The Venetian Sun Shines on the Buxton Stage
August 7, 2012
A number of professional productions are played during the Buxton Festival each year and in 2012 a new production of The Gondoliers by Jeff Clarke graced the stage. Jeff is the driving force behind Opera Della Luna, whose sparkling, humorous and imaginative stagings have been widely seen in the UK. All have been eager to see what this version of G&S’s twelfth opera has to offer.
W S Gilbert always said the chorus must be used as in integral part of any show, not just embellishing the music and standing around inactive. Here they convincingly dress the set with useful individualised stage business; maidens industriously forming floral decorations, butch gondolieri hoisting their Mediterranean sails, and later balletic and mincing courtiers. The choreography by Jenny Arnold complemented the music admirably. In “For every one who feels inclined“ where Marco & Giuseppe are making statements about ‘being equal’ as they go to individuals in the chorus who give a mimed negative response. (This is the first time I have seen this meaningful action used and it works.)
The cast were exceptional and all on good form, both in singing and acting: this was led by the believable and strong performances by a quietly authoritative Donald Maxwell, fussy and bubbling Richard Gauntlet, and sniffy and broody Jill Pert. Gilbert has given an excellent script for colourful characterizations of these roles. Stephen Brown and James Cleverton were an energetic and amorous duo who acted convincingly: their wide use of the stage was convincing. They harmonised nicely and showed that they worked well as a team. Victoria Joyce and Victoria Byron sang sweetly yet with strength, particularly in their solos, “When a merry maiden” and “Kind Sir”. (I was not taken by the West country action used to inject a common touch because after all we are hearing Italian translated for British ears in the performance.) Daniel Hoadley and Jeni Bern made much of their minor yet important roles: their convincing sincerity came across nicely in their duet, “There was a time”. The quintet, “Try we life long” was neatly balanced.
David Steadman took the opera at a nice pace and brought out strengths in the score with extra rallentandi that were not overdone. The Buxton Festival Orchestra (under leader, Sally Robinson) played superbly, accenting audibly Sullivan’s Italian-laced filigree and pizzicati.
Somewhere in a Clarke production there is always an unexpected turn to tradition by introducing a surprise element. Here he does not disappoint by having the large, dominant, realistically made ceremonial throne revolve to reveal a prison cell with a bare-footed Inez bound in chains. It brings more relevance to “Speak woman speak!” when prodded like a witch about to be dispatched. For me the long side panels of sky clouds with the horizon at floor level did not work and gave a bleakness to the stage whereas convenional wings are resourceful to break the line of sight.
A stylized set, although sparsely filled for the bustling opening scene, had much originality and was superbly painted by Paul Lazell’s studio. For me, it worked to a better extent than that Sadler’s Wells ‘postcard’ Gondoliers we saw some 25 yrs ago. Visually, the appeal lay in the carefully executed backdrop with a large panel of a St Mark’s, Venice vista in embossed relief, like a Wedgwood or an Elgin marble set against clouds. Wonderful! This flies at the end of the Act to allow a gondoliers’ boat to bounce over imaginary waves. Cleverly the walls of abstract clouds double up as walls of velvet in the saturated primary red lighting of Act II’s palace scene (using the Samoiloff effect). ‘Freeze motion’ sequences were effective in “When a merry maiden marries”, the cast holding their uncomfortable positions magnificently. The lighting was good, especially in catching the relief on the richly decorated throne and most effectively with the amber cross lighting in Act II’s “In a contemplative fashion”.
Tony Brett and his team provided magnificent costumes: a mixture of styles from the Louis XIV cocker spaniel wigged Duke and Don Alhambra to a more modern Sheringham/Goffinesque chorus with their floral/contrasting robed chorus blended well. The colours filled the stage admirably. Hilarious was the Act II black thigh-booted and wide-skirted Duchess, who entered with her back to the audience so that the joke wasn’t spotted until she turned round. The make-up also had its humour with Michael Gove/Ventriloquist high line eyebrows and doll-rouged cheeks. The fun of pantomime in this production is clearly not far away.
Raymond J Walker
Seen and Heard International
Director Jeff Clarke - of Parson's Pirates and The Ghosts of Ruddigore fame - is an expert at squeezing extra fun out of the Gilbert & Sullivan tradition, but for the second major professional show of this year's G&S Festival at Buxton he wisely stuck closely to what the punters want.
There are some good lines already in the show about what being a right-down regular royal personage implies in terms of flotillas of boats and concerts in the park, which duly got their laughs, and we had an interpolation about 'Good evening, Mr Bond' that deserved its instant applause.
Apart from that, it was a show where you came out whistling the costumes - a real extravanganza of whimsy, compensating for modest but undoubtedly practical sets.
The principals included some of the best in the business - Clarke’s regular collaborator Richard Gauntlett as the Duke of Plaza-Toro, who could never be accused of under-playing the role of baritone buffoon; Jeni Bern – one of our top operatic sopranos and among the most versatile – outstanding as Casilda, and Donald Maxwell vibrantly rich and in his acting element as a leering Grand Inquisitor.
Jill Pert needs no introduction and could hardly be bettered as the Duchess, with costumes that seemed taken from Alice In Wonderland, each more wonderful than the last. The Gondoliers themselves – Stephen Brown and James Cleverton – and their girls – Victoria Byron and Victoria Joyce – and Daniel Hoadley as Luiz were all in fine voice. The latter two are, incidentally, Royal Northern College of Music trained.
Conductor David Steadman held things together calmly - I loved his tempo for In Enterprize of Martial Kind, and though some others dragged a little he stoked up the finales well - and the National Festival Orchestra sounded very good indeed.