Director Polly Graham has given this vibrant RWCM&D ensemble a fresh take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, by including the relationship between the musician, the librettist and the pair’s entrepreneurial partner entwined within the tale of the two Venetian brothers.
It worked extremely well and, with some extra dialogue, and some references to other Victorian writers, gave a more nuanced reading of the work while not distracting from the fun and frivolity of the Victorian farce. I say farce, but as with much of the pair’s output, it is a political satire ridiculing the establishment, aristocracy, monarchy and the status-driven.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas are frequently updated to include contemporary references, particularly political, and this could have added another level to this show, perhaps including a certain recent royal wedding and own Welsh cracach and politicos’ peculiarities. Rather, Graham draws an analogy between the two bothers who think that one of them is heir to a throne and the other the son of a gondolier, but ultimately it turns out they are both cut of the same cloth. Meanwhile, one of the celebrated creatives believes operetta is beneath his musical genius and the librettist’s writing style cramps his work – yet the main success comes from them working together.
Here working with designer Harry Pizzey, lighting designer Evie Oliver and movement director Rosalind Hâf Brooks, Graham has incorporated some of the back story of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, such as the composer’s desire to produce more meaningful opera, and their relationship with Richard D’Oyly Carte who had built the Savoy Theatre for their work and the limitations this created. It starts with the struggle to persuade Sullivan to collaborate on another Savoy Opera, as the antagonism in the highly successful musical and business enterprise reaches its most intense.
This is achieved through the same singer-actors playing the creators and their creation and the drama happening in a Victorian study which is transformed into a Venetian scene. In the second half of the opera, in Barataria, we do have a new set but when a wall is breached it reveals that study behind the fallen façade. D’Oyly Carte becomes the Grand Inquisitor in the Venetian romp.
This conceit requires some nifty adaptations and inventive stage craft, including the characters climbing through a large cupboard, Lewis Carroll-like, to move between these worlds, a balloon powered flying gondola descending, a versatile gallery that switches between being a display for large porcelain urns in the Victorian study to the battlements of Barataria. We also have other touches of nonsense literature with the characterisation of key figures and their semi-grotesque behaviour.
There are lots of comic touches, such as performers dressed as babies to make crying sounds as our unlikely heroes hold their new-born offspring (the wives turn up nine months after their marriage); the feisty would be Queen of Barataria calling her lover Luiz a different wrong name all the way through the evening, concluding with Llywelyn.
There is a special enjoyment of a sparkling comedic opera that here requires much physical dexterity having a young cast with all performers with boundless energy as they climb, tumble, cavort, and clearly delight in their work. The principals, of course, hold our attention but throughout the show each individual creates a character to add to the richness of the overall production.
On the evening of this performance the two pairs of married couples were a light charming tenor from Huw Ynyr Evans as Marco and a warm soprano from Margaret Daly as Gianetta, an elegant Guiseppe from Aaron Holmes and a promising rich mezzo from Aimée Daniel as Tessa. The ridiculous Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro are taken with aplomb by Edmund Caird and Christine Byrne with Casilda and Luiz sung with whimsical delight by Louise Geller and Jack Bowtell. Timothy Patrick slipped effortlessly between being D’Oyly Carte and the Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra while there was great hilarity from the zany Inez as sung by Anna Pul-Shan Chan.
This show demanded a cast of singing and acting talent. Completing that strong cast were James Brock, Antonio; William Pearson, Francesco; Michael Smith, George; Verity-Belle Atkinson; Vittoria, Rhiannon Morgan; Emilie Cary-Williams, Giulia and Jack Parry, Annibale.
Alice Farnham captured the joy and ebullience of the score which, while lacking as many well-known Gilbert and Sullivan tunes as some of their works, it surfs a rich range of musical styles from around Europe as the composer create this last popular success.
What a delight it has been – and continues to be – watching these young artists grow and develop at RWCM&D.