of the Peers was so sloppy that you couldn't always tell when they were clowning around, and when they were simply not following the blocking.

The Fairy Queen was superb, albeit she was imported from another group (she was last night's Lady Jane for South Anglia, her "home" society). While she is an older lady, she is majestic and statuesque. As David Turner observed, one often feels a little sorry for Private Willis, but not here. Strephon was also superb, about as good as you'll ever see. I detected no trace of an Irish accent in him; I wonder if he was also imported from England?

Phyllis had a musical comedy voice and seemed to be made up to resemble Dolly Parton. The point of such an interpretation was utterly lost on me. She was fun to look at, but she didn't capture the character's range of emotions. The other female principals also had musical comedy voices, although Celia and Leila did an excellent job of transforming their small roles into memorable characters.

The Lord Chancellor had rather poor diction; he seemed to have some trouble wrapping his tongue around Gilbert's verses. Mountararat and Tolloller were strong. Mountararat was a very large man--he must have weighed 250 or 300 pounds. Yet, he moved about the stage with remarkable agility.

At the end of the show, the Company did an encore of "Though p'raps I may incur your blame" with the entire group humming (at first) and singing, as flags of Britain and Ireland were slowly lowered from the rafters. David Turner, who has had such a long affiliation with the Waterford Festival, was clearly wrapped up in the emotion of the evening and delivered an extremely kind adjudication.

Tuesday, August 12, 1997 (Day 11)

On Day 11 (Tuesday), I took a day trip into London and skipped the evening's performance of H.M.S. Pinafore by Rosedale G&S Society. Several people told me afterwards that I'd chosen a good one to skip. The group had no prepared cabaret, but performed a reprise of "He is an Englishman." About halfway through the chorus, the Bosun interrupted and said, "You can do better than that." The conductor then started the whole thing again. Those I was with told me they did it that way on stage, too.

Wednesday, August 13, 1997 (Day 12)

On Wednesday afternoon, Peggy Ann Jones delivered a master class, assisted by two of her former D'Oyly Carte colleagues, sopranos Jean Hindmarsh and Anne Sessions. Peggy Ann has directed a number of amateur societies and has a good grasp of matters dramatic, but only four singers volunteered, two of whom were from the children's production of Trial By Jury The whole thing seemed a little disorganized, and I doubt many in the audience got much out of it, aside from a taste of Ms. Jones's wit and charm.

The evening performance was The Yeomen of the Guard by the Bournemouth G&S Society. This was a fascinating production--superb overall, but marred here and there by the occasional directorial lapse. The chorus added to the effect tremendously--moving en bloc when they needed to, but maintaining individual characters and reacting to the action. The production was given earlier this summer in an open-air theatre, and the group did an admirable job converting it to the Buxton stage's smaller confines.

Quality of the principals was uniformly high. Elsie and Point were clearly a couple from the moment they entered--holding hands and kissing. The turning point in their relationship appeared to be Point's selfish "Oh woe is you! Your anguish sink...." Their delicately choreographed "I have a song to sing O" was about as good as I've ever seen. Phoebe and Wilfred were also excellent.

The production was marred by some dubious bits of business, although observers couldn't agree on whether they were fatal or harmless. The objection nearly everyone had was to the children who were running around on stage, particularly in Act I. In the opening number, they detracted from the beginning of Phoebe's solo. In "Tower warders," a couple of yeomen grabbed hold of them and forced them to listen to "This the autumn of our lives," making the children the focus instead of the words and music.

Phoebe had no spinning wheel, which most people felt was dramatically a mistake, as it left her alone on stage with nothing to do. Act I ended not in the usual way, but with Meryll, Phoebe and Fairfax alone on stage gloating over their successful subterfuge. I found nothing wrong with this, but others were not so forgiving. People picked various other nits, which obviously they considered vital, but I found most of them unimportant.

Last year, South Anglia Savoy Players won the Festival with their Yeomen, and to my mind this was even better than that show--particularly because South Anglia's Point was mediocre, whereas the Point here was excellent. However, the Festival this year seems to be at its highest level ever. As the evening ended--with only one more fully-adjudicated production to go--Rose Hill's Utopia seemed to be in first place, Bournemouth's Yeomen in second, and Derby's Ida in third. But, it was close enough that I could support any ordering of these three.

If a one-act opera could win, I would add Chester County's Trial By Jury to the Utopia/Yeomen/Ida scrum. However, David Turner indicated privately that the Festival's scoring system virtually precludes a one-acter from winning overall, no matter how good it is. Perhaps this system should be revisited, but clearly this wasn't going to help Chester County this year. The show was still eligible other awards, and indeed won the international trophy for Best Animated Chorus, and Sam Griffin's Judge won the international award for Best Male Performer.

Thursday, August 14, 1997 (Thursday)

Day 13, a Thursday, was originally scheduled to be a ballet double-bill of Pineapple Poll and Victoria and Merrie England. The ballet group pulled out, leaving Ian Smith with a filler night, for which he engaged BBC commentator Richard Baker to put on a show called "Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan" (Baker himself playing Sullivan). I decided to skip it and spend the day in London instead.

Those who attended said that Baker's narration of the G&S partnership was filled with factual errors that have been pointed out to him in the past, and which he arrogantly refuses to correct. The musical excerpts--provided by a pick-up group Ian Smith had assembled-were described as generally competent, but certainly no substitute for the ballet many of us had paid for.

Friday, August 15, 1997 (Day 14)

This was the final Friday of the Festival. Peter Parker, Don Smith and I went up to Haddon Hall, ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland and inspiration for the Sullivan opera. It is a majestic edifice, built over many hundreds of years, with parts dating back to the fifteenth century and other parts still in active use to the present day. It is about half-an-hour's drive from Buxton, and I heartily recommend it to all.

The evening performance was The Mikado by St. Mary's Roman Catholic High School from the Manchester suburb of Astley. St. Mary's gave a brilliant, shocking interpretation of The Gondoliers in the Festival's first year that remains, to this day, one of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my lifetime. (It placed second in David Turner's reckoning that year due to a lower musical standard, even though the director won Best Producer.)

St. Mary's has appeared at the Festival every year (in 1996 with a fringe performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, last year with Princess Ida), and they always do a "concept" production. Such productions inspire admiration or loathing, depending on whom you ask. I am in the first camp, but I can certainly respect the opposite point of view. While all the notes and most of the words survive intact, the production itself does considerable violence to Gilbert's intent. If you can accept the show on its own terms, then you would probably submit to a brilliant interpretation executed with great wit and skill. But, if you're intent on W. S. Gilbert's Mikado, or anything resembling it, St. Mary's Mikado would have disappointed your.

The set consisted of three enormous black walls covered in stylized Japanese writing. For the three little maids' scene in Act I, pink curtains were drawn. In Act II, large Japanese masks were hung from the walls, and for the Mikado's entrance, a caricature of the emperor himself dominated the upstage wall.

Eight wooden benches occupied the stage floor, each bench about eighteen inches high and five feet long, and members of the cast rearranged them throughout the opera in patterns more varied than mere mortals would ever imagine. I dare say nearly every song and dialogue scene utilized a different pattern of the benches, and very few of the patterns occurred more than once. Sometimes, they were stacked two or three levels high, and characters would climb on them for effect. Perhaps the most clever arrangement was "I am so proud," where three of the benches were laid on an upward slope to a summit formed by several of the other benches. The performers must have spent many hours practicing on those benches, for they never showed the slightest fear that any of the arrangements would topple.

You needed to be British, or a car expert, to grasp fully the director's point. At the start of the opera, large signs reading "Riley" and "Norton" hung from the walls upstage right and left. In the middle of the Little List song, these two signs were taken down and replaced with signs bearing the Nissan and Honda logos. I later learned that Riley and Norton are two defunct British car manufacturers, whose businesses have been displaced by the Japanese.

The director is a master of the visual art. At all times, she placed upon the stage the perfect mix of striking colors and patterns. Her cast of eighty never seemed a crowd, and the chorus executed complex business and choreography with admirable precision. Musical values were excellent, too; diction was generally strong.

The men wore bright red union suits and carried matching umbrellas. The women wore pink chiffon blouses and pink skirts above the knee, with pink umbrellas. Much of the choreography involved opening, closing, and waving the umbrellas in time to the music. In the Act I finale, to drown out Katisha, they covered her in a sea of umbrellas.

Perhaps the two most beautiful scenes involved the women. "Comes a train of little ladies" was all grace and delicacy, while "Three little maids" was full of saucy flirtatiousness. "Braid the raven hair" was set in a modern beauty salon, the three principal ladies being coiffed for the coming ceremony. The BBC taped this production, and if they use anything for the Omnibus program, I'm certain they'll use this.

Another of the director's strengths is to use accents to create comic situations. Nanki-Poo spoke in an American accent until he said to Yum-Yum, "But, what if it should turn out that I am no musician?" in a refined English accent. After that scene, he reverted to "American" until after Ko-Ko said, "It seems you're the son of The Mikado."

Ko-Ko spoke in an English north country accent. He entered in Act I carrying a clip-board and dressed to suggest he was the auto factory's shop floor supervisor. Those who follow British politics could not escape the humor of an unsophisticated northerner being brought in to run a factory owned by Japanese, but I found his words difficult to hear.

Some of the director's ideas were less inspired. The Mikado entered as an executive dressed for a golf game, which he proceeded to play while singing his patter song. If the director was determined to ensure that none of the words would be heard, she got exactly what she wanted. For those of us who care about the words, it was about the stupidest production idea we'd ever seen.

Indeed, the director seemed to have devoted scant attention to words, as very few of the dialogue lines were pointed properly, and many traditional jokes were completely lost, without anything better replacing them. Interestingly, the other pure patter song--Ko-Ko's little list--was also obscured by irrelevant business.

It was a provocative treatment of an opera that has seen more creative interpretations than most, but while some of the gags failed, the show never failed to surprise us. I think most found it an evening well spent, but there were plenty of conscientious objectors who found little to praise in such an unorthodox interpretation.

Saturday, August 16, 1997 (Day 15)

It was now the final weekend, and the pace of activity started to heat up again. In the morning, John Cannon, of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, presented an illustrated lecture on the life of Isabel Jay, a soprano active at the Savoy and other theaters from the late 1890s until about 1912. She created roles in a number of Savoy operas (but no G&S) and seems to have been one of the most popular theatrical leading ladies of her day. Years after her retirement from active performing, her image was still being used in advertisements for toothpaste and other products.

The afternoon offered a traditional English pantomime called Sleeping Beauty of Savoy, an adaptation of the familiar fairy tale using Gilbertian characters and Sullivan's music, with new words by former D'Oyly Carte stars Cynthia Morey and John Fryatt. The production was thrown together in considerable haste, and the cast evidently were not wholly satisfied with it. The show suffered, in particular, from a thin chorus (many who had agreed to be in it having jumped ship for the Festival Production of Pirates).

That said, I think everyone who came had a fun afternoon. The institution of the English pantomime is difficult to describe, but basically it is a light opera usually involving fairies, with pun-laden dialogue in rhymed couplets. (I'm sure someone on the net can give a better definition.) I read a bit of the script earlier in the week, and it didn't look promising, but it came to life on the stage. It was just under two hours long, the maximum practicable length for such a work.

In this telling of the story, the principal characters were the good fairy, modeled on the Iolanthe Fairy Queen and played by Cynthia Morey; and, the bad fairy, supposedly modeled on Ruddigore's Mad Margaret (though I could see no similarity) and played by a cross-dressed John Fryatt. The pressure on Morey and Fryatt as authors, directors and performers must have been considerable, though one saw no evidence of it on stage. Peggy Ann Jones played the princess's nursemaid Ruth.

It was the worst-attended performance of the Festival, with about 200 people in the Opera House (and some of the tickets were probably given away). The show deserved a better house. Matinee performances of obscure works seem to be "death" in Buxton, especially on a warm, sunny day. In hindsight, many felt that the show would have fared better on the Thursday night vacated when the ballet dropped out.

The evening performance was the G&S Opera Company double bill of Cox and Box and Pinafore a long but satisfying evening that weighed in at three and a half hours. I posted reviews of these productions when I saw them in Philadelphia, and the versions given here were not noticeably different.

This was the third Cox and Box featuring Thomas Round, Gareth Jones, and Michael Rayner, and conceivably the last one Round will ever do. People who saw the Berkeley performance say that was the best of the bunch. I saw it here and in Philadelphia, and it was noticeably less taut the third time around. In such a heavily abridged version it could not fail to satisfy, but the comic timing had lost a bit of its edge.

There were whispers of getting the three of them into a studio to record it with a professional orchestra, but as they have all recorded these roles before (albeit not together), I hardly see the point of this unless a good deal of the cut material (the gambling duet, at least) can be restored. A professional video of these three would, of course, be most welcome.

In contrast to Cox and Box, Pinafore seemed to be a bit tighter ship than it was in Philadelphia, though it did not approach the brilliance of The Mikado a week ago. Ken Sandford had toned down a bit of the melodrama that marred his Corcoran in Philly, and Adrian Martin was at least passable. His muffs and fluffs were still in evidence, but but by his standard this was a good performance.

Alistair Donkin's Sir Joseph still left me cold the second time around. It was not so much a character as just a collection of mannerisms. Sir Joseph is probably the shallowest of all the patter parts, so perhaps it is tempting to fill out the character with eccentric tics, but when overdone--as here--the effect is simply cloying.

Sunday, August 17, 1997 (Day 16)

Here it was: final day of the fourth festival. The afternoon performance was a double bill of Trial By Jury and The Pirates of Penzance both Festival Productions. For those not familiar with the concept, such productions are created from scratch in just a week, with cast meeting each other for the first time just seven days before the show goes on. Every festival except for this year's Philly leg has had at least one of these, and they are usually great fun.

The Trial was a reprise of the children's production first seen a week earlier. Cast and chorus were identical, except for a new Usher. In comparison to a week ago, the show seemed smoother and more relaxed, although it appeared a few bits had slipped in that the original director might not have approved of. Both Judge and Defendant were superb considering their ages, although the Judge seemed to have decided he was the star without informing anyone else. The replacement Usher, Emma Mills, showed an impressive two-octave range for the summoning of Angelina.

Pirates directed by Alistair Donkin was a curious mixture of a very traditional D'Oyly Carte interpretation punctuated occasionally by interpolations that didn't always work as intended. For the second verse of "Oh, is there not one maiden breast," Frederic replicated the "Elvis immitation" gimmick from the Papp production. Whatever you may think of that gag in its own right, it seemed here to come from nowhere and was clumsily executed. In "When the foeman bares his steel" the traditional silent encore was augmented with a flashing strobe light that, again, seemed like a good idea gone amok. In "Poor wand'ring one," Mabel jammed Frederic's head into her bosom a few too many times. Yet, the director showed excellent command of the stage management in the opening chorus, in "When the foeman," and in the Act II finale.

In Act I, the women wore ankle-length dresses with matching bonnets. Here was a case where the traditional costumes simply looked odd, those bonnets seeming too prim for a chorus that brims with youthful energy. They looked a lot better in Act II after they shed the bonnets. In Act II, all the pirates dressed as police for "When the foeman." This made for some wonderful stage pictures, but when the chorus split up later in the act, the policemen's chorus suddenly looked paltry.

Pirate King Tony Smith was, as the adjudicator put it, one who acted like raping and pillaging came naturally. His performance justly won Best Supporting Male for the Buxton leg of the Festival. The Major-General was right out of central casting and did all the familiar bits about as well as you'll see them done. Frederic had a beautiful tenor voice and boyish good looks to match, but much of his dialogue was far too underplayed. However, his Act II sequence of duets with Mabel were a poignant highlight. The Samuel had played Sir Marmaduke for Oxford G&S earlier in the Festival. It was nice to hear a principal quality voice in a role that doesn't always attract the better performers.

The closing banquet was a sellout, the festive crowd there to hear the awards and announcement of plans for next year. A highlight for many of us was to hear John Reed sing Sir Joseph's entrance from Pinafore, with a Valerie Masterson cameo as Hebe. It's no secret that Reed has been in poor health the last few years, and it was wonderful to see him looking so spry. I've seen him perform this sequence a number of times over the years, and I can't recall it ever being this good. It was a double pleasure that he did it a second time about an hour later, for the benefit of the BBC documentary crew, who said the chorus wasn't loud enough the first time around.

I didn't take note of all the award winners, and in any event, someone else will surely have posted them to the net by the time you read this. Don Smith and I had been handicapping the awards all week long, and between us we had David Turner pegged pretty well. Up to the main production awards, the only surprise was the Edmund Rice Group's Lord Chancellor as Best Character Actor--both Don and I thought there were many better choices.

David Turner hinted all week long that only a few points separated the top half-dozen productions, making this the closest choice in the Festival's four-year history. Nevertheless, Don Smith and I both had it rated as: Rose Hill Utopia first, Bournemouth Yeomen second, and Derby Ida third. (I must acknowledge that two of the top productions-Trent Opera's Gondoliers and Lamplighters' Sorcerer--I had not seen.) So, having smoked Mr. Turner out on nearly all the individual awards, we were surprised (but not, I would stress, disappointed) to see the final awards go to Derby Ida first, Lamplighters Sorcerer second, and Trent Opera Gondoliers third. Even Lamplighters' John Alecca acknowleged he was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

For the record, I assume the sixth highly-rated production was the South Anglia Patience I hated it, but I only saw it in Buxton; it was the Berkeley performance that was adjudicated, and perhaps it was better there. Derek Collins won the award for best professional producer, a clear hint that Mr. Turner had given that production high marks. The St. Mary's Mikado won the adjudicator's discretionary award, showing he thought it deserved recognition despite a numerically lower score.

The largest surprise, for me, was that Rose Hill's Utopia failed to place. It was a marvelous production, and I don't recall Mr. Turner raising any specific objections. I had fewer qualms about Bournemouth being left out, as there were enough unfortunate gimmicks in that show to make the result understandable. The Derby Ida was the best Ida I had ever seen, so I had no complaint with it being first; I thought Mr. Turner would rate it lower because the Hilarion was so utterly lacking in credibility. In hindsight, I agree with him that it was the best Production that I saw.

Ian Smith announced that the separate awards for Best Amateur and Best Professional Producer will be merged next year, which makes sense. I would, however, like to see an award or awards introduced specifically to recognize excellence in sets, lighting, and/or costumes.

Next year's Festival will be in Buxton only, a decision that I wholeheartedly agree with. Ian Smith has concluded that, if the Festival is to travel outside of England again, it needs a local sponsor who has skin in the game. While Buxton has grown and gotten stronger from year to year, all three of the Festival's U.S. visits have been financial disasters, notwithstanding that most of those who attended thoroughly enjoyed themselves. There is no shortage people willing and eager to tell Ian Smith what he did wrong, but all of the advice--much of it conflicting-comes from people who bear no financial consequences for the results.

To give one example, I am personally familiar with advice Ian has received to put the Festival in such diverse places as Providence (RI), New York City, Wilmington (DE), Princeton (NJ), Philly, Chicago, and Santa Barbara (CA). I think these ideas range from the viable to the laughably ridiculous, but all of them have passionate advocates. A lot hangs on the decision, and Ian lacks sufficient understanding of the culture here to bear on his own the attendant risks--hence, his very sensible strategy not to return without more than just "good advice" on his side.

Of course, Buxton was a gamble too, but that gamble has paid off: in England, the Festival is now self-sustaining. After two years of very heavy losses in the U.S., I certainly understand, and support, Ian's insistence that any return here be on an altogether different footing. Ian admitted to losing $100,000 in the U.S. this year ($200,000 if the value of staff time is taken into account). No one familiar with the economics of theater production can seriously doubt this figure.

I would also point out that there is not a long list of musical festivals that are given in multiple locations: the Salzburg Festival is given in Salzburg, nowhere else. If it should turn out that Buxton is the permanent and only home of the G&S Festival, that does not strike me as a great tragedy. Some people are advising Ian that the Festival, in the form he has successfully operated it in Buxton, is inherently intractable in the U.S. Rather than a hell-bent return to America, a solid Buxton Festival--placed on so solid a footing that it is guaranteed to endure--should be the top priority.

The expansion of next year's Buxton Festival to nineteen days leaves me with mixed feelings. I'm glad to see the Festival successful enough to expand, but it is now out of reason that anyone with a family to support will ever be able to attend the whole thing. I do intend to be back next year--probably for the last ten days or so, like this time.

Ian also talked at some length about the professional G&S Opera Company that he hopes to launch. I've discussed this with a number of people, and I haven't found anyone who believes it's viable. I'm hesitant to bet against Ian, because there were a lot of people who thought the first Buxton Festival was a pipe dream, but I'm hard pressed to see how he can pull this off.

Concluding Thoughts

As I left the final banquet, I had the same feeling as in prior years--that I was turning back into a pumkin. Warts and all, the Festival has a magic that few can resist. It is easy to pick nits, but we must remember that this Festival's existence is not an inexorable law of nature. It is the creation of individuals. They make mistakes, but the only people in life who never make mistakes are those who never take chances. Whatever we may find wrong in the Festival, we must never forget that, without the Smiths, we'd have no Festival to criticize.

Ian Smith estimated that over twenty thousand people saw some part of this year's Festival. I think they're counting me about thirty times, but let that pass. The important thing is that most of those people seem to be leaving the theater happy. That is the only statistic I care about.

Page created 25 Aug 1997