Tim Hochstrasser reviews Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore presented by Opera Holland Park and Charles Court Opera.
Opera Holland Park
Opera Holland Park Website
We are already at the end of a memorable season at Opera Holland Park, and for the ‘bonne bouche’ they have served up another Gilbert & Sullivan co-production with Charles Court Opera. ‘Ruddigore’ has never quite had the following of some of the Savoy Operas (how do you follow ‘The Mikado’ after all?). Its main object of satire – Victorian melodrama – has also long receded to the dramatic shadows. But no matter – it still offers rich characterisations, some of Sullivan’s finest music, and truly works on its own dramatic terms. Indeed, the gothic thriller that is the second act perhaps works even better now with audiences that have grown up with Hammer House of Horror and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’
The plot is fairly incidental to the rewards of the evening. A family of ‘bad baronets’ is cursed with the requirement to perform a crime every day. The latest baronet, Sir Robin/Ruthven has faked his death and adopted a new identity in the local village where he is bashfully in love with the most eligible of local girls, Rose Maybud. She in turn has constrained herself through referring all her actions to book of etiquette (another object of contemporary satire). They attempt to break the impasse by employing the services of his foster brother, Dick, recently returned from sea (cue for more capers in the style of ‘Pinafore’); but he tries to claim her for himself. Further complications emerge in the form of Robin’s younger brother, Sir Despard, who bears the current burden of the title, and his on-off girlfriend, Mad Margaret, an indirect victim of the curse.
After many further improbable twists and turns Robin’s identity is discovered and he has to assume the baronetcy, culminating in a confrontation with his ancestors, who descend en masse from their portraits. They require him to carry off a maiden from the village to prove his villainy, but this turns out to be an unwise move as his manservant kidnaps the redoubtable Dame Hannah, Rose’s maiden aunt. Just when the whirl of complications is at its most bewildering, a legal nicety resolves or rather dissolves all the tensions (as so often with Gilbert’s plots).
The evening demonstrates the familiar virtues of John Savournin’s productions. The material is treated perfectly seriously, which intensifies the humour. There is a certain degree of arch knowingness; but it stays the right side of camp exaggeration. The singing is excellent, acting detailed, choreography elegant, and diction and comic timing precise. In the pit the City of London Sinfonia find the alternate champagne fizz and lyrical sweetness that this music needs; and David Eaton’s expert conductor’s touch summons up some lovely string and woodwind solos up from the broader orchestral textures. It was also a nice touch to have him accompany on the piano at points to connect with the echoes of contemporary melodrama.
This company are specialists in this repertoire and bring years of experience in how to put the music across in a large space such as Opera Holland Park, even in the most elaborate of tongue-twisting patter songs. As Sir Robin Murgatroyd, Matthew Kellett finds the right measure of innocence abroad and heroic defiance to carry the plot; and he is well matched by Llio Evans, a more worldly-wise ingenue than usual, as Rose. Savournin enjoys himself as the mustachio-twirling Sir Despard, who behind his stage villainy is the kind of self-righteous prig whom Gilbert always had in his satirical sights. There is a finely detailed portrait of Mad Margaret from Heather Lowe, fully to the pitch of her very demanding first aria, and Heather Shipp finds both ballast and empathy in Dame Hannah, a much more sympathetic battle-axe part than Gilbert usually allows for. Her ‘eleven o’clock’ number with Stephen Gadd as Sir Dominic Murgatroyd, the pick of the ancestors, is as true highlight of the evening. David Webb, as Dick Dauntless, completes the main cast with athletic bravado.
Any review of G&S requires discussion of the chorus. Richard Harker has trained up a superbly pert and flexible group of performers, whether the frustrated group of professional bridesmaids, hoping for a wedding, or their bowler-hatted male counterparts. Choreographer Merry Holden moved them around a treat so that there was always visual interest across the wide stage at Holland Park, and plenty of use of the side aisles through the audience seating and the forestage walkway.
One of the key issues in this piece is how to handle the moment when the ancestors descend from their portraits. Designer Madeleine Boyd came up with a very plausible solution somewhere between naturalism and fantasy, all of which yielded up a wonderful selection of disreputable stereotypes, including one beheaded gentleman whose own head became part of the action.
It is hard to see how this show could be done better, whether in its respect for the original or in updating staging, acting technique and text in subtle and appropriately convincing fashion. Another idiomatic and utterly convincing end to a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding season at Opera Holland Park. I shall miss the sunsets, the peacocks and even the occasional insistent barking dog…..