A key to the success of the comic operas written by the English Victorian team of librettist WS Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan in the late 19th century was how they addressed the social and political issues of the day, encapsulating issues with a razor-sharp wit within a comic framework. This has been the enduring legacy of their work even though the social norms they discussed are light years away from our world today. One imagines that they would have had a field day with issues such as Brexit, Donald Trump and even climate change, for example. It is an important consideration when updating their work, essential to any modern interpretation, as to how it then becomes relevant to our time and place.
Roxane Hislop and chorus in Opera Queensland’s Ruddigore. Photos © Stephen Henry
In Lindy Hume’s sparkling new interpretation of Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse, the scenic elements and costume designs by Richard Roberts are pivotal to the production. Steeped in the English humour of the Goons and Monty Python, the set is based on Terry Gilliam’s 1980’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus with its cardboard cut-out characters, Alice in Wonderland oversized teapot and teacup and even a flying hot-air balloon delivering white cricketeers, a nice touch. This visualisation was both sumptuous and refreshingly modern, highlighting the gothic melodrama with a tongue-in-cheek approach to the etiquettes and social norms of the day.
The Victorian costuming included strait-laced female outfits for the young ladies of the chorus and the heroine, Rose Maybud, alongside Mad Margaret’s opening Miss Haversham frock to the glorious absurdity of the Murgatroyd ancestors and their Scottish family portraits. Adding the villain’s costume and Dracula cloak for Sir Despard Murgatroyd and the mariner’s blue and white outfit for Richard Dauntless were Pythonesque. Missing was Gilliam’s obsession with Victorian bathing huts and those wonderful striped bathing costumes, despite some tantalising images on the front cover of the programme.
Jason Barry-Smith and chorus
Lindy Hume’s production centres on squeezing as much humour and energy as possible out of this strange anachronistic piece, with its absurd story and characters. In doing so we get a fairly straight reading of the original text with the inclusion of antiquated language. This was fun up to a point but, outside of the visual elements, the work failed to include any current social or political commentary. This was a pity as it is what Gilbert and Sullivan constantly strove to achieve. There were some terrific ideas, visual and musical gags, but one wondered where the connection was to us today.
Nevertheless, there were some terrific directorial elements including Dauntless’s seduction of the girls in his opening scene and their hot-blooded reaction. Mad Margaret and Sir Despard’s conversion into moral beacons of society in the form of Salvation Army officers raised an interesting societal comment. The smutty sexual references, mostly involving the character of Richard Dauntless, (with plays on the word ‘Dick’) and his interactions with Robin Oakapple, had a certain resonance with British humour but seemed like an ongoing cheap gag. A marvellous piece of business visually was the Murgatroyd portrait gallery turning into the actual ancestors, which worked beautifully.
Andrew Collis and chorus
Andrew Meadows had much fun with the lighting. There were Dracula-imaged red and black spotlights involving villains and ghosts, much use of smoke machines and a myriad of gothic storms with rolling thunder and lightning.
Rosetta Cook’s choreography included traditional maypole and Morris dancing alongside an inspired use of the Salvation Army tambourines both in the dance between Sir Despard and Mad Margaret as well as in the finale where all the cast took to the stage with relish.
Bryan Probets and Andrew Collis
The artists, both singers and actors, were excellent – they entered into their quirky and one-dimensional roles with much gusto and commitment, bringing characters to life and adding a sense of reality where often none existed. The incomparable Bryan Probets was splendid and believable as the hero, Robin Oakapple, and reluctant villain, Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, while Natalie Christie Peluso’s Rose was his perfect foil, singing prettily with wit and charm. Jason Barry-Smith’s Sir Despard turned evil into moral rectitude with suitable panache while Shaun Brown’s Old Adam added a delightful modern take on the servant role. Andrew Collis gave a fine rendition of the Ghost Song as Sir Roderic, joining the delightful Roxanne Hislop as Hannah in a poignant duet. Christine Johnson, in her element as a very mad Margaret, delighted audiences with well-timed business including a burst of bad tuba playing. The chorus sang and danced their way through the score with aplomb.
Christine Johnston and Natalie Christie Peluso
However, given the complexity of the story, it was not always easy to follow the dialogue and often impossible to understand the songs, particularly the patter songs. Even though the artists worked very hard to deliver, the relevance of this clever Sullivan invention is lost if one cannot understand the words. Kanen Breen’s Richard Dauntless suffered from this as his accent, which was a strange mixture of West Country and Irish, made it difficult to understand much of what he either spoke or sung.
Musically the Queensland Symphony Orchestra played well and it was good to hear such a strong rounded sound for G&S, which is often played with a much smaller orchestral base. Roland Peelman conducted briskly from the opening overture throughout and his rhythm and beat drove Sullivan’s music precisely to keep the action flowing. While the patter songs need to move swiftly, it would have helped the artists, and the audience’s comprehension, to slow this down a little.
Overall, this was an entertaining and fun night, with a terrific production, good artists and great visuals. However, the froth and levity could have been helped by a text that included more contemporary and relevant humour.
Opera Queensland’s Ruddigore or the Witch’s Curse is at QPAC until July 29.