Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Philadelphia Diary, 1996
Day One: Saturday, July 20
The day, and the Festival, began with a service of commemoration for the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan, at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. David Turner, the Festival Adjudicator, read from Ecclesiasticus 44, "Let us praise famous men." Neil Smith read from Sullivan's 1888 address, "About Music," while Ian Smith read from Gilbert's famous address to the O.P. club in 1906. Several Sullivan hymns were sung, and organist John French played "The Lost Chord." The service ended with "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
Now, it was off to the Merriam Theater for an orientation-it could hardly be called a rehearsal-for the opening sing. Ian's original concept called for a chorus of four hundred, all in costume, singing the twelve Act I finales in reverse order of composition, followed by a complete performance of Trial By Jury. The actual chorus was more like one hundred (about half in costume), which was plenty, though an actual rehearsal would have been welcome.
Next, we walked to Philadelphia's majestic city hall and marched down Broad Street back to the theater, singing "When the foeman bares his steel." Two television stations covered the event. Then, in the theater, the house lights were extinguished, the curtain went up, and the orchestra led us into "Hail, Poetry." Five luminaries gave brief speeches and cut a symbolic ribbon, declaring the Festival open.
Though the program fell a bit short of all the Act I finales, there was something from every opera. After "Ring Forth, Ye Bells" from The Sorcerer, the Act II finale from Grand Duke and "Eagle High" from Utopia, New York City's Village Light Opera Group (VLOG) performed the Act I finales of Yeomen and Gondoliers, with VLOG's Ron Noll conducting. From full costumes to complete blocking, VLOG had prepared impeccably, and these were the afternoon's best selections.
Then came the chorus of "Oh, happy the lily," followed by a portion of the Mikado Act I finale, with Ann Kirschner (recruited at very short notice) setting the audience afire with a focused, white-hot Katisha. After Ida's "For a month to dwell," a contingent of New York's Gilbert and Sullivan Society presented Iolanthe's Act I finale in its entirety. A quickly-arranged volunteer group gave "I hear the soft note," the sextette from Patience, and Savoy Fare, a concert group from New York City, gave the Act I finale from Pinafore. Philadelphian Rob Gawthrop, who is a judge in real life, wrapped things up with the Judge's song and the finale of Trial By Jury.
Patience, The Savoy Company
Philadelphia-based Savoy Company is one of four groups to have performed at all three festivals to date. This year's "home team," Savoy took the field first with their strong production of Patience. This was a traditional show in every sense, with each scene delivered in more-or-less the expected way. While the production was highly effective, it was perhaps a bit too generic, and hence unmemorable.
Baritone roles have long been a Savoy strength. Geoff Berwind was a cynical Bunthorne whose wry asides in Act I assured us he was all sham. For his patter song, he sat down on an inverted bucket Patience had left behind and treated it like a one-on-one confession to the audience. In Act II, the pretense of aestheticism was mostly abandoned (aside from his long hair and languid costume) in favor of an obsession with regaining the ladies' attentions.
Mike Tunney, in long blond hair and blue satin costume, cut a large and imposing figure as Grosvenor. Tunney's silky-smooth voice and cultivated English accent made him a captivating figure, but the blond wig and heavy rouge makeup gave him an almost feminine appearance. The performance approached perfection, with Tunney's uncomfortable resemblance to a cross-dresser being the only reservation.
Ethan Cadoff delivered the best account of Colonel Calverley's patter song that I've ever heard, with every word clearly audible and the complicated text illustrated through well-placed gestures. Other strong performances came from Ross Drucker (Duke), Betsy Walker (Jane), Susan Blair (Angela) and Daniel Kaplan (Major). The production's lone weak link was Janine Dwyer's Patience. With pursed lips, furled brow and flower-print costume, she looked more like a school marm who's seen it all than an innocent milkmaid.
The curtain rose on Act I to discover a gardener clipping the hedges around Bunthorne's garden. He didn't hang around long, as the approach of the ladies evidently frightened him off. The same routine was repeated at the start of Act II, though the joke had considerably less impact the second time around. I later learned that Patience was the only opera this gentleman needed to complete a full cycle with Savoy, which is evidently an honor of some distinction in that company.
The adjudicator's report on the performance seemed uncomfortably harsh. While he touched on a number of core truths, particularly emphasizing some ho-hum chorus work, he also dallied on a number of peevish complaints, such as the failure to light the proscenium curtain during the overture. He even found the gardener objectionable. This was most Americans' first exposure to adjudication, and as one in the audience later put it, "I thought I'd seen a wonderful production of Patience until the adjudicator told me I wasn't supposed to have liked it."
As at the first two festivals, each evening concluded with a "cabaret" at a local pub. In Buxton, the cabarets were held in a cavernous hall that could accommodate an essentially limitless audience. Here, at the Elephant & Castle restaurant at the Holiday Inn, those who got in were packed like sardines (and many didn't get in at all).
Perhaps the largest embarrassment came on Friday night, when there wasn't even room to let in the society who were supposed to be giving the entertainment. Admission included "supper," but the food disappeared within minutes-on several nights, less time than it took those with tickets to walk from the theater to the hotel. Obtaining more congenial surroundings, and buying more food, will no doubt be among Ian Smith's highest priorities for next year.
For our trouble we were treated to some first-class entertainment from the versatile Savoy Company. Among the highlights: Mike Tunney sang a ballad called "The Fireman's Wife," whose eponymous heroine prefers the firehouse to her own husband; Guillermo Bosch sang the Italian song "That's Amore" to new words, now called "That's a Lawyer"; Dan Rothermel read the Bab Ballad "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell"; and Geoff Berwind and Ethan Cadoff enacted the "muffin" scene from The Importance of Being Ernest."
There followed one of this year's innovations-a "pot-luck" Pirates of Penzance (one of five such shows given in Philadelphia). By the time it started-something like 12:30 a.m.-many of the audience had left, but those who stayed were treated to a rousing concert performance of the opera.
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