Gilbert & Sullivan have survived the test of time and now seem to have successfully weathered the pandemic. The two most recent productions in London could not be more different; testaments to the durability of the traditional and the opportunities for modernity. Without speculating on what they might have made of Sasha Regan’s All-Male HMS Pinafore at Wilton’s Music Hall, a building both men would have known well, it is safe to say that they would have felt very much at home with The Gondoliers at the Hackney Empire, built in 1901 when W. S. Gilbert was still alive and the year after Arthur Sullivan’s death.
a joyous production of musical and visual charm
The production comes courtesy of Scottish Opera, D'Oyly Carte Opera and State Opera South Australia whose collaboration has resulted in a delightful rendition of the work. G&S’s last great operetta, if lacking as many catchy tunes as some other works, is not short on orchestral charm, large-scale chorus numbers and pieces for soloists and groups, thanks to Sullivan’s craft. As for Gilbert, the Illustrated London News reported on the opening in 1889 that he was his old self, the man renowned for ‘whimsical conceit, inoffensive cynicism, subtle satire, and playful paradox’. It’s all still there and in the best tradition of these works, it comes complete with humourous updates that reflect our current political scene.
The Gondoliers has some long sequences uninterrupted by dialogue and more set dance pieces than in any other of the duo’s works. This production makes the most of them, under the secure direction of Stuart Maunder with conductor Derek Clark faithfully interpreting the score. Dick Bird creates classic Venetian imagery with his set, but it is his costumes that steal the day. The smartly uniformed gondolieri partner ladies in copious pastel crinolines only outshone in volume by the arrival of Yvonne Howard as The Duchess of Plaza-Toro in what is probably the widest pannier skirt ever seen on stage. With the substantial cast suitably attired, Isabel Baquero and her assistant Lucy Burns, have devised enchanting and lively choreography that permeates the production.
What follows their splendid opening does not disappoint, despite the odd reservation. The story is a tale of mix-ups as the two gondolieri brothers discover that one of them is heir to the throne of Barataria, but confusion during their early years makes it impossible to know which it is, unless the Grand Inquisitor can get the truth from the nurse, comically played by Cheryl Forbes. His a somewhat grim role that seems rather out of place in this lighthearted work, especially when played with great menace, if a little humour, as it is here by Ben McAteer. In the meantime the men have to rule as one, choosing a republican, egalitarian model, much at odds with Victorian values, and that even today seems somewhat revolutionary.
Thus, William Morgan and Mark Nathan are entrusted to hold the story together as the twins Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri. As no work of this kind would be complete without a love story they espouse Gianetta and Tessa, played respectively by Charlie Drummond and Sioned Gwen Davies. Together they make a fine quartet of balanced voices. Another twist reveals that the heir was married at birth to the Duke’s daughter, a contrasting female role occupied by Catriona Hewitson who captures the distress and confusion of Casilda, exacerbated by her being in love with Luiz, the family’s personal drummer, charmingly played by Dan Shelvey. Most of the comedy is in the hands of the well-established Richard Suart, who as the Duke of Plaza-Toro almost keeps pace with what is going on, if rather indistinctly at times.
Inevitably, all is ultimately resolved and everyone lives happily ever after, which is the perfect ending to a joyous production of musical and visual charm.