Set squarely in the 16th century, this late work by Gilbert and Sullivan uses the conventions of romantic opera of the 19th century. Director Jo Davies, however, updates the action to the 20th century at the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation. It is good to see ENO offering its first ever production of this relatively unfamiliar piece, but the result is a mixed bag: it seems torn between acknowledging the opera’s underlying seriousness and resorting to the burlesque style on which G&S had turned their backs.
Davies, who has done superb productions of Kiss Me Kate and Carousel for Opera North, is nothing if not thorough in her approach. She starts the evening with 1950s newsreel clips (“Rail Strike Chaos” runs one headline), shows the Yeomen in their off-duty changing rooms and turns the accusation against the unjustly imprisoned Colonel Fairfax from witchcraft to one of espionage. But the updating makes only partial sense – a threatened public hanging on Tower Green seems excessive even for the 1950s – and although the opera is about misplaced passion and unrequited love, Davies is determined to jolly things along.
The Yeomen swivel their hips and flash their skirts in the act one finale, the jester Jack Point makes the inevitable reference to Brexit and, lest we miss the familiar G&S patter song, Davies imports one from Ruddigore.
Musically, however, things are in excellent hands. Chris Hopkins conducts Sullivan’s score with finesse and there is a standout performance from Alexandra Oomens as Elsie, the street entertainer who, although loved by Jack Point, becomes Fairfax’s wife and who delivers Elsie’s great showpiece, “Tis done, I am a bride” with a fervour that would not be out of place in Donizetti. Oomens is matched in intensity by John Molloy as the saturnine gaoler, Shadbolt, and there is accomplished work from Anthony Gregory as the pent-up Fairfax, Heather Lowe as the smitten Phoebe and Susan Bickley as the Tower’s deputy governor offering history lessons to her female charges.
But Jack Point is the key role and one that Richard McCabe turns into a mix of Osborne’s Archie Rice and Shakespeare’s Autolycus whom he once played in an RSC Winter’s Tale. Although more of an actor than a singer, McCabe looks dead right with his check suit and kipper tie. He catches the sweaty desperation of the professional comic and makes his climactic breakdown truly moving. If I still find the production’s tone uncertain and Anthony Ward’s design too insistent on the Tower’s grimness, I am glad to have seen a work that deserves greater prominence in the G&S canon.