For almost a century, under the management first of Richard D'Oyly Carte, then of his son Rupert and now of his grand-daughter Bridget, the Opera Company have performed the works of Gilbert and Sullivan to vast and delighted audiences in Great Britain and abroad.
Before 1961, when the copyright for Gilbert's libretti expired, the comic operas were professionally performed exclusively by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Although the words and music have remained unaltered, in the matter of physical appearance the Savoy Operas have changed to such an extent from one generation to the next that we would scarcely recognise some of Gilbert's characters if we were to see them in their original dress and setting.
The mode and style of presenting the Savoy Operas — which is supposed to have changed little or not at all since the beginning — was, of course, Gilbert's. As director as well as librettist for Mr. Carte's company, he laid down the formula of interpretation as regards speech, gesture, stage 'business', and in some cases costume and scene design. Inevitably, however, in the long course of their history the operas have all been recast, restaged and redressed many times.
Mr. Antony Besch, who recently directed a new production of The Mikado for
the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, has now directed The Gondoliers and "A
director's intentions should be," he has written, "to present the
work as effectively as possible in its own terms while yet remaining true
to the author's intentions. In all Gilbert's work, political and social satire
play a large part and he often makes his characters represent his own views
on his own century.
" In 1889, when The Gondoliers was first produced, much of the humour lay in the fact that 18th century characters were to be heard expressing 19th century opinions. It was the 'modern' in the mouth of the 'antique' which gave the salt its savour. But now that satire is no longer contemporary, it continues to be amusing for its distinctive 19th century quality. Apart from an occasional parallelism with the behaviour of 'publicity conscious' dukes today, the humour is as entirely 19th century in tone and context as the Venice and Barataria in which the action takes place.
"I decided, therefore, to take the fullest possible advantage of this 19th century flavour and ask the designers, Luciana Arrighi and John Stoddart, to set the production in the 1880s. I believe that this in fact gives the characters an extra dimension of reality and brings them more closely in line with the opinions they express and the situations which enfold them.
"Because the Duke of Plaza-Toro and his family are so much impoverished when they set out from Spain to Venice they are compelled to travel in the only clothes they possess which are quite out of date to Venetian eyes. But when the Duke floats his Limited Company his unaccustomed wealth enables him to order new clothes from Paris with which to dazzle the Baratarians. Social habits die hard, however, so that when instructing the young kings in elegant manners, his lessons are still confined to the customs and dances of his own youth in the castles of Spain.
"In The Gondoliers, Gilbert and Sullivan created a 19th fantasy but disguised it in 18th century dress. In presenting the opera in its own period we have attempted to bring out the full flavour of its own period origins and to give a further dimension to both text and music."