Thursday, 24 November 2011

Opera North's Ruddigore at the Barbican

Photo: Robert Workman

Opera North’s Ruddigore had received glowing reviews when it was unveiled in Leeds early last year, and I was very pleased to be asked along to the Barbican to see it. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, though. And I should admit I’m no paid-up G & S fan, even though I did a brief stint in King’s College London’s esteemed G & S society (Gilbert was an alumnus of King's; Mike Leigh popped by, apparently, to see our Pirates as part of his research for Topsy Turvy). 

I’ve seen Jonathan Miller’s classic ENO Mikado a couple of times: once nearly fifteen years ago, with a sense of untrammelled glee; a second time, four or five years ago, with a slight sense of weariness. This is all very well, I can remember thinking, but I was constantly reminded of other operas and wished I was hearing them instead. I can also remember finding something a little dispiriting about what I felt to be the whole 75%-capacity-ness of the idiom, that we apparently hear a composer happily coasting and singers and players never being unduly taxed by demands made upon them. And if The Apprentice has taught us anything, it’s that nothing less than 110% is sufficient these days.  

Such a feeling, of course, comes in part out of inappropriately gauging Gilbert & Sullivan against the various criteria -- inherited from the nineteenth century -- traditionally used to judge artistic achievement. A composers’s importance relied on his or her ability to keep up with the avant-garde; a work's on whether or not it had much to do with whatever the Weltgeist was dictating. Gilbert & Sullivan are so gloriously unconcerned with these sorts of things, though, that it’s impossible not to like them. That these two Victorian gentlemen could produce Ruddigore in 1887, five years after Wagner gave the world Parsifal, provokes a special sort of admiration. (It’s probably best not to extrapolate here into the sort of national stereotyping, though, that takes special pride in the very moderateness of G & S compared to Wagnerian extremes.) 

We should also, naturally, bear in mind that, as with virtually any collaboration, the end work hides all sorts of behind-the-scenes struggles (David Russell Hulme outlined these in a programme essay). Ruddigore still has certain number of seams showing, but, as Hulme and Gary Yershon (in his note) explain, the piece was actually trying to reconcile several different aims, while its preposterous plot featuring curses, ancestral halls coming to life and a Mad Lady accompanied by Lucia-like flute was parodying above all the hoary melodramas beloved of the British stage at the time. (There’s a bit of an introduction to the piece in Opera North’s trailer, below).

Maybe this little pre-amble is designed to assuage the slight sense of guilt I feel for having enjoyed this show, sharply and cleverly directed by Jo Davies, so much. I think it’s probably too late for the sort of conversion Michael Simkins described in an amusing programme note (‘Sometime in 1973 … an incident occurred that changed my life forever. Overnight my well-ordered life spiralled out of control as I found myself in the thrall of forces beyond my ability to resist. I’d fallen for the Savoy Operas’), but I realise once and for all that there’s a very special sort of pleasure to seeing these works done well. And here it was unequivocally done well, with Davies striking the perfect balance between knowingness and affection that seems so essential for making these pieces work. We’re never allowed to take anything too seriously, but nor is there ever any sense of condescending to the piece’s period quaintness. Quaint it might be, but a lot of it still comes across as brilliantly sharp. 

None of it would have worked without the whole show being so snappily executed. The Opera North Orchestra did have moments of unsteadiness, and the Barbican Theatre’s acoustic gave them nowhere to hide in the overture, in particular; but generally ensemble was tight, the footwork was snappy and the movement around the stage choreographed with the sort of precision that can’t help but raise a smile. The cast all sang, acted and danced their way through the evening with aplomb. The men, I felt, were particularly good: Grant Doyle was a charming Robin Oakapple, Hal Cazalet was full of boundless energy as his half-brother Richard Dauntless and Steven Page outstanding as Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. 

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