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If you put 50 G&S buffs in a room they would each produce a different list of The Very Best of G&S. So naming this concert was a bit like leading with one’s chin. That said, it was a very enjoyable evening of light theatre and costumed delights, with a good selection of items from seven of the thirteen surviving operas by Arthur Sullivan and WS Gilbert – works of such brilliance that they have informed the style and structure of light musical theatre ever since. The balance between numbers worked well, although given the plethora of great material to draw upon that would not have been difficult (hence my jibe at the title of the show).
Stuart Maunder directed, compèred and played the patter roles very adroitly and the cast was largely in good form.
One of the strengths of the evening was hearing the music backed up by a full orchestra. As the collaboration between librettist and composer evolved, more weight was placed upon the contribution of the orchestra. One can get away with using a piano reduction in HMS Pinafore (although I wouldn’t recommend it) but you simply can’t with Yeomen or The Gondoliers – by this stage in the collaboration the tonal contribution of the orchestra had become very important.
This showed in the overture to The Yeomen of the Guard which opened the concert. It is the eleventh opera in the G&S partnership, for which Sullivan enlarged his orchestra by adding a second bassoon and third trombone (absent on Saturday night). A small masterpiece, the overture made a bold start to the proceedings. The strength of the full orchestra also came to the fore in excerpts from The Gondoliers. The rich orchestral texture behind When a Merry Maiden Marries was an utter delight, enhancing Dominica Matthews’ fine singing. Full marks, too, to Amelia Farrugia for her sensitive interpretation of The Sun’s Whose Rays from The Mikado. This is one of the most beautiful songs in light opera, the hushed strings and decorative woodwind moving effectively behind the beautiful setting Sullivan gave Gilbert’s jewel of a lyric.
In the spirit of the evening, Stephen Smith was a rambunctious soloist, tossing off the various tenor roles with aplomb if a little carelessly at times. His Italianate warmth certainly helped in the more romantic numbers such as Were You Not to Ko-Ko Plighted. For too long the twee tenors of the old D’Oyly Carte tradition hampered these parts.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Richard Alexander’s performances. He evinced a one-accent-fits-all approach to characters as divergent as Private Willis in Iolanthe and The Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance. He swallowed his words, and it difficult to decipher many of the lyrics.
Apart from that and a few vulgarisms (did Poor Wandering One need to be sent up so frantically?) the program was well performed. Maunder proved himself to be a top-notch patter man and his witty, freshly penned lyrics for I’ve Got a Little List from The Mikado brought the house down in hysterics.
What an evening like this demonstrates is how much great material there is in these works. Hit followed hit in the form of songs, ensembles and choruses. There is a first time for everything, but I’d never really noticed the watershed moment that occurs in the second act of Pirates. This is where the policeman, the Major General’s daughters and soloists sing When the Foeman Bares his Steel. Musically and dramatically, Sullivan’s masterly setting of this ensemble moves the structure of the operas in a more interesting direction. The double chorus, for which he was to become famous, arrives in full flight at that point. It provided one of the best moments in the concert, and reminded me that the best of G&S usually resides in the ensembles.
The SSO under Guy Noble played the music spryly, although the chorus of Cantillation didn’t project into the hall particularly well.