No 38 Autumn 1992 Edited by Michael Walters
A departure from the usual practice has been made in this issue, which is devoted solely to the New D'Oyly Carte productions of The Gondoliers and Iolanthe. The Gondoliers is undoubtedly the most controversial G&S production for many years, and has aroused very strong reactions both in the press, and in the pages of Gilbert and Sullivan journals. I have gathered together here as many opinions as I can fit in, in a number of cases embroidered with my comments! My remarks appear in square brackets; comments in parentheses are those of the reviewer. MPW.
By CRAIG SETON (reprinted from the front page of THE TIMES, 9 March 1991)
[Craig Seton appears to be a general reporter for THE TIMES, not a critic].
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, standardbearer of original Gilbert and Sullivan for more than a century, was yesterday unrepentant after opening at its new home with a gala performance of The Gondoliers that so offended some aficianados that they greeted the final curtain call with loud booing. The occasion, to celebrate the company's move from London's Savoy to the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, was attended by a distinguished gathering, including Tim Renton, the arts minister. But the company committed what amounted to heresy among purists by departing from the traditional presentation.
The purists, described as a vocal minority, were apparently upset that a company so bound by its links with Gilbert and Sullivan could have scenes in The Gondoliers that included a corgi in a car and a fox that looked like Basil Brush. At one point the players watch television. One reviewer described the Venetian setting as "a yellow corrugated stage". Those present insisted that the applause was far louder than the booing, but such obvious displeasure is almost unheard of in the long history of D'Oyly Carte productions. The company presented their work exclusively in its original [sic] form for more than a century until it went out of business in 1982 after the Arts Council refused it a subsidy. It was likened in a council report to "a splendid old actress well past her prime, waddling away into the distance to a welldeserved and peaceful death".
The company was reformed in 1988 with sponsorship from British Midland Airways and a large bequest from the estate of the late Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte, granddaughter of the impresario. It signalled then that the old days and the former stylised [sic] productions at the Savoy, during which audiences had declined [sic], were over. It also said that it would no longer perform Gilbert and Sullivan exclusively and would seek younger audiences.
[See David Skelly's review on p. 3031.]Yesterday Ray Brown, the company's general manager, said of the Birmingham performance: "It made everybody think [sic]. A small minority felt it should have been a totally traditional performance and it was not". He agreed the performance puzzled some people, but added: "We are a new company and we have to look forward". Those who booed, he said, were not from Birmingham. "I am reliably informed that they were disgruntled people who have previously had some connection with the company".
Undoubtedly, one problem facing the new company is the expectation among diehard Gilbert and Sullivan fans that its production will include the plummy [sic] diction, hammy [sic] acting and funny [sic] walks that reigned for decades [sic] (Our Arts Editor writes). In recent years, other companies have reinvigorated [sic] G&S, using rock singers, television comedians and slick Broadway productions. Jonathan Miller, for instance, famously staged The Mikado in a 1930s "grand hotel" for English National Opera.
By MARTIN HOYLE (reprinted from THE TIMES, 9 March 1991)
THE GONDOLIERS. Only Birmingham would redirect baffled playgoers from a charmingly restored theatre entrance across a road and round a corner to a new annexe on a busy main street from which, via a bridge, they regain the building they first started from. But in fairness, the Alexandra's new foyer is impressively spacious, and the auditorium is a splendid Art Deco concoction of gold and blue. The new base of the resurrected (in 1988) D'Oyly Carte a new home for Gilbert and Sullivan may pose other problems. The deep grand circle looms over all but the front four rows of stalls, and some of the woman soloists in particular have trouble projecting words into the unresonant acoustic. The welldrilled orchestra lacks edge and style, especially in the woodwind, that touchstone of Sullivan's delicacy. As for the production, Tim Hopkins's unfocused contribution seems determined to replace the prettypretty with the uglyugly, or the clumsyclumsy, starting with Nigel Lowery's sets. A raked stage is now commonplace, but a corrugated surface like frozen waves is something new. The hapless performers scramble and leap, backed by a slanted picture of Venice. Act 2 is a striking geometric study in black and red, but at least the tilted floor is smooth.
The production poses the question of how to fantasticate the fantastic. Gilbert and Sullivan cannot take unrestrained grotesquerie: this is no fairy story but a distorting mirror held up to an always recognisable normality. Lose sight of that and the joke becomes pointless. Here, some isolated gags work. The haughty Casilda's whining suburban accent underlines her initial snobbery, and Elizabeth Woollett carries it off well, obsessively going through her ballet exercises and Spanish dance clichs. The Duke of Plaza Toro is dressed as a matador; his Duchess, in trousers beneath a transparent hooped skirt, sports a coiffure of horns. Not even Richard Suart can redeem the witless "I am a courtier grave and serious", though byplay with toy corgis dressed as the monarch rub it close for sheer desperation in "A regular royal queen".
The staging engages in such gimmicks as hauling Tessa into the air like Peter Pan during "When a merry maiden marries", but then ignores much humour already there. The irony of "In a contemplative fashion", where a furious squabble is only just contained, passes unnoticed. Heavyhanded social comment (the Baratarian court sprawls in front of the telly, surrounded by takeaway food containers) looks perfunctory. More intriguing, however exaggerated, is the vein of flamboyant theatricality tapped by John Rath's Grand Inquisitor: his chalkwhite face, dark glasses and black cape provide a blend of sinister and comic a cross between an E.T.A. Hoffmann evil genius and Jack Nicholson in Batman.
The conductor, John PryceJones, obtains good choral singing, some untidy ensembles, and a welcome seriousness in such wistful numbers as the "Oh bury, bury" duet. David Fieldsend's tenor manages an adequate pair of sparkling eyes; but Alan Oke, his baritonal brother, has the thrust, style and polish that the rest of this confused jumble of gimmicks so sadly lacks. Good wishes for D'Oyly Carte's new start are tempered by the regret felt when any venerable centenarian throws up her skirts, kicks her legs and turns a bedizened smirk to the world in an attempt to be modern. The Church of England recently had the same trouble. Is this the real British disease?
By DAVID GRAVES (reprinted from THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, 8 March 1991)
The gala opening night of the D'Oyly Carte opera company at its new headquarters in Birmingham ended in controversy when a production of The Gondoliers was greeted with prolonged booing by some of the audience. Gilbert and Sullivan traditionalists were later blamed for the loud chorus of booing during the curtain calls at the end of the performance, attended by Mr. Timothy Renshaw, Arts Minister, and civic dignitaries. Members of the company said the new production by Tim Hopkins was always expected to be a controversial affair, but some were disappointed it marred the company's opening at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre. The departures from tradition in the new production included a set presenting a Venice conceived in bright, primary colours [Oh South Kensington! MPW], with a steeply raked, yellow corrugated stage.
There were scenes when a fox, said to look like "Basil Brush", appeared while, in another, the company sat watching television in childish "Watch with Mother" fashion. One member of the capacity audience said: "The booing came from disgruntled people. They seemed unhappy by the whole production, although the majority of the audience was most appreciative.
[The "appreciative" ones most probably would have applauded anything however dire. A high proportion of audiences are uncritical. MPW]
It spoiled a glittering first night". D'Oyly Carte, which was founded in 1876 and is Britain's oldest opera company, was revived three years ago after going out of existence five years earlier. The company moved to Birmingham in January after the Labourcontrolled city council offered a minimum £125,000 a year sponsorship for at least five years and a new headquarters. This came as part of the council's plans to promote a cultural renaissance in the West Midlands, which has included the arrival of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the opening of a symphony hall next month.
D'Oyly Carte is now intending to expand from its traditional Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire to become the national light opera company. Mr. Ray Brown, the company's general manager, said of the booing: "These people were obviously
[Why obviously? MPW]
traditionalists and did not want to enjoy the new production.
[That is an inane thing to say. MPW]Whatever we had done, I am sure they would not have liked it. Booing is a standard practice at opera. It happens quite a lot at Covent Garden and the Coliseum, but not much with us, thankfully.
[Perhaps a bit more would be a good thing? MPW]D'Oyly Carte went out of business because it insisted on sticking to tradition.
[I would question that that was the reason. MPW]
We no longer want to be seen as a boring company. We want to be seen as vibrant and outgoing. Although this minority of the audience did not enjoy the performance, there were many, many more who did and cheered their appreciation".
[Repeat: The "appreciative" ones most probably would have applauded anything however dire. A high proportion of audiences are uncritical. MPW]
Although the original music and libretto has remained the same
[Does this imply that, heaven forbid, they considered rewriting them? MPW]
in the company's new production of one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular operettas, the set designs, by Nigel Lowery, and general production, is likely to remain controversial. The 90strong company will take its new production of The Gondoliers on a 15week national tour later this month following its opening Birmingham season.
By IAN BRADLEY [author of the Annotated G&S] (reprinted from THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, 18 March 1991)
To help plan its future repertoire, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is asking members of the audience at its new base the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham to fill in a questionnaire that resembles a multiplechoice exam paper. At the top of the list of possible answers to the question "What prompted you to attend" is the statement "A renowned company offering a quality product". It is sad to see that the language of the marketing men is now so pervasive that the immortal works of Gilbert and Sullivan are described in similar terms to a new car or a can of baked beans. But if we are to stick with the jargon, it has to be said that the product range on offer from this revived company, which has just embarked on its fourth season, is very wide and variable.
Iolanthe, which opened last week, shows the company at its best. It is sensitive to the spirit of G&S [sic] without slavishly following tradition, and is beautifully sung and staged. I am afraid the same cannot be said about The Gondoliers, the other new production, which makes up the repertoire for the coming spring tour. The musical standards are equally high in both works, the casting inspired and the diction faultless, but again and again in The Gondoliers attention is diverted from the words and music by silly gimmicks and a bizarre and distracting set. It is, I fear, opera for the video age where no verbal or musical statement is allowed to stand on its own but has to be spelled out in action or symbol.
One of the historic functions of the D'Oyly Carte company is to act as a standard setter and model for the hundreds of amateur companies who perform Gilbert and Sullivan. Andrew Wickes's production of Iolanthe is an objectlesson in how the Savoy Operas should be performed. The Gondoliers, directed by Tim Hopkins, is almost a textbook example of how not to do them. The set is a strange surrealist mixture of garish primary colours and obscure symbolism that belongs to the world of Pop Art rather than operetta. In Act 1, the cast has to perform on a steeply raked block of undulating orange waves and to contend with a fascistlike red and white banner, an exclamation mark in the centre, which is pulled across the stage at every opportunity. The Act 1 set for Iolanthe, by contrast, provides an elegant and enchanting suggestion of an Arcadian landscape how good it is to see Strephon and Phyllis back in their proper costumes as Meissen shepherd and shepherdess. For Act 2, there is an ingenious model of the Houses of Parliament with a drinks cabinet in the tower of Big Ben and the Lord Chancellor's bunk in the roof. The stage business, which includes a delightful tea party for the opening chorus of fairies and a cricket match between Liberal and Conservative MPs during "Loudly Let the Trumpet Bray", enhances rather than distracts from the music [sic]. The dialogue is handled with impeccable timing, most notably by Jill Pert who is an outstanding Fairy Queen, and delivered with just the right degree of understatement, not hopelessly hammed as is the case in The Gondoliers. Whereas this Iolanthe would make a perfect introduction for children to the magical world of G&S, I am afraid that they might be frightened by the darkness and melodrama of The Gondoliers, which ought to be the lightest and most carefree of the Savoy Operas, and by the unnecessarily frightening portrayal of Don Alhambra.
John PryceJones conducts both works with a rare sensitivity and an obvious love for Sullivan's music that allows many of its subtle and rich textures to be exposed. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company now has a firstrate orchestra and chorus and a fine set of principals led by Philip Creasy, Regina Hanley, Elizabeth Woollett and John Rath. It is quite right to be thinking now of spreading its wings and tackling the wider world of operetta. It is also fully justified in demanding Arts Council funding for its extensive and costly touring operation. But any future paymaster, public or private, will also be fully justified in demanding that there are no more productions like The Gondoliers.
By ANNE FITZGERALD (reprinted from THE STAGE, 11 April 1991).
The D'Oyly Carte Light [sic] Opera Company promised a fresh look to their Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire and in the two productions unveiled in their new home, the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, they've certainly come up with some surprises. Purists will be offended by the liberties that director, Tim Hopkins, has taken with The Gondoliers, creating an advertiser's packageholiday fantasy world for the Venice of Act 1, and a nonsenseland, in the spirit of Lear or Carroll,
[Could either Lear or Carroll have been so vulgar? Remember what Carroll said about H.M.S. Pinafore! MPW]
for Barataria. The least successful aspect of this bold stroke is designer Nigel Lowery's costumes which fail to be either witty or pretty, giving the women's chorus, for example, ugly skirts with bulky paniers over the hips, worn with illfitting cotton tops, sandshoes and socks. But the zany humour of the production works well, suiting [sic] the ludicrous [sic] quality of Gilbert's plot and characters but never getting in the way of the music. The chorus is in fine voice and the ensemble numbers work well with some enjoyable choreography from Caroline Pope in moving the cast around the stage. There is some particularly good solo singing from: Elizabeth Woollett as Casilda; Lesley EchoRoss (Gianetta) and David Fieldsend (Marco) and a powerful Grand Inquisitor, both vocally and comically from John Rath.
Iolanthe lends itself less happily to radical treatment, being intractably a satire on politics and society of the late 1800s, and sensibly director Andrew Wickes has taken a more traditional approach to the operetta, though adding some witty touches of his own, notably turning the fairies into twenties flappers and the peers into cricketing buffs. James Hendy's designs are a highspot of this production with two elegant sets: for Arcady (where Strephon and Phyllis look like a pair of Dresden figurines), and Westminster where the Houses of Parliament are seen in comically foreshortened perspective and the front panel of Big Ben houses a cocktail cabinet. Russell Dixon is a crisply humorous Lord Chancellor, Jill Pert a richly comic Fairy Queen and the ensemble singing shows the strength of this company.
By TERRY GRIMLEY from BIRMINGHAM POST 9 March 1991. NB: original not seen, this version taken from GASBAG May 1991, possibly abridged.
D'Oyly Carte Opera Company made its debut as a Birminghambased company last night with a new production of one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular operettas which left no doubt about its intention to find a style tailored to the 1990s. Nigel Lowery's set for Act One presents a Venice conceived in primary colours, with a steeply raked, yellow corrugated stage. In the Second Act, when events are transported to the kingdom of Barataria, the design is more frankly surreal. The director, Tim Hopkins, is happy to slip in such incidental anachronisms in a production which extends the already scatterbrain logic of this sendup of socialists and downatheel aristocrats.
My main reservation is that the characterisations are just a little too glib and obvious, not to say second hand. The Spanish nobleman, Don Alhambra del Bolero, and his family [sic] look as though they have strayed out of Opera North's recent Love of [sic] Three Oranges. But there is no doubt that this is a bold attempt to freshen up a piece which younger audiences might too easily assume is not for them [sic]. It could not do this if the evening was not built on solid musical foundations. Here everything seems in fine fettle, with music director John PryceJones conducting an excellent orchestra, with chorus and soloists in fine voice. In its first visit to the US The Gondoliers flopped, prompting some wit to rename it "The Gone Dollars". I doubt that will be its fate on its forthcoming British tour.
By PAT ASHWORTH from THE GUARDIAN, 9 March 1991. NB: original not seen, this version taken from GASBAG May 1991, abridged.
Across a steeply raked, undulating set, with a picture postcard Rialto hanging askew against a black background, assorted Venetians scramble, dip, lurch, and stagger in a collection of footwear designed largely for the purpose: white Doc Martens for the women, sandals and ankle socks for the men. Their outlandish costumes appear to have been run up in haste in a school needlework class; the men's knee breeches expose pale flesh and varicose veins. Much of Tim Hopkins's production is inexplicable: the brief appearance of a toy fox wearing a tartan scarf and driving a pedal car; a pair of flying legs aloft; a tendency for the heroines to sing while suspended from the flies. Casilda speaks like Molly Parkin; the Grand Inquisitor whitefaced, villainous and consumptive like a Dalek. The women returning to their gondoliers carry rucksacks, harpoons, paddles and skis; in an almost surreal sequence knighted gondoliers tumble into an abyss ...
The couple sitting next to me were lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan and devotees of the old D'Oyly Carte. They were upset and outraged by what they saw as a travesty of G&S ... And that illustrates the company's dilemma as it seeks a new image to meet the expectations of a modern audience. I was hugely entertained by the drollery of this clownish and bizarrely staged production. It was full of visual trickery and surprises, and the music, untampered with, came over with gusto and sparkle. But I'm not a regular G&S fan. And while D'Oyly Carte clearly needed to freshen up and widen its appeal, it must surely beware of alienating those people who will always remain the backbone of its paying audiences. Fewer liberties might have endeared it to both camps.
By JAN SMACZNY (uncredited). 11 March 1991. NB: original not seen, this version taken from GASBAG May 1991, abridged.
The new D'Oyly Carte company ... treads an awkwardly swaying tightrope: it must combine traditional values ... with enough spice to engage an audience which changes from venue to venue on a major tour. Sadly, the company does not seem to have struck the right balance with their new production of The Gondoliers. On the second night of the run ... there was clear evidence of problems ... An inflexible, rather tentative overture ... set the tone for some sluggish pacing and frequently poor coordination between pit and stage. The latter could well derive from the unfortunate cast having to spend nervous energy staying upright on Nigel Lowery's fearsome rake. Sets and costumes were certainly bright, but did little to illuminate the action. A similar complaint might be levelled at Tim Hopkins's production. While there are several incidental laughs along the way, very few of them belong to Gilbert. Why should Don Alhambra be played as a Sandeman Port man as realised by Jack Nicholson, and why should the unfortunate Casilda behave like an escapee from a suburban sitcom? A number of fine performances seem to be lurking beneath the director's reading, not least John Rath's Don Alhambra and Richard Suart's potentially excellent Duke. Unmolested by wacky presentation, the two gondoliers, Alan Oke and David Fieldsend, give a sterling account of themselves. David Fieldsend is particularly remarkable in providing crystalclear diction as well as beautifullyshaded tone.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for most of the rest of the cast. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the evening was a general disregard for clarity in delivery ... Gilbert's dynamite lines were rarely adequately audible. The only winner here was Sullivan's music which was, for the most part, delivered sensitively and attractively, though occasionally rather stiffly. But here, surely, is the point: the fragile substance of Sullivan's music depends on Gilbert's words to give it strength. If the words are garbled or inaudible, the whole becomes, quite frankly, a bit of a bore. Let's hope D'Oyly Carte's Iolanthe next week will secure equality to the immortal pair.
By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE from THE TIMES of 10 April 1991
In his own day W.S. Gilbert got up many noses, including the royal one. Was Victoria vaguely aware of some kinship with the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe, who is as infatuated with Private Willis as she was with Gillie Brown? Probably not. But she could hardly miss such impertinences as the ending of The Pirates of Penzance, in which cowardly and inept policemen persuade the villains to lay down their arms by chanting her name at them.
When The Gondoliers was played at Windsor, Gilbert's name was omitted from the same programme on which the company wigmaker's was printed in bold type [sic]. He had to wait for his knighthood until six years after the Queen's death, a quarter of a century longer than Sullivan. That did not trouble him, since he regarded the honour as a "tinpot, twopennyhalfpenny distinction", created to slake the vanity of the political sycophants and moneyed oafs he enjoyed parodying. But it was an omen of subtler snubs to come. There are, after all, many ways of stifling a satiric librettist. One of these ways had been perfected by D'Oyly Carte well before the company's collapse in 1982: that was to institutionalise Gilbert and Sullivan's operas as anodyne entertainments for audiences interested only in nice tunes, clever rhymes and whimsical stories. Another way has never been better illustrated than by the Gondoliers that the resuscitated D'Oyly Carte company is presenting at Sadler's Wells; that is to package the operas so gaudily that nobody can see the contents for the wrapping paper.
Joseph Papp and Wilford Leach did little for Gilbert when they transformed The Pirates into a splashy Broadway musical a decade ago, but their production was sensitivity itself compared with the vandalism at Sadler's Wells. The original Duke of Plaza Toro, for instance, is a seedy snob who has become a limited company. He organises knighthoods for dim aldermen, speaks at charity dinners for ten per cent of the take, gives credibility to shady firms by sitting on their boards, and, like many aristocrats in and after the 1890s, has gainfully sold off his daughter. Here, he is transformed into a matador given to gesticulating like a spoof traffic cop. Moreover, he is accompanied by a wife dressed as a bull and a daughter who talks like a shopgirl while singing like a diva. The satiric point disappears in meretricious ado and humourless humour. That is the evening all over. Silly, meaningless, distracting things are forever happening on Venice's papiermch sand dunes. Suddenly a joke rat scampers across, a corgi in a kiddie car appears behind a futuristic curtain, or someone swivels the aerial over the television the gondoliers are watching, contorting the picture and their heads. Tim Hopkins, who directs, has done something quite difficult. He has found a way of escaping from traditionalism more destructive than traditionalism itself.
The Iolanthe that accompanies this attentiongetting travesty to Sadler's Wells also aims to sandblast the mustier accretions off the operatic surface. Like Jonathan Miller's Mikado, it updates the period to the Twenties, transforming the fairies into genteel flappers, and adding other details that, as it turns out, serve rather than distort the text. Poor Gilbert does not emerge unscathed (when does he ever?). The lyrics need wittier phrasing than an overloud, overfast orchestra and the performers' own limitations permit. But Andrew Wickes, who directs, is not narcissistically determined to upstage his librettist. On the whole, he trusts Gilbert. That is the real need. We remember Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but not the tougher, more cynical play that inspired it, Gilbert's Engaged. We hum Sullivan, and perhaps know the words of the famous patter song about insomnia; but we tend to overlook one of the sharpest minds that ever turned a scurrilous line or subversive lyric. We hear, but are rarely if ever encouraged to listen.
Consider Gilbert's castlist, packed as it is with humbugs and drones: the fakeegalitarian landlubber from a pocket borough who becomes Ruler of the Queen's Navy for political conformism; the judge who marries [sic] the rich attorney's elderly, ugly daughter, only to ditch her when he has defended enough wealthy thieves to make his fortune; the Lord High Everything who traces his ancestry "to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule", yet dines with middleclass people "on reasonable terms"; the bent lawyers, the dopey peers, the sheeplike MPs. Gilbert was no radical. His biographer, Hesketh Pearson, was probably right to dub him "an anarchist disguised as a Tory". Nor was he any ferocious Juvenal or crusading Swift. Yet there seems more than mere impishness in his unending attacks on nepotism, jobbery, and incompetence, his mockery of social, moral and emotional pretension, up to and including the language of love. When the Pirate King says "compared with respectability, [our profession] is comparatively honest", he is summing up Victorian civilisation for Gilbert.
The acid is most concentrated in the rarely performed Utopia Ltd, about a state which imports "flowers of progress" from Britain in the belief that it is "the wisest country in the world", one without slums or hunger and run by an intellectual lite. This thesis is then disproved by the usual set of shysters, as well as by a Lord Chamberlain who demonstrates how to organise a Cabinet meeting with "due regard for the solemnity of the occasion". "This is in accordance with the practice at the Court of St. James?" asks the puzzled Utopian king. "Well, with the practice of St. James' Hall", replies the Englishman, who has arranged the chairs after the manner of some burlesque performers of the day, the Christy Minstrels. No wonder the old Queen and her comtemporaries were dismayed. The challenge surely facing a director today is to make us feel slightly stung ourselves; and there is, in my view, only one way of achieving that. It is to cast Eric Idle as KoKo, as Miller did in his Mikado, or to get Alec McCowen to play Captain Corcoran as a socially insecure suburbanite, as happened in an 1982 Pinafore. It is, in short, to take the trickier, subtler parts from the professional singers and give them to good actors who can sing a bit.
That way, Sullivan might not resonate so fulsomely, but Gilbert's irreverence might at last come across with clarity, humour and guile. Indeed, isn't it time the National Theatre gave at least one of the operas a go? If it can cope with Loesser and Sondheim, why not that great British wit, W.S. Gilbert?
By DAVID EDWARDS (reprinted from G&S News, May 1991)
I am sure that you will all have read of the notorious First Night of the "New" Company's GONDOLIERS at Birmingham, on Thursday, 7th March 1991. It is probably the only D'Oyly Carte First Night which was strongly booed by people in all parts of the House (outdoing even the famous Savoy First Night of RUDDYGORE in 1887). I was at the Birmingham First Night, and the Alexandra Theatre was packed with local dignitaries, celebrating their "capture" of both Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet and D'Oyly Carte Opera. I was not among those who booed (I was too numbed by what I saw to either boo or applaud!), but I recognised several people who did, and they included some eminent supporters of the Savoy Operas it would be indiscreet to name individuals.
[But I wish he had done! MPW].
Most of what you will have read about this production in newspaper reviews is perfectly true no matter how incredible it may seem.
It wasn't all bad, of course: the singing and orchestra playing were very good better than that of the "Old" Company when they were at the end of a long and tiring summer tour. BUT, the production and design were "something appalling!" Act One was set on a corrugated, tilted, bright yellow stage (with a postcard view of Venice on the backcloth) which hampered all movement and dancing (even worse than the oversize hat which formed the floor for Act One of the New Sadlers Wells' second production of THE GONDOLIERS in 1988). The gondoliers and contadine behaved like spoilt children, while the Ducal Party behaved as if they had escaped from an asylum, and, like all the cast, were dressed bizarrely. At one point in Act One, a large "prop" rat (on a string) sped across the stage, until it was stamped upon by the Duchess, who then proceeded to swallow it whole!
In the Second Act, the gentlemen of the Chorus watched a television set; while Giuseppe sang of the troubles of a King, they stared at the box, saying to him "We heard you!" and "That's all right". I have typed out a full description of the production, covering several pages; if you would like a copy, please send a stamped, addressed, 9" x 4" envellope to: David Edwards, 17 College Street, Brighton, Sussex, BN2 1JG.
[The "several pages" to which David Edwards too modestly refers, is actually a wellproduced pamphlet, which he is most generously offering to make available to any reader who wants it, for no more that the price of the envellope and postage. MPW.]
By ANGIE SCRIVENS (reprinted from G&S News, May 1991)
Despite hearing rumours of custard waves and stuffed corgis I was determined to view the new production of THE GONDOLIERS with an open mind. I am not opposed to new ideas providing that they build on the traditions of the past. Cheap gimmics and attempts to get laughs at the expense of the original I dislike and sounfortunately I could not enjoy very much of THE GONDOLIERS. The opening chorus contained nothing special, the custard waves seemed to impede the dancing and movements of the singers. The costumes were drab and uninspired and the entrance of Tessa and Gianetta insignificant. I liked the idea of holding up translations of the Italian phrases but, like everything else, this soon went over the top.
The Ducal Party were an abomination of Gilbert's script.
[Hear, hear! MPW]
Casilda seemed cheap, common and unable to keep still. The Duchess was grotesque and got progressively worse. I can see no relevance to her squashing and then apparently eating a rat. Neither can I see the value of putting her solo into Act 1. Luiz seemed a simpleton with a crownshaped punk hairdo.
[Oh, that's what it was! MPW]
The Duke had no humour and wore dirty pink tights in Act 2 when he removed his shoes, and I am sure that apparent links between the Mafia and the Vatican in the person of Don Alhambra is most insulting to the Catholic Church.
Act 2 started with the men's chorus eating hamburgers around a television set and a Baratarian throne in a highlighted position complete with snowstorm and stuffed bull. Most of the men's chorus were later moved on a conveyer belt past the Duke and Duchess to be knighted and then kicked into obscurity, by Casilda during the Duke and Duchess's duet. Although this was quite clever it added nothing to the production except to make the whole thing even more bizarre. If I had shut my eyes and just listened to the music I would have enjoyed it more. The singing was on the whole very good and the orchestra excellent. Few dialogue changes were made, although two of my favourite lines were missing "Just like a band!" and "Oh, they've often been convicted!". It is interesting how the audience laughed most at Gilbert's original humour and not at the gimmicks.
[DOC management take note. MPW]Some of the audience left early.
[No doubt they would have booed if they had stayed? MPW]
All around us the comments seemed to be "Well, it was an experience" one to avoid in future perhaps?
[Directors would do well to pay more attention to comments like this. MPW]
By DEREK WILLIAMS (reprinted from G&S News, May 1991)
It is unfortunate that the D'Oyly Carte are obviously poverty stricken at the present time. This can be the only explanation (excuse?) for the production of THE GONDOLIERS. It must be assumed that the set was designed at night whilst suffering from a nightmare the only explanation for the hideous yellow corrugated floor and the back drop which would not hang straight. This poverty also explains the need for cardboard cutout gondoliers; whilst the second act set was no better, with a stuffed bull and a snow effect (but only over the throne).
The costumes added nothing to the performance, the Duke was a matador, the Duchess a bull (cow?), whilst the chorus were clothed in garments that were dull and might have been purchased from a charity shop! If anyone can explain the psychological use of the exclamation mark and why the Grand Inquisitor had to crawl round the stage (he looked like Dracula and maybe the brightness at the end destroyed him) I would like to know. The use of stuffed corgis, the transfer of the Duchess's song to Act 1, the continual laying on the floor, just added to the total lack of taste of this show.
[Full marks for this terse and delicately subacid review! MPW.]
By DAVID EDEN (abridged from Sir Arthur Sullivan Magazine, Spring 1991)
Any remaining links with the traditions of the old D'Oyly Carte Company have been broken. Musical values are to the fore, and all traces of respect for the Gilbertian stagecraft have been abandoned. So much for the Revolution long overdue and desperately necessary;
[If David Eden really believes that a "revolution" against Gilbert's stagecraft has only just occurred with this production of THE GONDOLIERS, he must live in cloud cuckooland! MPW]
the Terror takes the form of a deconstructionalist production which substitutes a series of mostly philistine gimmicks for the intellectual effort that might have resulted in a coherent reinterpretation. First and worst the stage set (Nigel Lowery) is both raked forward at a steep angle and, in the first act, corrugated like an asbestos roof. The tilted corrugation, which occupies the whole of the available floorspace, is painted bright yellow. In the second act the surface is flat and the colour black, but the effect is the same in both cases: the performers spend so much time and effort avoiding industrial injury that they cannot relax and move freely; the dances (Caroline Pope) are restricted to inhibited shuffles rather less sophisticated than the conga, and only too reminiscent of the nugatory waggling one sees on the cramped stage of the local village hall.
The predominating colour in the production is black, offset in the first act by a large crudely tinted photograph of Venice placed at an angle. In the second act a red carpet leads up the slope to a single throne on which a constant stream of tinsel falls. A large model bull has tossed and gored a person whose feet alone are visible (in the air). Costumes work at the same dire imaginative level Nigel Lowery seems to have rather less aesthetic sensibility than a football hooligan. Dresses for the female chorus are simultaneously garish and dowdy, with no stockings so that their varicose veins are exposed. Only the PlazaToro family have a touch of the exotic; in each act the Duchess is given a bizarre crinolinelike dress, black and transparent (with black trous) in the first act, twelve feet wide and brocaded in the second. Casilda is dressed like a flamenco dancer, and the Duke like a matador.
Tim Hopkins' production builds, if that is the word, on Nigel Lowery's unhelpful foundations. At the beginning of the second act the men's chorus are shown watching television (Italy! World Cup! GEDDITT???)
[But of course, in Act 2 they are not in Italy! MPW]
while the two kings clean up takeaway food cartons and adjust the aerial. To accompany "A regular Royal Queen" models of corgi dogs appear (GEDDITT?), and whenever a point needs to be emphasised for the benefit of the mentally subnormal audience a large curtain bearing an exclamation mark is drawn across the stage. The curtain is red, black and white the same colours as a Nazi banner, and about as beautiful. To accompany "Small titles and orders" a succession of courtiers crawl up the slope to the throne to be knighted and then kicked aside by a bored Casilda. When she sings "When a merry maiden marries" Tessa is hoisted a few feet in the air on wires; it is hard to see why.
[I don't remember this, and think that this detail must mercifully have been deleted by the time the production reached London. MPW].
For "Buon giorno" the chorus hold up looksay cards of the English translation (Surtitles! Covent Garden! GEDDITT!!) Only in two aspects does the production illuminate [sic] the work. The first is in the case of Don Alhambra (John Rath) who becomes a sinister figure dressed in a lightweight linen suit with a Sandeman hat and cloak; his face is ghastly pale and he sports a bloodstained handkerchief. Delivering the lines in an exaggerated sepulchral style (shades of the old D'Oyly Carte) [sic]. John Rath makes one realise what a tame figure the traditional Don Alhambra had been.
[Yes, but he was clearly meant to be. Besides John Rath's rasping speaking voice jarred unbearably. MPW]
Almost as successful is the treatment of the Plaza Toros, who become simply mad. Casilda accompanies her meaninglessly plebeian speech
[What does this mean? MPW]
with melodramatic flamenco postures,
while her mother has her hair done in the shape of bull's horns; at one point she (the Duchess) swallows a rat. Once again we are in the presence of a defensible extension of the text [sic] inasmuch as Gilbert had a penchant for mad characters [sic], if not exactly for edible rats.
[But Mr. Eden gives no indication as to why he thought this bizarre treatment was successful. See what I had to say about the Plaza Toros in my review!! MPW]
Musical matters are on a different plane. John PryceJones conducts an ensemble which has no weak points, and one outstandingly good performance in the shape of John Rath's Don Alhambra. Quite simply the part has never been better sung [sic], or the lyrics delivered with more intelligence and style [sic]. All the other soloists reach a high standard of excellence, so much so that it would be invidious to single out individuals for praise. An accomplished chorus and nicely balanced orchestra complete the pleasure. Indeed it is the beauty of the musical performance which over and over again redeems the ugliness and stupidity of the stage picture, carrying the evening through to success in spite of the production.
[Everyone comments on the excellence of the singing, which was not my experience (see my review). However, to be fair, I did attend a matinee, and matinees under the Old Carte were notorious for their boredom and lethargy. MPW]
There was a certain amount of booing on the opening night, pointedly directed at the Director and Designer. The D'Oyly Carte management subsequently defended the production, saying that those who booed were traditionalists from outside the city. Unfortunately it is the traditional mediocrity which sits heavily on the show.
[What does this mean? MPW]
Iconoclastic productions of classics are open to many charges, the main one being that classics do not by definition require assistance from the avantgarde to make them modern. But if they are to be treated in this way then what is done should have some kind of quality or interest in its own right.
A comment on the new GONDOLIERS production by Benedict Nightingale appears in THE TIMES for Wednesday 10 April 1991, p. 13. Mr. Nightingale, the paper's theatre critic,
[Correction, one of the paper's theatre critics. MPW]
argues that productions like the present GONDOLIERS and the Joseph Papp PIRATES OF PENZANCE do scant justice to the satirical sharpness of Gilbert's original intentions. He thinks actors like Eric Idle or Alec McCowan "as a socially insecure suburbanite" should play the principal parts,
[No, only the comedy parts! MPW]
and suggests a G&S production at the National Theatre. "That way Sullivan might not resonate so fulsomely, but Gilbert's irreverence might at last come across with clarity". Your editor, mindful of the way in which Eric Idle sang flat in THE MIKADO, would like to add his own suggestion that any production by the National Theatre should dispense with the encumbrance of music altogether. That way a great many people might be saved from aural discomfort and a centuryold dispute might be settled for ever.
[It is most unfortunate that David Eden should have spoiled an otherwise reasonably perceptive review by the last paragraph above (actually printed as an addendum to his original review) in which he shows off his antiGilbert prejudices by deliberately picking out the one weak point in Benedict Nightingale's otherwise excellent article, and implying that the rest of the article is in similar vein. It is most unfortunate that Mr. Eden should be able to use his position as editor of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society to expose his prejudices in such a snide and sarcastic way, and that he should continue to feel the obsessive need to denigrate Gilbert in order to prove the greatness of Sullivan. MPW]
The April 1991 issue of THE PALACE PEEPER carried an editorial entitled "D'Oyly Carte News", the relevant paragraphs of which I reproduce below:
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is in the midst of a Spring tour of two new productions: IOLANTHE and THE GONDOLIERS. IOLANTHE, of course, was the first opera revived by the Cartes when they came back to life three years ago. That the company should be mounting a replacement production so soon, when other G&S operas (e.g. PATIENCE) have yet to be produced at all, seems to be a confirmation that their first attempt at IOLANTHE was as tasteless and boring as many of us indeed thought it to be. Early reports indicate that this new IOLANTHE is about as close as the New D'Oyly Carte has come to a traditional Gilbert and Sullivan production. The new GONDOLIERS, on the other hand, is evidently a debacle of major proportions. Critics have panned the production, which, among other things, features characters snorting cocaine, smoking marijuana and throwing a Bible on the floor. These "jokes" have been received in total silence, as well they should be. [This brought a sharp but rather silly rejoinder from John PryceJones, whose reply to editor Marc Shepherd was printed in the October 1991 issue of THE PALACE PEEPER]:
Dear Mr. Shepherd,
I am Music Director of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and, during our recent visit to Glasgow, I was interested to see a copy of the PALACE PEEPER; however, I was less than pleased to read the section headed, "D'Oyly Carte News" which is a highly prejudiced and unhelpful report of the Company's work.
[I thought it was a very fair comment! MPW]
For the record, we originally intended reviving the previous production of IOLANTHE, but that proved impossible for various technical reasons
[But he pointedly declines to say what these were!! MPW]
and therefore were able to create our extremely attractive and successful new production. The decision was certainly not arrived at because the original production was regarded as "tasteless and boring".
[The editorial did not actually state that the D'Oyly Carte considered their own production to be tasteless and boring, only that the audiences did. MPW]
Your article continues with the amazingly untrue statement that our new GONDOLIERS is "evidently a debacle of major proportions".
[That is purely a matter of opinion, and Mr. PryceJones is of course, fully entitled to his, even if nobody agrees with him. MPW]
The new production is certainly quite different from previous ones and responds to the totally different nature of THE GONDOLIERS as compared with the other main studies [sic] of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire.
[THE GONDOLIERS is actually a perfectly typical G&S opera!! MPW]
As you are, of course, aware,
[An interesting piece of pomposity. MPW]
the satire and structure of THE GONDOLIERS is considerably less specific and quite different from the other pieces.
[Wrong. The satire is more specific in THE GONDOLIERS than in some of the other operas. I don't begin to comprehend the meaning of the statement that the "structure" is "less specific" if indeed it means anything at all! MPW]
It is true that some provincial critics initially
[So far as I am aware, there is no reason to suppose that any individual critics have subsequently changed their views, as is here implied. MPW]
disliked the presentation,
[And a lot of the National Press too! MPW]
but I am happy to say that this situation has been almost completely reversed
[whatever that means ... MPW]
by a series of reviews, not only by local critics on our current tour, but notably by the majority
[but not all? MPW]
of our country's principal opera critics. [The quite sudden volte face after the production reached London is puzzling, unless a claque was at work! Is it possible that the DOC appealed to the Press to redress some of the potential damage done to their continued existence by the bad reviews at Birmingham? Or were the worst aspects of the production removed by the time it reached London? Or did the DOC's solicitor threaten action for libel? Besides, apart from Rodney Milnes (more of whom below) I still have been hard put to find a really enthusiastic reviewer. MPW]
I am enclosing a selection for your information and would be delighted if you would care to feature some in your next edition.
[I bet he only included the good ones! MPW]
Your writer also refers to characters in our production "snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana". I have yet to notice this!
[But he pointedly omits to mention the charge of throwing a Bible on the floor. Is that an admission that this did happen? MPW]
I am very happy to say that, whilst I am not happy with every aspect of the production, I am happy that it has been a tremendous success
[Which sounds contradictory. MPW]
and has brought the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company much needed and positive critical appraisal which should help us in our attempts to continue and indeed develop for a new audience
[And to hell with the old? MPW]
the great masterpieces of Gilbert and Sullivan.
[As Peter Sellars has done for Mozart? MPW]
Audience response to THE GONDOLIERS in particular has been extremely enthusiastic.
[See what Angie Scrivens has to say about that. MPW]
There were reports that the first night was marred by booing from the audience. We are reliably informed that only two people displayed their dislike of the production in this way.
[David Edwards and a number of other critics whose reports are reproduced in this issue, make it clear that a great many more than two people were involved. MPW]
This action has certainly helped the Company no end with its publicity.
[Oh, smug! And catty. MPW]
We all believe very strongly that the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are as attractive
[To call them "attractive" is merely to trivialise, or damn them with faint praise. MPW]
now as they always were. Of course Gilbert was a theatrical innovator and we aim to recreate the works in an "authentic" style
[It is obvious that Mr PryceJones has a different definition of this word to many of us. MPW]
thereby representing the creator's original intentions.
[By no stretch of the imagination can this GONDOLIERS be said to represent Gilbert's original intentions. MPW]
Obviously, we cannot do this by merely repeating the style and substance of presentations of a hundred or even twenty or thirty years ago, since this would not recreate for a present day audience the effect intended, certainly by Gilbert.
[Try it and see! It has worked with Sheridan and Checkov for many years! Has Mr. PryceJones heard of Pantomime? Repeating the old style hasn't done it any harm! MPW]
It is such a pity that some socalled Gilbert & Sullivan supporters/fans belittle these wonderful creations by suggesting that they can only be successfully performed in a specific and outdated manner.
[Neither I nor any of my correspondents claim that. Mr. PryceJones here reveals both his, and presumably the management's, total failure to understand the real reason for the objections to the production of THE GONDOLIERS. It was nothing to do with the fact that it was not "traditional" (in the narrow sense of the word), but that it was totally out of sympathy with Gilbert's text and intentions. It is a great pity that many socalled directors seem to feel that Gilbert's text is so poor that it cannot stand on its own, without the injection of cheap and irrelevant gimmics. If a director lacks faith in the text, he should not produce the play. MPW]
We believe that the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, like those of other great writers such as Shakespeare, Verdi and Wagner, are strong enough to withstand many different interpretations.
[It is quite obvious that G&S will survive productions like these! MPW]
Yours sincerely, John PryceJones.
[Both those who claim that only stickinthemud "traditionalists" could possibly dislike THE GONDOLIERS and that because it is new and different it must therefore be good, and those who take the contrary view, should ponder well the words of the ancient Hindu poet Kalidas:
Not all is good that bears an ancient name,
Nor need we every modern poet blame,
Wise men approve the good, or new or old,
The foolish critic follows where he's told!
In answer to Mr. PryceJones's charges of "traditionalism", I reprint a letter from Peter Goulding]
I have not seen the new D'Oyly Carte Company's production of THE GONDOLIERS and the initial reports do not entice me to do so. It seems that we are presented with another trendy sort of travesty. The new General Manager of the Company was quoted as pouring scorn on traditionalists. He might do well to remember that he possibly owes his job to those traditionalists who gave their support to the Friends of D'Oyly Carte during the dark days, on the promise of "fresh but authentic productions", at the time of the relaunch.
To be a traditionalist is not necessarily to be fossilised, as witness the Royal Navy for example. It is all a matter of style, fitness, and good taste. To quote the Duke of Plaza Toro himself "You want deportment, carriage, manner, dignity". If the new D'Oyly Carte is not really interested in maintaining the proud tradition I suggest that it should renounce the title and sever all remaining connections, including those of a financial nature.
PETER GOULDING (reprinted from G&S News, May 1991)
[Peter Goulding is the son of the D'Oyly Carte tenor Charles Goulding]
The following two letters appeared in the Scottish press shortly after the productions were seen in Glasgow, copies were kindly sent me by Derrick McClure:
AT ODDS WITH THE SPIRIT OF G&S:
Sir, Having now seen the new D'Oyly Carte production of The Gondoliers in Glasgow, I can well understand the booing that greeted its first presentation in Birmingham last month. The musical side of things was well done, and musical director John PryceJones no stranger to Glasgow is to be congratulated, but good Gilbert and Sullivan opera consists of more than orchestra and singers. The choreography was weak and inappropriate but the production (director: Tim Hopkins) was worse. Opera in general has suffered for many years now from the young whizzkid director allowed too free a hand, and it seems that Savoy opera is not to be spared.
This Gondoliers was contrived, puerile, and selfindulgent, with a spiky angularity and harsh outline totally at odds with the spirit in which these works were originally produced. Gilbert himself made very clear what he wanted in the way of production style when he said that "my aim is to treat a thoroughly farcical subject in a thoroughly serious manner". This production went in entirely the opposite direction.
The director's desire to be different and "to think of something funny to do" was almost palpable in the theatre, and one longed for Gilbert's shade to appear and remind him that there is no need to tell the audience that you are being funny they'll know! Stylised settings with the now almost obligatory raked acting area and unusual costumes I can take, but not the seemingly deliberate destruction of that unique amalgam which is G&S by way of the corrosive drip of a wayward director's experiments.
Mr. Hopkins should learn the value of understatement, of repose, and of sincerity. Most of the tender moments in the piece went for nothing. With a cast which frequently rolled about the floor, with much of the dialogue delivered in either funny accents or exaggerated tones, with the focus of the action blurred by extraneous bits of "business", this production lacked taste and charm surely two essential ingredients of Savoy Opera.
GEOFF DIXON 27 April 1991. (reprinted from Glasgow Herald, of a few days later).
Sir, Last Friday night (26 April), I attended a performance of the New D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's production of The Gondoliers, at the King's Theatre in Glasgow. What a superb musical evening. David Gibson conducted the D'Oyly Carte Orchestra with flair and imagination, and the musical pace never palled. The chorus sang well, and the principals, if not inspired, were a decent bunch of singers, with especially fine contributions from John Rath as Don Alhambra and Richard Suart as the Duke.
The question mark, or in this production the exclamation mark, comes with the production by Tim Hopkins. What on earth did it all mean? It certainly wasn't the story of The Gondoliers; gimmick after gimmick after gimmick with no rhyme or reason and eventually stage actions and movements which bore no relationship to the words and music which were being sung.
The poor old PlazaToros drew the short straw and were made to perform actions and accents of most dubious taste; and why was the Duchess's Act 2 song transferred to Act 1, making an already long act even longer? Reactions to this new production have, seemingly, been very mixed. But surely the serious question is why a company using the name of D'Oyly Carte has allowed a director to totally ignore the words, and, in some instances, the music of Gilbert and Sullivan?
No doubt Mr. Hopkins would be able to explain why he allowed the Duchess to eat a dead rat, why the Duke congratulated the gondoliers for mastering a gavotte which never took place, and why the contadine sang of binding their flowers into posies when they were doing nothing of the kind. An audience, however, should not have to ask such basic questions.
WALTER PAUL 29 April 1991 (reprinted from THE SCOTSMAN of a few days later).
[I would most particularly draw readers' attention to Mr. Paul's last sentence, a point which seems to be forgotten by a high proportion of theatre producers today, and not only in G&S. MPW]
IOLANTHE. King's Theatre, Glasgow. Monday 22 April 1991. Review by Linda Wood for GILBERTIAN GOSSIP
It was with mixed emotions that I sat in my stalls seat awaiting the overture for the first night of the weeklong stay in Glasgow of the New D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and as I listened to the excellent overture, conducted on the night by David Gibson, memories of many past IOLANTHE performances flashed through my mind, and I saw again in my mind's eye the nimble footwork of John Reed as he danced the trio. I hoped for a repetition of past happy nights but, sadly, it was not to be. The first half set bore no resemblance whatever to an Arcadian landscape with its raked rearstage entrance, strangelooking gnarled but perfectly straight tree trunks and chintzy chandeliers. The fairies' costumes, though 1920s, were quite fairylike in their material. Phyllis and Strephon, on their entrances, were dressed harmoniously in Regency costumes, but when they changed into 1920s clothes it jarred the senses. It would have been more logical to change into Victorian garb; but logic does not seem to matter any more to director Andrew Wickes and lighting designer Davy Cunningham. Why, for example, did Private Willis sing his solo in darkness with only a white side light shining on the lower half of his body? Why, when Iolanthe was pleading for Strephon to the Lord Chancellor, was her face spotlighted, and the Lord Chancellor, looking right at her still did not recognise her? Why was Mountararat wheeled around in a bathchair with one foot bandaged to indicate gout which magically disappeared to perform the trio? Why was Mountararat plainly 30 years older than Tolloller, making a nonsense of the "We were boys together" line? There were other errors in this vein which aficianados will readily notice which highlight the director's lack of understanding of the piece.
The Act 2 set of the Palace Yard was innovative, with an unusually angled Houses of Parliament and Big Ben stage left, but it was spoiled by using the tower of Big Ben as an entrance door, the side of the tower as a cocktail bar and the body of the House as a bed from which the Lord Chancellor rose to sing his Nightmare Song.
The performers as a whole were underpowered for an opera company. The only character to emerge with flying colours was Jill Pert's Fairy Queen. Miss Pert is the only original Company member with a principal role in the new Company, and her depth of experience and stage technique made her performance stand out from all the others. Russell Dixon's Lord Chancellor was disappointing. He hummed and hawed and screamed in fright and got through the Nightmare Song, but I have seen it played far better by the local amateurs, who could certainly teach this Company a thing or two! There was no business, no fun with the audience, and no dancing, as all his illustrious predecessors were so adept at performing.
When coming away from previous performances of IOLANTHE I have felt uplifted, happy and entertained. On leaving the halfempty theatre after this performance, all I had was a feeling of loss.
THE GONDOLIERS King's Theatre, Glasgow. Saturday 27 April 1991. Review by Linda Wood for GILBERTIAN GOSSIP
I feel sure that many other readers of and writers to GG will comment more fully on this highly controversial production, so I will merely limit myself to what I consider salient points and (hopefully) constructive criticism of the piece.
First of all, the orchestra, conducted on the night by Company MD John PryceJones, was quite excellent and breathed life into Sullivan's sparkling music. The choral singing was powerful and quite true to the meaning of the piece and all the principals, with, perhaps, the exception of Regina Hanley's Tessa, sang well, and "Sparkling Eyes" sung for once without any business going on behind, was a highlight. But oh! The production! WSG must be spinning in his grave! The first half set, with its undulating beach and picture postcard backdrop, quickly palled, and the necessity for the actors to jump across, and off and on, the rake, was jarring to the senses. And what on earth was the exclamation curtain all about? Granted, its employment allowed some subtle entrances and exits, but why?
As for the production of the Ducal party and the Grand Inquisitor, well, that just beggars belief! Why have the Grand Inquisitor made up like Jack Nicholson's Joker from "Batman"? Why have a Lorraine Chaselike Casilda performing as a ballet dancer? Would it not have been far more logical to have her as a flamenco dancer? And as for the Duchess! Oh, horror, horror! Her costumes were bizarre! If one considered her first half, el toro posturing as over the top, her elongated costume in the second half would have looked out of place on a pantomime stage! Why too, were songs and dialogue moved around? When a producer starts playing with Gilbert's words, which specifically tell him what to do and how to do it (viz. The Gavotte), then the producer obviously thinks he's better than Gilbert! Yes, I know that Gilbert cut and edited his shows while they were running, but he was content with the final versions, and so were, and are, his audiences.
Anachronisms are particularly irritating, and the most glaring one is the appearance of a television set at the beginning of the second act, with the viewers obviously watching a football match! Gilbert specifically states that the period is 1750. The costumes too, are anachronistic. The Gilbert and Sullivan Operas are all Victorian pieces and should be played as Gilbert dressed and directed them, not as some artycrafty young producer thinks they should be done.
[Though it should be pointed out that the old DOC did not dress the operas in the same way as in Gilbert's time. MPW]
There is always room for updating in theatrical techniques and settings, but these should be kept within the scope of Gilbert's directions. What we have here is a blatant disregard of Gilbert's stagecraft, forcing a highly talented company into extremes of posturing and business that are neither entertaining nor amusing to watch, and definitely distract the audience from both the words and the music.
I have heard that the audiences for this tour are down on what was estimated. Little wonder. If the management of the D'Oyly Carte continue to permit this kind of visual abuse of the operas the fans love so well, they will soon find thay have no audiences at all.
IOLANTHE. New DOC Sadlers Wells Theatre. Saturday 6 April 1991.
It seemed odd to be coming back after all these years, to see the "DOC" at Sadlers Wells Theatre, though perhaps the company should really be called "Not the D'Oyly Carte"? Having read devastating reviews of the new GONDOLIERS, I came prepared to hate this IOLANTHE, but in fact (to my surprise) I quite enjoyed it. I wasn't able to listen to the Overture properly, owing to herds of elephants thundering past to their seats most of the way through it. It was also not pleasant to realise on curtainup that the fairies were dressed in art deco. To one who hates art deco this was not a good start. (Besides, it is not very original to have flapper fairies, it has already been done, notably by Barnes and Richmond Operatic Society some years back. Was this producer rediscovering the wheel?) The set was a great curving ramp which went up stage right and along the back, with a few symbolic trees on the left. For Act 2, the ramp remained, and the trees were replaced by some oddly proportioned models of the Victoria Tower and the Houses of Parliament, which turned into a cocktail cabinet, and the Lord Chancellor's bed, respectively. The stage pictures were quite pretty but on the whole the production tended to be gimmicky. I could see no reason for the art deco, except to be different the whole point about fairies, surely, is that they should be seen to be timeless what is the purpose of tieing them to a particular fashion and period?
However, the good points of the performance lay in the excellent cast the strongest I have seen assembled for a G&S production for a long time. Far and away the best was Jill Pert as the Fairy Queen. If the interpretation erred at all it was in the direction of making the Queen too human, too vulnerable, too real. But listening to and watching it was sheer joy. Contraltos tend to be bombastic in this role, the lines rolling off authoritatively Jill Pert showed how warm, how intelligent the Queen could be. She got more out of it than anyone else I have seen. For the first time, the New DOC got the casting of the comic baritone right, by opting for an actor who can sing. Russell Dixon was trained at the Bristol Old Vic and has created a number of roles in plays by Alan Ayckbourn at Scarborough (including Dafydd in A Chorus of Disapproval). He was a sturdy, whimsical Lord Chancellor, quite unlike the customary egocentric "look how funny I am" baritones previously seen in this role. Laurence Richard was a vintage portly Mountararat in the Donald Adams style, who was allowed to sing "When Britain really ruled the waves" perfectly straight, about the only number in the show which was staged without people rushing distractingly round the stage. However, I totally failed to see the reason why he had to appear for part of Act 2 in a bathchair with his foot in plaster.
Philip Creasy seemed to be playing Tolloller as a take off of Ronnie Corbett. The director evidently thought the George/Thomas scene was very boring, for he contrived to have an attendant mixing cocktails all the way through it, thus ensuring that noone listened to the words. Phyllis (Elizabeth Woollett) and Strephon (Philip BlakeJones) appeared as traditional Dresden figurines in Act 1, Strephon changing into diplomatic dress for the finale, which he wore for the rest of the performance. Phyllis for Act 2 wore a most unbecoming 1920s black evening dress. They both sang and acted adequately without creating memorable personalities. Regina Hanley was an adequate but pallid Iolanthe, John Rath a stolid Willis.
In this production justice was done to Sullivan, but not much to Gilbert with the notable exception of Jill Pert, who had an insight into her role apparently not posessed by anyone else connected with the production. The attitude of the director, Andrew Wickes, seemed to be to make it look pretty, end of assignment. (Incidentally, the costumes seem to have been altered since the production was first mounted, the photograph of the Fairy Queen which appeared on the posters, and indeed on the front cover of the programme, was not the one used in the production that one could be seen ilustrated inside the programme!) Iolanthe made her entrance from a hole in the ramp from which dry ice mist billowed. It was quite effective in an odd gimmicky sort of way. At the opening the fairies were serving and drinking tea from trays and a trolly beautifully laid out with petit fours, a jelly, etc. Yes, all very pretty no doubt but what on earth had it to do with Gilbert's text? One almost expected them to break into a number from Thoroughly Modern Millie! Yes, as I said, I quite enjoyed it, but I didn't stay for the curtain calls, and I left with no real desire to see the production again. It certainly told me nothing about Gilbert that I didn't know before.
THE GONDOLIERS. New DOC. Sadlers Wells Theatre, Saturday matinee 13 April 1991.
Clement Scott thou shouldst be living at this hour, G&S hath need of thee. Now we know that it was the outraged ghosts of both Gilbert and Sullivan who burned down the Savoy Theatre united at last after 90 or so years of separation. I thought I had seen the bathos when I described the New DOC's PIRATES OF PENZANCE as a tasteless travesty. This GONDOLIERS was both obscene and disgusting. I had heard terrible accounts of the production, but it was far worse than I had ever dared to fear. When the Duchess killed and then ate a rat which ran across the stage during "In enterprise of martial kind" I very nearly left the theatre then and there, but I restrained myself until the interval. Not only was the production witless, but musically it was the most boring rendering of a G&S I think I have heard. All the singers were fully competent, but not one of them sounded like principal material, at least on the evidence of their performances in this production. I cannot think when I last heard such uninteresting singing, not one of the cast exhibited the slightest musical individuality. Compare this with the 1927 recording (the "Lytton"); every one of the cast in that recording has an individual timbre and personality. In this production one had the feeling that all the men and all the women were musically interchangeable no differences between them were discernable. Nor did anyone really act but this was perhaps not their fault, in view of the idiotic way they were made to deliver their dialogue.
The curtain rose on an undulating floor cloth, like an enormous piece of yellow corrugated iron. Why? At various points a red curtain with an exclamation mark was drawn across. Why? The cast and chorus were forced to negotiate these undulations by running up and down over them (while singing!) in a bizarre sort of perpetuum mobile. Why? Other than this there was little on which to comment in the opening sequence, and I began to think the production was merely tiresome. The arrival of the Plaza Toros made me think differently. They arrived in a packing case, delivered upside down. Why? The Duke (Colin Morris) spent his time holding a matador's cloak at arm's length, racing frenetically up and down over the undulations, windmilling his arms. The Duchess (Nuala Willis) wearing trousers under a transparent hooped skirt, seemed like a caricature of Carmen Silvera (" 'Allo 'Allo"). Luiz (Philip Creasy) wore a white powdered wig with punk spikes on it (Why?) while Casilda spoke in a voice more usually associated with a slut than a peeress.
But it was the delivery of the dialogue in the Plaza Toro scenes which caused the greatest concern. Casilda (Elizabeth Woollett) spoke her lines in a flat unvarying tone with no commas or full stops, equal accents on all the syllables and exactly equal spaces between all the words the sort of delivery generally heard from primary school children in their end of term productions, and which their teachers spend hours and years trying to discourage. (In fact, this admirably sums up the production infantile). I would not, of course, insult Miss Woollett by supposing that she spoke in this way of her own volition; it was evident that he had been so instructed.
During the "Regular Royal Queen" quartet, a corgi appeared dressed as Queen Elizabeth II. Why? I found this offensive, and a gross insult to Her Majesty. After "In enterprise of martial kind" the dialogue cut to Act 2 with "well whatever happens I shall of course be a dutiful wife ..." leading to the Duchess's song. The reason for this was totally obscure, and I didn't wait to see what happened at that point in Act 2. Don Alhambra (John Rath) was a snarling Mafia boss not very original; lots of producers have thought of that before. Again, the artificial delivery of the dialogue made the role very difficult to listen to. The final Gondolier sequence was boring, with once again, people rushing about, up and down the undulations in seemingly purposeless fashion. Elizabeth Elliot, formerly of Imperial Opera, was Giulia. A Gilbert and Sullivan opera is not a musical, the characters have an integrity which needs to be interpreted. If a director believes that it is necessary to have everybody frenetically rushing about all the time if the piece is not to become boring, then clearly he does not understand the text. I left at the interval feeling deep regret that the company had been reformed, and hoping that it would soon close down again.
[It now occurs to me that the eating of the rat may have been intended to indicate that the Ducal Party were starved, having arrived as stowaways from Spain in a packing case. But this did not occur to me till long after I had seen the production. Business of this kind ought to be clear to the audience, if it isn't then it has failed. A producer/director who is unable to judge or understand what will and what will not work on stage, is not fit to be directing amateurs, let alone professionals. MPW]
By Rodney Milnes (reprinted from OPERA, June 1991). Reporting on the Company in London, at Sadlers Wells on 2 and 4 April 1991
I wager Tim Hopkins's is the first production of The Gondoliers to feature simulated copulation (when the womenfolk arrive in Barataria they make up for lost time),
[Strange that no other critic seems to have noticed this! MPW]
just as it is probably the first to have been received with a storm of booing on its first night (Birmingham, in March). This is certainly the first notice of mine to have elicited a letter of complaint before it was even written, from a reader (now an exreader) who feared I might treat it too mildly.
[I'd love to know who this exreader was. He and I would have a lot to talk about. MPW]
The Birmingham first night hit the front page of The Times, which is more than the Chreau Ring ever did, not to mention more recent operatic scandals. After what has been done to Wagner, why should the mildest [sic] of assaults on The Gondoliers vie with the Kurdish crisis or Borisstyle powerstruggles in the Kremlin for our attentions? What is it about opera that arouses such passion? Ducking that question for now,
[Why ask the question and then decline to answer it? Journalistic bombast perhaps? MPW]
I can only report that I laughed long and loud at Hopkins's and his designer Nigel Lowery's way with a piece that has always seemed to me one of the trickiest in the canon.
[But he doesn't really explain why. MPW]
For all the skill and invention, there's a daintiness, an Edwardiangardenparty smugness about much of the score,
[Yes, but no more so than the other operas, and in any case it's a point in its (their) favour, not the reverse. MPW]
a dangerous wavy line between parody and pastiche [sic], an element of unwelcome sentiment, and by this stage in the partnership the routines have become, well, routine.
[What does this mean? MPW]
Lowery's and Hopkins's only crime is to have acknowledged Gilbert as archexponent of a certain anarchic and surrealist strain in English humour traceable through to the Goons and Monty Python,
[Questionable reasoning. MPW]
and applied their comic techniques to him. And why on earth not?
The set for Act 1, is a huge, undulating yellow tile with a tilted postcard of Venice behind it, that for Act 2 even zanier, with the Wesleyan Methodist mentioned only with a hawkandspit by the Inquisitor featured high up left
[What does this mean? MPW] and an outsize TV for the courtiers to huddle round with their takeaway suppers.
The brand of humour was established when one of the contadine proved to be allergic to roses in the opening chorus, and we went on from there.
[The reviewer must be very easily amused. MPW]
[actually subtitles! MPW]
for "Buon giorno signorine", some in Russian, inevitably got in the wrong order,
Why inevitably? And presumably the reviewer is implying that he found humour in this "inevitability"? MPW]
the chorus were directed as the prunes they so often are,
[What does this mean? MPW]
there were some good [sic] corgi jokes [sic] in "Regular royal queen", and the dialogue was as highly stylised as the movement all in the manner of Hopkins's mentor Richard Jones in his production of Ostrovsky's Too Clever by Half.
[Since it cannot be assumed that an average reader of Opera would have seen or be familiar with a production of an Ostrovsky play, this comment is a snide form of journalistic oneupmanship. MPW]
Like it or not (I loved it)
[But he never really explains why. MPW]
The Gondoliers will probably survive. Iolanthe, a much sturdier craft in less need of help,
[What on earth does this mean? MPW]
received a correspondingly more traditional yet no less witty and knowing production by Andrew Wickes. Fairies as flappers (with their own Some Like It Hot girls band),
[What does this mean? MPW]
Strephon got up as a right raver in Act 1,
[Here he merely betrays his lack of knowledge of the tradition, since Strephon was actually in traditional costume. If someone is going to criticise or mock tradition, he must first understand it. MPW]
and the fairy jokes played up to the hilt and beyond, seem not to have sent G&S stalwarts to the barricades. Yet stalwarts and the less committed will surely have been encouraged on both evenings by the keen young chorus and orchestra under John PryceJones and by the standard of casting. Such expert comedians as Nuala Willis and Richard Suart (Duke and Duchess), David Fieldsend (a mellifluous Marco), Regina Hanley (a charmingly daffy [What?] Irish Tessa) and especially Elizabeth Woollett (a Casilda with pretensions to stardom in the Bolshoy Ballet [Oh!]) executed Hopkins's production with loyal verve. Miss Woollett was also a sharp and aware Phyllis in Iolanthe, partnered by Philip BlakeJones's spry Strephon. John Rath (Don Alhambra and Pte Willis) emitted streams of granite bass tone (as if auditioning for Hagen) but not quite enough words. Russell Dixon started promisingly by playing the Lord Chancellor as an archetypal Dirty Old Man, but following Gilbert's lead, retreated into the safety of cosy eccentricity. With lively productions like these, not to mention Keith Warner's Pirates of two years ago, the future of D'Oyly Carte looks pretty rosy.
[NB: There is one sentence referring to the music, and this in Opera of all magazines. This review reads as though someone in authority were leaning on Mr. Milnes. He said he laughed long and loud at the production: I laughed long and loud at his review. I replied to it as follows, a much politer letter than I wanted to write, but "inevitably" it was not published. MPW]
The Editor, Opera, 1a Mountgrove Road, LONDON N5 2LU
Sir, I read Rodney Milnes' review of the New D'Oyly Carte's Gondoliers with great interest but with a slight mixture of disbelief. It is a pity most people seem to assume that those who object to "modern" productions of Gilbert and Sullivan do so on the grounds that they are not "traditional". My objection to Gondoliers was quite simply that I found it bad theatre. The most brilliant production of G&S I have seen in recent years (possibly ever) was H.M.S. Pinafore set on a submarine in 1945. But this had been carefully thought out and everything was apt and meaningful, which is not the case with these New D'Oyly Carte productions.
Gondoliers was musically the most boring and unfunny rendering of a G&S I think I have heard. I cannot think when I last heard such uninteresting singing; not one of the cast exhibited the slightest musical individuality. Compare this with the 1927 recording (the "Lytton"); every one of the cast in that recording has an individual timbre and personality. In this production one had the feeling that all the men and all the women were musically interchangeable.
But it was the delivery of the dialogue in the Plaza Toro scenes which caused the greatest concern. Most of them, but particularly Casilda, were required to speak the lines in a flat unvarying tone with no commas or full stops, equal accents on all the syllables and exactly equal spaces between all the words the sort of delivery generally heard from primary school children in their end of term productions, and which their teachers spend hours and years trying to discourage. (In fact, this admirably sums up the production infantile!).
Unlike Mr. Milnes, I found the corgis offensive, and a gross insult to her Majesty. And perhaps someone would be kind enough to explain the dramatic significance (no doubt very profound, but its profundity totally escapes me) of the disgusting episode when the Duchess kills and eats a rat?
It may be worth considering the now famous words of Gilbert, his muchquoted preliminary note to the text of ENGAGED:
It is absolutely essential to the success of this piece that it should be played with the most perfect earnestness and gravity throughout. There should be no exaggeration in costume, makeup, or demeanour; and the characters, one and all, should appear to believe, throughout, in the perfect sincerity of their words and actions. Directly the characters show that they are conscious of the absurdity of their utterances the piece begins to drag.
This dictum applies of course, not only to ENGAGED, but to all Gilbert's stage works, just as it applies to the work of those influenced by him e.g. Wilde, Shaw and Coward. Every single point outlined by Gilbert is violated a hundred times in every stage production by the New D'Oyly Carte, as it has been in nearly every professional production of a G&S opera in Britain over the last decade. No one would dream of subjecting the work of Wilde, Shaw or Coward to this treatment, so why Gilbert?
The main problem with G&S today, and certainly with the present company, seems to me to be that more and more it is being cast with opera singers. But G&S requires a very high degree of histrionic technique which comparatively few opera singers possess. When first written, and indeed up to the 40s and 50s, it occurred in an artistic background of light opera and "old style" English musical comedy which involved a particular type of voice, of actors well versed in light operatic roles. This type of performer hardly exists in Britain today. Yours faithfully, Michael P. Walters, 22 August 1991
Susan Lally, a member of the Nova Scotia Gilbert & Sullivan Society, saw both productions while on a visit to Aberdeen, and here review is here slightly abridged from THE KATISHA SCREAM, June 1991.
No G&S aficianado would turn down the opportunity to see the D'Oyly Carte perform. So it was that I found myself in the picturesque city of Aberdeen, Scotland early in May at the same time that the D'Oyly Carte was performing there. In His Majesty's Theatre, a recently refurbished structure which boasts the only circular bar in Britain, the D'Oyly Carte company complete with 35 piece orchestra had settled to perform their latest versions of Iolanthe and The Gondoliers. Rumours had already trickled to Canada that these two productions were far from the "authentic" interpretations produced by the company in the past. The programme notes by musical director, John PryceJones, cemented the idea that with these productions, the company was embarking on unknown territory. The new approach, says PryceJones, remains "true to the company's main aim: to present our repertoire in a new and exciting way, which is both faithful to the author's texts and original intentions and, at the same time, entertaining and stimulating". Musically both The Gondoliers and Iolanthe were superb. The orchestra provided a rich full sound which at no point overwhelmed the singers. Almost without exception, lead performances and choral blending were polished, secure renditions.
What I did take exception to was the staging of The Gondoliers. I do not regard myself as a purist and am always happy to see new interpretations of the material which enhances or embellishes the story line. However, the set and costumes used in this Venetian opera were awkward and cumbersome, serving to hinder rather than enhance the action. The most striking difficulty was the "floor" of the set. In an attempt to give the audience a view of the action at the back of the stage, a new sloping floor was placed on the stage floor. The surface was bright yellow and undulated like waves on the sea. This meant that the entire cast were up and down like yoyos on the uneven stage surface, which, unless the actor was extremely graceful, gave the impression of a herd of clumsy amateurs. The costumes, particularly the women's chorus were unattractive and uncomplimentary. In the first act they wore white blouses with grey skirts which had "roses white and red" attached to the surface of the material. They were designed on the sides to give them wide hips. In the second act, the girls, having arrived from a trip on the sea, wore black and white spotted skirts, white hats like those worn in the jungle, carried white back packs and wore white highcut sneakerlike shoes. The most disappointing performance was Tessa, who clearly was not the audience pleaser she could have been. She has some funny lines, the humour of which was not developed in this production.
Iolanthe, on the other hand, was brilliant. Russell Dixon's portrayal of the Lord Chancellor was superb. It was hard to believe that this show was performed by the same cast. The set was a masterpiece of ingenuity. A long wide raised pathway, very high at the back of the stage, sloped down to the front and curved giving the impression of a bridge over a stream. In the centre of the long pathway was a trap door for Iolanthe's dramatic appearance from the bottom of the stream. Three trees near the front of the set had circular bases at different heights thus allowing the cast to stand or sit as required. The long raised pathway also provided a marvellous entrance for the chorus of peers. The second act maintained the large sloping pathway but the trees were replaced by the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Intriguingly, the Houses of Parliament were hinged in a fashion that when the Lord Chancellor rose to sing the nightmare song, the top of the Parliament opened like a coffin to reveal the Chancellor lying in bed. Big Ben had working doors in it from which props were obtained at times during the act. And in a stroke of genius, one side of the cabinet opened to reveal a liquor cabinet which was used when "George" and "Thomas" were soliloquising [sic]. And in the second act the long ramp provided a dramatic way for Iolanthe to appear to be returning to live among the frogs. The costumes were gorgeous. The fairies shimmered. The most striking departure from the norm was the second act portrayals of Strephon and Phyllis. Strephon wore a 1920s suit and Phyllis a black sequined cocktail dress. It enhanced their second act performances.
And lastly, David Skelly saw both productions at Manchester, and felt very differently about them than the rest of the critics.
THE GONDOLIERS. Palace Theatre, Manchester, Wed. 19 June 1991 matinee.
Having read reviews of this production beforehand, this reviewer approached the afternoon more in dread than in anticipated pleasure. However, one was pleasantly surprised. The Director (Tim Hopkins) had approached the piece as an example of Theatre of the Absurd in the style of Brecht or Ionesco. This treatment showed that Gilbert's work will stand the test of time. The important thing to remember was that there was no tinkering around the edges; the piece was approached in an original way. Many other "modernisations" have fallen between two stools and hence been totally unsatisfactory. Any changes to be made must be intelligent. The use of lighting was innovative, particularly during the CasildaLuiz scene in Act one and the entrance of the Grand Inquisitor in the same act. References to Bull Square ("Plaza Toro") in the set for Act 2 did not go unnoticed, particularly coming from a company based in Birmingham where the Bull Ring is a landmark. It was difficult to understand the rationale behind Casilda's constant pirouetting and Brummy accent, and the Duchess's dress in Act 2, but then it was all totally absurd. The overall impression was one of seriousness. It was a pity that one member of the audience, offended that the sacred name of D'Oyly Carte should be associated with a "travesty" of G &S, showed forth his feelings by slow handclapping. He succeeded in spoiling other people's enjoyment.
IOLANTHE. Palace Theatre, Manchester. Thursday 20 June 1991 (evening).
This production was hailed as a "traditional" one, but there were more liberties taken with it than with Gondoliers: updating the fairies to the 1920s; transforming Big Ben into a drinks cabinet; the Peers playing cricket instead of singing the March of the Peers properly; the Earl of Mountararat in a bath chair (there was no earthly reason for this); the mace bearer blowing a raspberry at Strephon (vulgar); the nonappearance of the Lord Chancellor's Attendant. Lawrence Richard played Mountararat with the right amount of humour. Was his makeup deliberately designed to remind one of photographs of Gilbert in his later years? Jill Pert was a suitably regal Queen of the Fairies and every word could be heard at the back of the theatre. This reviewer noticed two small boys who were fairly bored by the whole experience.
[This remark should be especially noted by those who claim that the new productions are designed for young people!
One wonders if this "modernisation" of Gilbert's directions has somehow taken the magic out of these works: no encores any more (or at most one); no more "flapping wings" for the Lord Chancellor at the end.
TO SUM UP
It would seem that what has been happening in DOC and in G&S generally, is only a small facet of what has been happening in the world of opera as a whole. Rodney Milnes, who had so lavishly, and ridiculously, praised The Gondoliers (above), actually said in the course of an editorial on opera funding (Opera, January 1992, p. 11):
Traditional opera audiences were priced out of the Garden [Covent Garden] in the 1970s, and there is now a danger of that happening in St. Martin's Lane [The English National], where a discernible policy is emerging of damn the traditional (i.e. knowledgeable) audience and go all out for some undefinable new one, with a chickenandegg combination of expensive stagings devised to attract an unoperatic audience with more money that discernment.
It is clear that this is D'Oyly Carte's policy too. The irony (or merely caprice?) of these contradictory remarks on "tradition" from the same pen will surely not be lost on my readers.
Furthermore, it seems that a similar violation has just been perpetrated on the English National's Die Fledermaus (which I deliberately did not see). Once again the designer is Nigel Lowery, the producer Richard Jones, who, according to Rodney Milnes, is the mentor of Tim Hopkins. Michael Billington panned Die Fledermaus in Opera (February 1992) referring to it as:
grotesquely overdesigned and like Miller's Mikado (though I seem to be in a minority of one on this) [no your'e not], it conveys such mocking derision for the original that you wonder why the producer accepted the undertaking in the first place.
His entire review is almost word for word what could be said about The Gondoliers. Send Mr. Billington to review G&S please, Mr. Milnes, and stay at home yourself!
It may be profitable to attempt to look at the reason for traditionalists's feeling of outrage at restaging of G&S which obviously is not understood by opera critics and designers. I think it must be that G&S fans regard the characters in G&S operas as real people, and object to their redefining in the same way as they would object to the redefining of characters in a soapopera. The recasting of a character in a soap has never, as far as I am aware, been successful. The recasting of Mrs. Dale was the beginning of the end for that series, and when Barbara bel Geddes was replaced in Dallas, the outcry was so great that she had to be reinstated. It is generally accepted that if an actor dies or leaves the series, the character is written out. Imagine the public outcry if (say) Coronation Street were to be staged on a different network, using the same scripts but with a different cast, and setting the action in (say) Chicago. The result would be ridiculous, for the same reason that the New DOC's Gondoliers is ridiculous.
Bizarre and surreal productions destroy the psudoreality and suspension of disbelief which many feel instinctively to be an essential part of G&S. Nobody could believe that the characters in the DOC Gondoliers had the slightest connection with reality. In this respect Gilbert got it right. To understand how his mind worked, read his short stories.But perhaps the most important point of all, is that in a modern world there should be room for both traditional and avant garde productions to please all tastes. People should have the choice. Directors must not have the arrogance to dictate what the public may see. The New DOC seems to have taken a leaf out of Grand Duke Rudolph's book "the entire [G&S] population will be commanded to enjoy themselves ..." No Englishman worthy of the name will take that lying down. Still less an Irishman! MPW.
Page updated 3 February 2001