The Yeomen of the Guard (English National Opera)
The Yeomen of the Guard contains the best of Gilbert and Sullivan: a pair of cunning plots that intertwine to perfection, a sublime blend of comedy and pathos, and an earworm-filled score that marries bubbly wit with genuine emotional weight and dramatic. It’s not easy to pull off – the libretto, written in faux Elizabethan, doesn’t easily trip over the tongue – but in the right hands the situational humor is genuinely funny, while the flippant cruelty of its conclusion can make you cry. the public.
English National Opera‘s new production is a matter of chance. Jo Davies’ directing looks good, and its 1950s update is a good idea, albeit inconsistently conducted. Chris Hopkins leads a well-done narrative from the score, and the vocals are pretty decent. The acting, however, sometimes falters. It falls to Richard McCabe as heartbroken jester Jack Point to land the opera’s emotional body shots.
Gilbert set the action in the England of Elizabeth I, hence the faux-Tudor dialogue. Moving it to 1953 and the coronation of Elizabeth II is a fair enough idea, and the action begins promisingly with the opening interrupted by BBC News footage of rail strikes and Beefeaters performing their ceremonial duty at the official opening of Parliament (moreover it has changede). We are also told, in those familiar BBC tones of yesteryear, of the arrest of military hero Colonel Fairfax on charges of espionage (a change from the libretto where he is falsely accused of witchcraft).
Davies made many such changes to the text to avoid self-imposed anachronisms. Some work, some don’t. ‘Jester’ is virtually absent, replaced by ‘comic’; ‘master’ becomes ‘boss’; and “family fool” becomes “qualified fool” (although in 1953 the Commandant of the Tower of London would surely not employ a comedian, job title changed or not). And while it’s possible a man was hanged in the 1950s (the last man executed in England was in 1964), I’m pretty sure the UK government didn’t employ professional torturers (at least not officially). Still, most of that is forgivable, and the Brexit references in Point’s Patter Act II song raise a sad smile.
Curiously, beyond the opening, there’s not much that evokes the 1950s, other than Anthony Ward’s rather elaborate costumes. It’s as if the director got her concept lighted and then immediately ran out of ideas on how it would light up the script. Worse still, Davies seems uncertain whether this is a serious opera or a musical theater piece. It is, of course, potentially both, but she never quite commits one way or the other. It leaves fleeting moments like the tap-dancing soldiers of the Queen’s Guard feeling out of whack (not to mention their annoying, totally unmotivated moves behind Colonel Fairfax as he sings Free from its sinister chains).
Otherwise, Kay Shepherd’s choreography has an old-fashioned, quaint quality to it – think Royal Variety Show c. 1950 – much of which works well. What’s missing is situational humor. Surely more of Phoebe’s fake seduction could have been done on Wilfred while her father steals the keys (here, oddly, needing a ladder to reach them).
Davies’ biggest misstep is putting on the trio of Ruddigore in Act II in place of the comic duo of Sergeant Meryll and Dame Carruthers Rapture, rapture. Executed as an unhinged quartet, the number not only needs most of its lyrics rewritten (and still has nothing to say in the context of the story), but it’s taken at such a labored tempo that the famous punchline – “that particularly fast, unintelligible crackle is usually not heard and if so, it doesn’t matter” – is rendered so intelligibly that it could be followed by a Dutchman.
Another problem is dialogue. Without pointing fingers, some singers struggle to deliver it comfortably or naturally. The result is a shrewd stillness and fatal lack of rhythm, especially in Act I, which tends to drag on. Act II is generally more effective, especially when the choreography clicks into place and picks up the musical numbers.
Ward’s ensemble comes into its own in the second act as well. In Act I, the stage feels oddly expansive, especially for interior scenes, with only a distant view of the White Tower to place us. In Act II, the rotating 3D white tower takes center stage, while the nighttime backdrop of a looming Tower Bridge (opened in 1894) and misty skies create a mesmerizing atmosphere (the detailed lighting by Oliver Fenwick is excellent throughout). Add the everyday dark blue uniforms of the Yeomen Warders and the crisp 1950s hemlines of Dame Carruthers – here upgraded from housekeeper to deputy tower governor – and her cohort of female soldiers and the picture is so complete. convincing.
The singers range from excellent to adequate. Ironically, it’s McCabe, a man with an exceptionally unremarkable singing voice, who wins the laurels here. His Jack Point, sort of a cross between Max Miller and Tony Hancock, is wonderfully three-dimensional. By downplaying almost everything, and with some delicious ablibs, it not only comes across as hysterically funny, but also touching and vulnerable. His drunken reappearance at the end is an emotional punch.
Australian soprano Alexandra Oomens builds on her excellent Josephine last year HMS apron to create another well-sung and well-balanced character, even if she seems a little posh for a street performer. She certainly invests in Elsie’s dilemma and sings her heart out in It’s done, I’m a bride. She also has a real rapport with Point, which comes through in their convincingly acted out dialogue.
As Fairfax, Anthony Gregory’s bright, forward-thinking tenor could use a little more heat, but he deploys it elegantly enough and has some lovely hushed moments. Dramatically, Davies fails to deal with his cruel and selfish behavior, resulting in a game that sometimes feels disconnected from the text.
Heather Lowe’s rich mezzo is ideal for Phoebe, and she plays it with just the right amount of naive sensuality. She is also very adept at digging into the lyrics. A little more direction could refocus part of the arch and bring out a real woman who is unexpectedly going through her first experience of true heartache. As her potential lover, jailer Wilfred Shadbolt, John Molloy grows in stature as the evening progresses. His scenes and songs with Jack Point are the comedic heart of the series, with Here’s a rooster and bull story the most beautiful number of the night.
As Dame Carruthers, Susan Bickley musters all the pride and sternness necessary, singing with authority but without quite possessing the terrifying low notes for one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most pugnacious harridans. Neal Davies’ Sergeant Meryll is played softly, bringing out the sentimental side of the character. Vocally, he’s on top. Steven Page resembles the tower lieutenant with the stiff upper lip, although he can find more comedy in the man’s unimaginative and humorless side. Innocent Masuku and Isabelle Peters sing well in the small roles of Leonard Meryll and Kate.
In the pit, Chris Hopkins leads a detailed reading of Sullivan’s best score. His tempos are well judged and the whole thing has a thrust that propels the drama forward. There are, however, issues here and there coordinating tempos with the scene leading up to the oddly tattered moment. The ENO choir sings with energy and commitment, although the mix might take some work, especially the women. Strangely, the singers are amplified. Nick Lidster does a good job of balancing the vocals, although at times the orchestral sound can use lift.
English National Opera has struggled of late to maintain its artistic standards and prove its relevance. In recent days, Arts Council England (ACE) ended his vital core funding, offering a grant instead to help him move to Manchester. This uneven production somehow reflects the dilemma of which company could surely do better and which may have contributed to the downfall of the axe. Nonetheless, ACE’s short-sighted decision is bad news for the art form, and especially for operetta fans. If the company leaves town, I don’t see the Royal Opera House setting up G&S anytime soon.
The Yeomen of the Guard plays at the London Coliseum until December 2. More information here.