Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Philadelphia Diary, 1996
Day Two: Sunday, July 21
Shreds and Patches
In the morning, Ian Smith hosted a coffee for members of the internet mailing list SavoyNet, who were reckoned up by dozens at the festival. There followed a showing of the 1950s film The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan. In the afternoon, Peggy Ann Jones (D'Oyly Carte mezzo from roughly 1962-1974) gave a talk about her years with the company. She has become a sort of Phyllis Diller type, with every fourth line being a joke about her age. (By my calculations, she isn't that old-probably only mid-fifties). Like most former Cartes who've spoken on the subject, she is all in favor of updated staging and interpretation, as long as the core genius of the works is respected; she liked Papp's Pirates, for example. When asked to speculate about why the Company folded, she didn't hesitate to lay the blame at the feet of Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte, who had scant aptitude for, or interest in, theatrical matters.
Ruddigore, Original D'Oyly Carte Stars
Productions reuniting former D'Oyly Carte stars have been a centerpiece of all three G&S festivals to date. Two years ago, the former Cartes presented a semi-staged version of Yeomen. Last year, they gave a fully-staged Sorcerer. This year, Sorcerer was revived and a new production of Ruddigore added.
It doesn't take an economic genius to figure out that these productions are Ian Smith's loss leader. He charged a slightly higher ticket price for these performances, but he had to pay the expenses for bringing all the principals and a full chorus (and their costumes) from England, and putting them up in Philadelphia for more than a week.
One of the week's most surprising lessons was that the D'Oyly Carte name no longer sells tickets. The three so-called D'Oyly Carte performances sold no better than the amateur ones, and the Sorcerer matinee on the final Sunday played to a near-empty house. (That near-Broadway prices were charged for these performances, with no discount for the matinee, cannot have helped.)
For Ruddigore, the star-studded cast included Kenneth Sandford (Sir Despard), Geoffrey Shovelton (Richard), Simon Butteriss of the New D'Oyly Carte (Robin), Julia Goss (Rose), Gillian Knight (Hannah), John Ayldon (Roderic), Patricia Leonard (Mad Margaret) and Michal Buchan (Old Adam), with Roberta Morrell directing. By and large, these stars can still conjure up the magic of twenty years ago, though the illusion shows signs of age.
Kenneth Sandford has lost some vocal projection (and the Merriam Theater presented a most unhelpful acoustic), but he has not lost the ability to inform his roles with the delicate nuances most actors overlook. With make-up, he looked and sounded a good twenty years younger (though the wig was frightful), and he made Despard a sympathetic figure, one whom we truly pitied for the sorry misfortune of being saddled with the curse of Ruddigore. Having said that, we must frankly admit that it was, by any measure, an off night for Ken, with much of his usual energy and precision missing. (I heard that he did the role much better at a subsequent matinee.)
Simon Butteriss, who has played Bunthorne and Ko-Ko with the New D'Oyly Carte, is truly a major find. With a sympathetic face, a strong baritone, and superb diction, he might well have been an authentic D'Oyly Carte patter man were the original company still going. The only challenge he faced in this production was that the Rose, Julia Goss, looked old enough to be his mother. While it may seem indelicate to criticize a fiftysomething soprano for the one thing she cannot control-her age-Ms. Goss didn't appear to have made any attempt to improve her appearance through costume or makeup, as Kenneth Sandford did so effectively. Her singing and acting might have been found satisfactory in a decent amateur company.
Gillian Knight, who squeezed in her festival appearances between runs of La Traviata and Die Walküre at Covent Garden, was an absolutely fearsome Dame Hannah. She had a mesmerizing fire in her eyes as she told the legend of Sir Rupert. John Ayldon has a naturally angular face, and when makeup is added to accentuate the shadows, he looks certifiably ghastly. His "night wind howls" was frightening enough to justify advance parental warnings.
Patricia Leonard portrayed Mad Margaret as an alcoholic bag lady. It was a performance that evoked genuine sympathy: if you saw her on the street, you'd say, "This woman needs help!" Geoffrey Shovelton never played Richard with D'Oyly Carte, but the part suited him well, and he even danced a respectable hornpipe. The performance was too understated, however. Richard needs to be a larger-than-life character, but Shovelton made him just an ordinary guy.
Director Roberta Morrell always finds clever ways to integrate the chorus into the fabric of the action. Ruddigore takes place in a seaside town, so it made perfect sense that stevedores and fishermen were milling about in Act I. Still, the strain of preparing two operas in six days was apparent. In many scenes, the chorus just stood around and seemed uninterested in the action. The dance that ended Act I was a bore.
Much of the Act I finale was severely misjudged. Sir Despard entered waving a pistol. After Robin was unmasked as the rightful baronet, he seized the gun, but had no idea what to do with it. Despard and Margaret were united immediately, so there was no surprise when he sang, "I to Margaret must keep my vow."
The Festival had arranged to rent scenery from a Toronto group, much of which failed to arrive. For Act II, all we had was a row of portraits upstage, with a divan downstage right. Despite the scenic handicap, the act had several memorable innovations. Robin wore Dracula makeup and acted convincingly evil. During the ghost music, he tossed himself around the stage like a rag doll, as if manipulated by the chorus's puppet-like gestures. At the end of the scene, Sir Roderic cast a spell, and Robin fell asleep on the divan as the ghosts returned to their frames.
Other innovations were less successful. "I once was a very abandoned person" and "My eyes are fully open" had no other blocking except for characters rearranging themselves on the divan. The staging of the former left Kenneth Sandford clearly out-of-sorts, while the audience was deprived of one of the opera's great highlights. I understand the traditional blocking was restored for the matinee a week later, a performance that seems to have gone considerably better than the one I saw.
There was no formal cabaret, just a pot-luck Utopia. If the previous evening's Pirates showed how good a "pot-luck" can be, surely this showed how bad it can be. Unaccountably, Ian Smith was depending entirely on volunteer pianists, and the only volunteer he got was someone who'd never seen or heard the opera before. The result, when coupled with several principals not fully comfortable with the material, was a total disaster that only the most rabid fans managed to see through to the end. The two best performances came from Kay Byler, who sight-read Lady Sophy but was more musical and poignant than most mezzos who attempt the role; and Ron Orenstein, who claimed he hadn't sung Mr. Goldbury in seven years, but was full of the cocksuredness a company promoter needs.
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