Classical Music

Reviews of the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company at Buxton

Reviews of the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company at Buxton

Emily Vine (Mabel) and chorus in the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company’s

production of The Pirates Of Penzance at Buxton Opera House 2022

The Pirates of Penzance

The Gilbert & Sullivan Festival is back
at Buxton – hurrah! A full week of performances at the Opera House there
precedes two weeks of continued festival in Harrogate, so there’s the best of
both worlds for G&S lovers.

The shows diary is very much the same as it
used to be in the days when Buxton had the festival to itself: a different title
almost every day, with the festival’s own National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
Company leading the way (they’re also doing Iolanthe and Utopia Ltd,
a relative rarity), plus the pick of the crop of other specialists in the Savoyard
repertoire – this week that’s The Gondoliers (Forbear! Theatre), The
(Peak Opera), HMS Pinafore (Opera della Luna), and Charles
Court Opera with their own concoction called Express G&S plus Patience.

The Pirates of Penzance was done with the familiar painted sets but re-costumed for
director Sarah Helsby Hughes’ fresh take on the piece. She kept all the
original script and music, but sent us on a kind of time-warp to the 1930s,
where, even if professional pirates still looked the same, Major-General Stanley’s
daughters were beach belles in Act One and appeared in fluffy nighties for Act
Two, and lovers Mabel and Frederic at one point transformed into Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers. There was plenty of dancing by a gifted cast and chorus
(choreographer Eleanor Strutt), and just a few knowing tweaks of the familiar
lines and situations. I loved it, and the Opera House audience hardly ever
stopped laughing.

The music was in the expert hands of John
Andrews (of Red Squirrel Opera fame) and the playing by the festival’s own
National Festival Orchestra was unimpeachable – a small but well balanced
ensemble, under a conductor who knew that getting the words across was the
thing that mattered most.

The principals line-up was, as ever before,
a mix of new talent and experience. Stalwarts from the old days included Bruce
Graham as Sergeant of Police, Louise Crane as Ruth and James Cleverton as the
Pirate King – all needing no introduction to the faithful and completely on top
of their jobs. Matthew Siveter, as the Major-General (in a kind of Boy Scout
uniform, to suit the time-warp), has already made his reputation in the G&S
field and proved just how with a superbly rapid “I am the very model …” patter

RNCM-trained Aidan Edwards was an extremely
strong and clear Samuel, and the three lead daughters, Catrine Kirkman, Kate
Lowe and Alexandra Hazard, vamped things up delightfully. And for Frederic and
Mabel we had two classy singers: David Webb’s tenor never less than noble and
Emily Vine’s soprano hitting the high notes with panache.



Iolanthe was the first of this year’s shows
performed by the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Buxton and in John
Savournin’s production very much follows the formula of tradition-with-tweaks.

Nothing to frighten the horses or the purists
(no re-wording of “Oh, Captain Shaw …”, for instance), despite the fact that of
all the G&S canon its references today seem furthest removed from the present-day
world: we don’t even have a proper Lord Chancellor now, and our House of Lords
is far from being made of blue-bloods alone.

But a visit to the festival at Buxton or
Harrogate is almost like travelling back to Victorian/Edwardian times anyway,
and no one seems to worry about a storyline whose point is all to do with a
long-gone legislative and judicial establishment, with a Lord Chancellor in
charge of wards of court and membership of the house of peers requiring nothing
other than breeding – add to that the romantic Victorian fascination with
fairies and you are soon into an innocent fantasy world with its own rules

There’s just the occasional sharp-eyed reflection
on the nonsense (I liked Phyllis’s response to Strephon’s revelation that he
was half-fairy and only half-man, as Emily Vine snapped out her line: “Which
half?”), and today you can hardly avoid a titter over the line “She’d meet him
after dark, inside St James’s Park, and give him one …”, but that’s as far as
the double-entendres go.

Merry Holden is the choreographer, and the
ever hard-working cast and chorus have moves that require some co-ordination and
sometimes recall the much-loved skipping around of the old D’Oyly Carte
routines (in “If you go in, you’re sure to win”, for instance – which got its
equally traditional encore). The music was again in the expert hands of John
Andrews, with the National Festival Orchestra providing flexible and sympathetic

And stand-outs among the principals, for
me, were Matthew Palmer (Strephon), an excellent young tenor still at the
outset of what should be a very successful career, and Meriel Cunningham
(Iolanthe), who has a rich mezzo-soprano tone and real clarity. Matthew Kellett
enjoys rattling off the patter as the Lord Chancellor; Matthew Siveter has his
spot of glory as Private Willis; Emily Vine is a winsome Phyllis and Amy J
Payne an imperious Queen of the Fairies; and Ben McAteer and Hal Cazalet enjoy prancing
their way through as Earls Mountararat and Tolloller.

Utopia Limited

One of the orchestra members was using the
audience loos (which are few anyway) before the show at Buxton on Friday night,
so I asked him whether they didn’t provide enough of them backstage.

“Yes,” he said, “but they’re all full of
the turns, warming up their voices.”

A tangential illustration of one facet of
producing Gilbert & Sullivan’s next-to-last operetta, Utopia Ltd
there are an awful lot of “turns”, i.e. people in the cast.  That’s probably one reason why it’s not done
very often.

So credit where it’s due: the International
Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, this year beginning at Buxton and moving on to
Harrogate, did us all a good turn by offering the first fully staged professional
revival of it (apart from the D’Oyly Carte’s one attempt) back in 2011, and here
it is again.

Jeff Clarke, of Opera della Luna fame, is
the director, with Jenny Arnold his inventive choreographer, and John Andrews conducts the G&S Festival’s own National
Symphony Orchestra.

The piece may, when written in the early
1890s, have been a bit derivative of past Gilbert-Sullivan glories: Gilbert’s
plot is about a distant island that decides to improve itself by adopting all
the benefits of Victorian English society – the rulers (and some members) of
the Army and Navy, a lawyer, a county councillor, a Lord Chamberlain, and a
crafty businessman on the make, and of course there’s much flouncing around in
posh costumes and drinking of cups of tea. Cue jokes at the expense of all of
that, and there are references in the script (and in the score for the latter
of them) to both The Mikado and HMS Pinafore.

Clarke has removed the
locale from the “luxuriant and tropical landscape” of the original book to a
generally Middle Eastern one, with palms and porticoes.
He leaves it to the
expertise of performers such as Robert Gildon and Giles Davies (as the Wise Men
of pre-reform Utopian society) and Ben McAteer to get the story over in Act
One, which they do with excellent diction, and there is a delightful character study
from Monica McGhee (as Princess Zara, the daughter of the kingdom who returns
from Girton College, Cambridge, to share all she’s learned of enlightened
society) – she’s absorbed the Queen’s English so much as to sound like the Queen

Cunningham and Rachel Speirs (the latter stepping up from chorus duties to take
the role on 5 August) portray her sisters, the young princesses Nekaya and
Kalyba as feisty young ladies with their own ideas … an aspect of Gilbert’s young
heroines that’s increasingly drawn on these days.

Clarke really gets into his stride is the early part of Act Two, with nice
touches from lighting designer Matt Cater for a night-time setting, and Anthony
Flaum, as Captain Fitzbattleaxe of the First Life Guards (who we soon learn is Princess
Zara’s love interest as well as security detail), is very funny as the romantic
tenor singer who’s never quite able to deliver when he’s not in the mood. That’s
soon followed by a song for the British gentlemen who represent the “Flowers of
Progress” – complete with visual props, a mock encore and present-day references
to the NHS and fuel prices in its final verse.

these Britishers I admired Tim Walton’s highly theatrical Lord Chamberlain and
the cockney wide-boy given by Paul Featherstone as businessman Mr Goldbury, and
Katharine Taylor-Jones also impressed as The Lady Sophy – the nearest Utopia
gets to an elderly bossy-woman role. Cameron Mitchell, Aidan Edwards,
Stephen Godward and Ciarán Walker all make strong contributions.

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