This was the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival's second consecutive year in Philadelphia, and it may turn out to have been the last. While those who attended generally enjoyed themselves, attendance was generally lower than last year. Many explanations were given for this, from poor advertising publicity, to a theater many blocks away from the heart of downtown, to an apathetic populace who took the Festival for granted.
The Festival moved this year to the Zellerbach Theatre, in the Annenberg Center on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. All of the Festival venues are closer together than last year, residing within two blocks square. The Zellerbach is far more congenial to amateur G&S than the Merriam was last year; all the words could easily be heard. The Annenberg Center has three theaters in it. The master classes and afternoon performances were held in the Studio Theatre, far more congenial than any comparable venue last year.
The Festival Club was held an establishment called the International House. This locale was better than last year in some respects, worse in others. There was far more space, the selection of food and drink far more plentiful (though you had to pay for them yourselves). However, sight lines to the performers were not as good as last year, and one needed to use a microphone to be heard.
I arrived in town on Day 3. The only event on Day 1 was baritone Eric Roberts's one-man show on the life of George Grossmith, which I understand was decent but not stellar. Day 2 featured the Opening Sing and The Mikado presented by the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. Most people said the show was excellent, but that the tenor, Adrian Martin, was still having trouble with his lines, as he did in Berkeley.
In the afternoon, the Herbert Hoover Middle School of Potomac, MD, presented a "workshop performance" of Iolanthe The group does one G&S per year, usually with a cast of over 100 kids. Here, the chorus was cut down to just five each of fairies and peers; they made strong vocal showing considering the reduced numbers.
Director Pamela Leighton-Bilik told the audience in advance that there would be cuts--necessary, in her view, because of the reduced size of the chorus. In some cases, these cuts were understandable: a March of the Peers with only five middle-schoolers probably wouldn't be much good. But, some of the cuts didn't seem to make as much sense. Aside from two choruses, Act I was intact through "Spurn not the nobly born," but then it jumped to the Fairy Queen's "Every bill and every measure" (here rewritten to feature things that middle-schoolers, not peers, would dread). Strephon's defiance of the Lord Chancellor and Phyllis's discovery of Strephon's apparent infidelity were all gone.
Act II suffered similar surgery. It was fully intact through Iolanthe's plea, "My lord, a suppliant at your feet I kneel," but then it jumped abruptly to the Act II finale without even allowing the Lord Chancellor's response, or even any of the entire climactic scene of the opera. Even allowing that it was a workshop performance, I thought that the director could have arranged the selections to provide a bit more plot continuity. Omitted musical sequences, for example, could have been covered by a narration or a bit of interpolated Gilbertian dialogue.
Having said that, these kids did wonderfully,, and they sang so well that one could hardly comprehend why Ms. Bilik felt that so much of the rest had to land on the cutting-room floor. The Lord Chancellor, a slight young man whose voice hasn't changed, sang the Nightmare Song with better diction than I've heard out of many adults. All of the principals sang well, considering their youth. Here is the stock of G&S fans of the future.
The performance had many fine touches, showing Ms. Bilik to be a superb G&S director, even if a few of the cuts seemed ill-advised. The fairies were full of rambunctious post-pubescent energy, greeting Strephon with the adulation of a rock star. The Fairy Queen's Act II aria was sung to new words of the ilk, "He's such a hunk, with him I want to bunk...." and "He makes me tingle, with him I'd love to mingle...."
Overall, it was an hour well spent. I would gladly have stayed for more.
The evening performance was The Yeomen of the Guard, given by the Binghamton Summer Savoyards. This was an extremely strong production that ranks among the better Yeomen that I've seen. The only weak link in the cast was the Lieutenant, but he was still acceptable. Everyone else was superb. The only serious drawback was lugubrious tempi that extended the length of the show to well over 2 1/2 hours. The overture was so slow that I thought it would last a week. Had the principals not been so good, the group would have been in serious danger of losing the audience.
The production was in the traditional style, but with a few odd touches. Dame Carruthers was truly sadistic and played the part for more laughs than one typically sees. She carried a feather-duster and seemed to take great delight in polishing up the headsman's block. Wilfred was dressed in S&M garb, while the fearsome-looking headsman wore a nipple ring. "When jealous torments" was restored, and this was the best performance of it that I've ever seen. Meryll's "A laughing boy" was also restored, and it managed to work despite a singer who looked younger than most of his supposed family.
It was a Yeomen that left us with lots to talk about, but I think everyone liked it, including the adjudicator.
There were three festival events on Monday. In the morning, adjudicator David Turner gave a 90-minute interview with Neil Smith. He didn't say a lot that was new (to me), though I think there were a number of people there who hadn't heard him speak before. The talk was a mixture of general theater anecdotes (a lot of them about The Mousetrap, which he directs) and discussion of adjudication. He was surprisingly unenthusiastic about the latter, acknowledging that the job is a strain and often thankless. I would be surprised to see him back next year.
In the afternoon, Dan Rothermel (MD of Philadelphia's Savoy Company) gave a 1-hour lecture on Ivanhoe punctuated with numerous musical examples from the Pearl recording. He feels the opera has numerous moments of genius, but it doesn't have the sustained excellence of Sullivan's better Savoy operas. Act III, in particular, is noticeably weeker than Acts I and II. He believes a professional revival would be extremely impracticable, because of the difficulty of duplicating the spectacle (two jousting matches, the burning of the castle at Torquilstone) of the original production.
In the evening, no opera was scheduled; we had, instead, a concert performance by the G&S Festival Orchestra and guest soloists. Unlike last year, the Philly orchestra is local, not imported from England. The concert was organized by the orchestra manager, Norman Spielberg.
The first half included several rarities, including the Overture to The Grand Duke excerpts from Schubert's Rosamunda, the Allegretto movement from the Irish Symphony, the Act II song contest from Ivanhoe, the Roulette song, and the finale to Pineapple Poll. The orchestra played magnificently, giving some more obscure works about the best live hearing one is likely to encounter. While the Schubert was played, Philadelphian Betsy Walker narrated the story of how Sullivan & Grove found this music. The Irish Symphony movement was beautiful and made one realize that Sullivan could have been a successful orchestral composer had he taken that path.
The second half was somewhat less appealing, consisting of the overture plus excerpts from Act II of Iolanthe. The numbers were expertly sung sung, by some of the best G&S performers around, but there were coordination problems between the orchestra and the singers. Overall, the program was about 1hr, 50min's, which struck most of us as too short for the amount of money we paid.
Attendance to this point couldn't have pleased the Smiths. At Yeomen Sunday night, the theater was no more than 1/3 full (and some people felt it wasn't even that much). For the Sullivan concert, only about 150 people were in the audience--a pity, as they missed some great music. Many people I know viewed it as a "filler" night and sought other means of entertainment. Thirty-five dollars probably struck most prospective patrons as excessive, and I think some of those in the house got their tickets for free.
The David Turner or Dan Rothermel talks had about 20 attendees each, which is respectable but not great. Unlike last year, there wasn't even coffee served at these events. It gets harder and harder to find bargains at the Festival.
The evening performance was a triple bill of The Zoo, Cox & Box, and Trial By Jury.
The Zoo was put together by the Gilbert & Sullivan Pick-Up Members Players (GASPUMP), comprising members of half-a-dozen NYC-area companies. It was obvious that the production had been assembled in some haste, and the chorus missed many of their vocal entrances, which I attributed to lack of sufficient rehearsal. The leads, however, were all excellent, which you have to have for second-drawer Sullivan material.
The concept was extremely clever--the chorus were inmates of the local mental asylum, who were on a day trip to the zoo, chaperoned by several doctors and nurses. Members of the group told me later that they felt the chorus responses in this opera are so bizarre that this struck them as the most logical interpretation.
Second in line was Cox & Box, with Gareth Jones, Thomas Round, and Michael Rayner in the leads (all of whom recorded the opera for D'Oyly Carte, albeit in separate decades). The dialogue sizzled with the unique British sense of farcical comic timing that Americans can never duplicate. The music was ragged in spots, but mostly successful. Tom Round doesn't have a lot of voice yet, but he is over eighty years old, and the fact he can still do a credible Box is remarkable.
Chester County G&S performed Trial, and this was unquestionably the best Trial anyone had ever seen. The set looked as close to a real courtroom as you can get, while the chorus acted and sang with a precision that had even former D'Oyly Carte people marveling. When Angelina entered, a grumpy mother entered with her, which was a bit no one could remember having seen before. Above the judge's bench, there were portraits of David Turner (the adjudicator) and Ian Smith.
Chester County G&S is a local group, and it was surprising more of their partisans didn't show up. The house was at most ¼ full. A pity: this was about as pleasurable an evening of theater as one is likely to see.
There were no scheduled daytime events on Wednesday, except for the film festival, where the animated feature Dick Deadeye and the Halas & Batchelor Ruddigore were shown. I wasn't there, but I understand the latter was a copy John Reed taped off the air, complete with commercials. Ian Smith is said to be negotiating for rights to issue it through his commercial arm, Musical Collectibles.
The evening performance was H.M.S. Pinafore put on by the new Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company and backed by a locally-recruited chorus. The chorus evidently had had limited rehearsal, and director Roberta Morrell sensibly gave them rather little to do.
The principals were mostly former D'Oyly Carters, with a few newcomers thrown in. It was a performance that lacked tightness, with the numerous dramatic pauses just a little too pregnant, not to mention dropped lines, peculiar entrances & exits, and so forth. The show was exciting in spots, but it did not consistently hold one's attention.
Kenneth Sandford was a strong Captain, but he milked the dialogue to excess. He had a strong top G in "Fair moon" (the song having been transposed down a tone). Gillian Knight (Buttercup) was probably the strongest overall. She is still active as a professional opera singer, and you can tell she is always prepared, no matter what she is performing. Even in the chorus passages where her character is supposed to sing, she knows the right words and pitches.
Valerie Masterson (Josephine) is remarkable. She is in her early sixties, but looks on stage at least twenty-five years younger. She still has a radiant smile and a regal stage presence, and she looked stunning in her low-cut Act II dress. The voice has frayed slightly, and her high C is now an adventure, but this is only to be expected. She skipped the optional C at the end of "Farewell, my own," but she took the C's in her Act II aria. (In the Buxton performance, she ventured the high C in "Farewell, my own," and it was none too pretty.)
Adrian Martin (Ralph) is every bit as bad as has been reported. Nearly every musical phrase had something wrong with it, and there were numerous flubs in the dialogue, too. Curiously, both of his long, flowery speeches in his scene with Josephine were correct, but those were about the only things he got right. He had words mixed up all over the place, such as "the butt of epileptic scorn" and "with wooing song and loving birds." On one musical phrase, he entered a third too high. His acting was stiff and unpersuasive, and he is shorter than Valierie Masterson.
Alistair Donkin's Sir Joseph was adequate. It seemed he hadn't really thought about what he wanted the character to be, and the performance seemed basically a rote repetition of stock gestures from Sir Joesphs past. He went dry in the 5th verse of "When I was a lad." Michael Rayner was a decemt Deadeye, although there were numerous musical errors in the Act I finale. Gareth Jones did a fine job with the Boatswain.
Roberta Morrell's production had some strong innovations. As the curtain opened, the sailors, the Captain, and Josephine were all returning from shore leave, with the Boatswain ticking off names as everyone boarded. At the end of Act I, Sir Joseph came on the poop-deck for a stroll, and the curtain fell with Josephine and Ralph just managing to find a place to hide before he turned his head. In Act II, Buttercup read tarot cards during "Things are seldom what they seem"; during his verse, the Captain took over and re-dealt the cards randomly.
The production shone in the one-on-one dialogue scenes. Ralph and Josephine generated real electricity during their Act I dialogue, as did the Captain and Buttercup in Act II. The larger set pieces lacked precision, however.
Some of Roberta's ideas were less inspired. I didn't like the idea of leaving the women's chorus on-stage during "A British Tar." During the Bell Trio, Deadeye came on board whenever one of the characters rang a bell, as if responding to a call. This was funny once or twice, but by the third time the joke was old.
The house was 85-90% full, certainly the most of any performance this week. I think most people felt they got there money's worth, even if the production was flawed. Ian Smith announced that tickets for Friday and Saturday nights would be going on a two-for-one sale; those already having tickets could have another for free. Does that tell you anything about how weekend sales were going to that point?
The cabaret performance was a pot-luck Patience with Ian Smith as Bunthorne. Much of the principals' singing and dialogue was inaudible from where I sat. My companions and I left after Act I.
The evening performance on Thursday was Princess Ida, given by a G&S group from Derby, England. This fascinating production was a joy throughout. Act I was set outdoors in a Russian winter (complete with snowflakes). Hilarion's aria and dialogue with his father were set indoors, in the prince's dressing room. Act II was set in Castle Adamant's hall of learning. When Hilarion and his friends entered, they were in summer mountain-climbing costumes, an excellent contrast to Act I. The multi-level set looked like a science museum, and the group did an admirable job of conveying the depth and vastness to the castle. Act III was set on the battlements of the castle and was also spectacular. The sets and props were enormous, and transporting all this to Philadelphia must have been expensive.
Costumes, too, were opulent--especially the women's "Russian winter" outfits and the men's Hussar uniforms. The women's academic uniforms allowed less room for creativity, but they were certainly effective, with different colors for the principal women and separate outfits for the Daughters of the Plough.
The three stand-outs were Ida, Gama and Hildebrand. The Ida was as vocally secure in this role as I have ever heard, with her B-flats easily soaring over the orchestra in the Act II finale. She did an excellent job of conveying the princess's anger while retaining a regal superiority--making it easily believable that a hundred maidens would devote themselves to her. She would go on to win the International award for Best Female Vocalist.
In one sense, the interpratation succeeded too well: Ida's anger was so convincing that her sudden conversion to "the sway of love" became unconvincing. It didn't help that Hilarion looked like a nerd. Her Act III costume was something a movie star would wear to the Oscars, while Hilarion was still in a frumpy academic robe. One wanted to stand up and shout, "You love HIM????"
The Gama was perfect in every way. The biggest mistake people make with this role is to over-play it. This actor showed that by under-playing, the character seems even more menacing. Hildebrand looked suitably kingly and delivered his lines in stentorian tones. An extremely frisky Melissa added to the production's many joys.
Unfortunately, neither Hilarion, Cyril or Florian was particularly strong. They looked and acted alike, and indeed, it was easy to lose track of which one was the prince. Hilarion never convinced us he had fallen in love with Ida, and it was difficult to see why Ida would fall in love with him.
The production included "Come, mighty must," and proved beyond all doubt that this number should never be done. If a troupe this strong (and a Blanche this good) could not sell the number, no one could.
The adjudicator said that the troupe had given him "nothing to grumble at," and except for the reservations expressed above, this was not far from the truth. The production went on to win the overall trophy for Best International Production. The house was about 35-40% full, which was a pity: you won't see a lot of Idas better than this.
Friday night's performance was Utopia Limited given by the Montreal West Operatic Society, the first Canadian group ever to compete in the Festival. This was about as boring as G&S gets, demonstrating that there are some groups that just shouldn't be doing Utopia. The group has a lot of potential, but this production was not calculated to show them at their best.
Much of the acting was high-school quality. The chorus just stood in a semicircle for much of the show. Choreography and hand-gestures, when present, had nothing to do with the text and seemed merely gratuiotous. Much of the performance was void of humor, as if the director really didn't understand what the dialogue was about. The cuts were only minor--one verse of Paramount's entrance aria, one verse of "Bold-faced ranger," and little patches of dialogue here and there. The opera needs considerably more cutting than that.
A few of the performers gave strong interpretations and deserved more directorial support than they got. Part of the difficulty of the opera is that there are so many large roles to cast. Many companies just don't have the depth to get the job done, as clearly was the case here. The Zara, while vocally superb, spoke with a French accent, which is fatal for such a "wordy" part. In a role like Mabel, she would shine.
The opulence of the sets and costumes rescued the production from total oblivion. Act I was a truly believable south-sea island setting, with the characters in grass skirts. The Act II throne room was also a feast for the eyes, and the Drawing Room costumes were suitably grand. There were many other fine touches, such as the twins' school-girl uniforms in Act I and Paramount's white Field Marshall's uniform in Act II. Some of the stage pictures, especially in Act II, looked glorious. Evidently, the director was somebody who brought a superb sense of color, but not much else, to the job. The chorus and leads gave every indication of being capable of far better than this director got out of them.
The final Saturday was a full day. There was a memorabilia fair in the theater lobby. I bought a first edition of "The Window," old vocal scores for Pinafore and Trial, D'Oyly Carte prompt books for Mikado and Gondoliers, and "Iolanthe and Other Operas," four libretti with Russell Flint illustrations. In the morning, Thomas Round gave his one-man show, and in the afternoon Janet Cowley gave her show on the life of Jessie Bond, "Dear Jessie." I missed both of these, regrettably, although I saw them in Buxton. (See my Buxton diary for reviews of these productions.)
The evening performance was The Pirates of Penzance, presented by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP), currently the only professional G&S troupe in New York. Nearly everyone I spoke to had the same opinion of this production: that it was about as flawlessly executed as G&S could ever be. In all departments--music, acting, dance, scenery, diction--the production was first class. Most of us felt that there was the occasional bit of business that was over-the-top, or which was milked to excess, but no one could deny that it was all done with great flair.
This production should scare Ian Smith, for if he wishes to realize his dream of a permanent professional G&S opera company, this is the level he needs to reach, and he is nowhere near it yet. I am not referring, necessarily, to NYGASP's production style, which is an eclectic mix of traditional G&S and Broadway--but to the overall level of precision and dramatic propulsion in their work, a level his own nascent opera company hasn't touched.
The final performance at Philly was The Mikado by the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company consisting of (mostly) former D'Oyly Carte stars backed by a local chorus. This production did not live up to its billing. It had received raves from many people, who were telling me all week long that it was outstanding. Perhaps, because of this, I set my sights too high. It was ironic that this was the only opera all week that the orchestra played twice; yet, this was by far their worst performance. For a supposedly professional orchestra, it was downright inexcusable. The overture had me wincing.
One of the production's insiders assured me that Adrian Martin had never--not in rehearsal, not in performance-gotten the line "Now comes the blow" correct. Sure enough, he kept his streak alive, in addition to the many other musical and textual errors to which we have, alas, grown accustomed.
I marvelled at Valerie Masterson's relatively youthful Josephine, but as Yum-Yum she looked very nearly her age. While the performance was admirable for someone over sixty, no one can sensibly claim that this is acceptable in a professional opera company that aspires to tour 40 weeks per year. The line "girls do not reach years of discretion until they are fifty" got laughs for the wrong reasons.
Eric Roberts also fluffed many a line. I rated him a decent Ko-Ko, although his voice is heavier than I like in the role. Michael Rayner could have been an excellent Mikado, but here again, there were muffs and fluffs all over the place. Indeed, the Adrian Martin disease is contagious. (The mistakes were not confined just to those scenes when he was on stage.)
I found Gareth Jones a fine Pooh-Bah, although he was basically just emulating the standard D'Oyly Carte business without adding much on his own. Peter Mulloy was an outstanding Pish-Tush and managed to stick to the text, a seemingly minimal requirement that so few of his colleagues met.
The only one in the cast unquestionably up to professional standards was Gillian Knight, whose gripping Katisha was probably the best anyone had ever seen. Her daughter Rebecca was Pitti-Sing. I met Rebecca in the elevator, and she told me the role is a bit low for her, and this was certainly evident in the performance.
Derek Collins directed a largely traditional production with a few twists. The one everybody liked best came after Ko-Ko said "The one in the middle is my bride elect," and the three little maids all tried to switch places so one of the others would get stuck in the middle.
Considering the minimal amount of rehearsal, the chorus acted their parts with admirable precision. Florie Marks was listed as assistant musical director, and her hand was evident in the excellence of this chorus.
Overall, I'd describe the production as "not bad," but not deserving (it seemed to me) of the lavish praised that so many had heaped upon it. While I am still supportive of using former D'Oyly Carte stars who are up to the task, the Mikado and Pinafore were by any measure unacceptably sloppy. (I saw both again in Buxton, and there, I finally saw a Mikado worthy of all the raves.)
Before we all left Philadelphia, Ian Smith was coy about whether there would be a Festival here again in 1998. However, at the end of the Buxton leg, he laid it on the line: he could not return without local investors. None were in place by his self-imposed deadline, so the 1998 Festival will be in Buxton only. (See my Buxton Diary for more discussion about why this decision was reached, and why I agree with it.)
However, the economic failure of the Philadelphia Festival doesn't change the fact that most who came had a wonderful time, including myself. The problem was, there were too many who stayed away. I would advise as many as possible to give Buxton a try, as the atmosphere there is perfect. However, make your reservations early: unlike Philadelphia, Buxton sells out.
Page updated 16 June 1999