SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
Gilbert & Sullivan, The Yeomen of the Guard: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Manchester University Gilbert & Sullivan Society (MUGSS), Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 2-5.3.2011 (RJW)
Each year, Manchester University students and former students stage a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Their aim is to provide a version that is extravagant, amusing and generally refreshingly different. Since staging their performances at the RNCM's well-appointed opera theatre they have been able to extend the visual interest in staging. This year the White Tower features, complete with practical battlements. An appropriate Tudor Rose motif appeared on the costumes and in gobo projection of different colours on the tabs.
The Yeomen of the Guard seems to be fashionable in recent years: it was a choice of production for the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was chosen as the new professional production at last year's Buxton Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, the latter being taken to Oxford to play open-air in their castle grounds. So with two recent productions in mind how has the MUGSS version faired?
Of the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, The Yeomen opera is the only book by Gilbert that has none of the make-believe or topsy-turvey elements found in the rest of the Savoy operas: it has a very human plot which leads to appropriate humorous situations. Gilbert got his idea from an Uxbridge station poster, and although this gave him a worthwhile location to set his opera, the plot itself is a re-working of Wallace's popular Maritana (1845). In both, a poor girl earns money by being wedded, blind-folded, to a prisoner about to be executed. The Yeomen marks a departure from the rest of the Gilbert & Sullivan canon by opening with a solo character and song instead of the traditional rousing Victorian chorus number. This requires a strong level of impact as well as expertise in using a spinning wheel! In this production we bypass the spinning wheel and instead, Phoebe plays to frozen chorus couples who give different forms of amorous courtship before being dismissed. The novel opening is a good one and works well because of the excellent stage presence of Pheobe. Throughout, the chorus were strong and related well to Hannah Smith's excellent choreography. Her groupings were always interesting to look at and fitted the mood perefectly, particularly the light dancing of Elsie and Point in 'The Merryman and his Maid'.
A superb rendering of that lovely, unaccompanied, 'Strange Adventure' was particularly appreciated because it is so easy for professionals to end up out of tune with the orchestra. Here all stayed perfectly in tune, so 'bravo' for that. Jon Gibson's orchestra played always at good tempi and provided an excellent overture (despite his being locked away in the White Tower, so we are told): it was good to observe the orchestra was sensitive to dynamic changes, like the nuance of swell between the verses of 'I have a song to sing, O'. The strings played energetically and accurately throughout. Although not playing too loud, the solo voices did not always carry above the music from the pit. The RNCM is a big stage and extra effort in voice projection is always necessary; but to be fair this was the first night I went to see and adjustments were likely to follow.
The cast was strong, and the real stars of the show for me were the bold stage characters portrayed by Phoebe (Helena Say), & Jack Point (Ed Owens), both of whom captivated the audience; and lovely singing from Elsie (Melody Nairn), Fairfax (Andy Owens), Leonard (Nicholas Bennett), Kate (Lizzy East) & the 1st Yeoman (James Hendry). The usually missed out song of Sgt Meryll 'A laughing boy' here had one verse taken by Leonard. Both sang well and this change made good sense of the lyrics.
An excellently presented 'Oh, a private buffoon' was sung excellently by Point in front of chorus line-up on whom he could base characters in his lyrics. A departure from the norm that worked well was having Point deliver 'Oh thoughtless crew' from the battlements, and later dragging himself on stage for Elsie's responding verse. Good timing for the climatic end was well judged.
The programme this year was the most visually appealing of those I have seen and carried an informative set of production notes. The audience welcomed the effort put into this impressive production from the MUGSS's company.
Raymond J Walker