Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Ruddigore review – Charles Court Opera makes its annual visit to Opera Holland Park

9 - 12 August 2023


A parody of Victorian melodrama (almost) under the stars.

Ruddigore

Stephen Gadd (Photo: Craig Fuller)

A collaboration with Charles Court Opera is becoming a regular feature of every Opera Holland Park season. When the pairing staged The Pirates of Penzance here in 2021 (and in 2020 in reduced and relaxed performances) it represented the first Gilbert and Sullivan that Holland Park had presented in 20 years. Since then, it has gone on to perform HMS Pinafore, and already has The Yeomen of the Guard planned for next year. The current offering is Ruddigore and if it does not quite hit the heights of previous years, it still presents a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

These Gilbert and Sullivan presentations tend to be more lo-tech than the other main productions at Holland Park, and that is understandable since the runs are significantly shorter. However, while last year in HMS Pinafore designer Madeleine Boyd could really make a virtue out of a vice by creating a vibrant feeling space through the careful placing of cannons, masts, ropes and rigging, this time around the sets feel just a little more prosaic. There is nothing wrong with them as the buildings, which present a bridal emporium, a fishmonger and a bed and breakfast, paint a picture of the town of Rederring in Cornwall, but they do not lift the evening in quite the same way as they did in Pinafore.

The action is placed broadly in its original setting, although the costumes of the male chorus seem more Edwardian, while a few features feel decidedly modern. For example, the bridesmaid Zorah (Natasha Agarwal) has a sash reading ‘chief’ over her pink dress while Ruth (Caroline Carragher) sports one stating ‘deputy’, which seems more analogous with contemporary hen nights. Still, notwithstanding the fact that here people seem to get married on more or less the same day as the proposal, it stands to reason that professional bridesmaids would be involved in all aspects of the wedding, including such preliminary ‘rituals’.

“…Ruddigore… presents a thoroughly enjoyable evening”

Ruddigore

John Savournin (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Holland Park’s orchestra pit lies in the centre of the performance space, with the stage surrounding it on all sides. On this occasion, the majority of the action takes place in front of the City of London Sinfonia (conducted by David Eaton who also produced the evening’s orchestral reduction), which helps to ensure an appropriate level of intimacy for Gilbert and Sullivan. Merry Holden’s choreography may not feel especially innovative, but it achieves good results by being highly effective within the parameters it sets itself. The way in which the bridesmaids ‘spring into action’ with their song and dance, ‘Hail the Bridegroom – hail the Bride!’, every time it looks as if someone is going to get married is certainly amusing. The routines between Sir Despard Murgatroyd and Richard Dauntless in ‘You understand? I think I do’ and between Despard and Mad Margaret in ‘I once was a very abandoned person’ prevail by virtue of just how well the performers capture the sense of what needs to be conveyed. The larger dances that end Acts I and II also bring appropriate dynamism to the proceedings.

One of the undoubted highlights of the evening is the Ghosts’ Chorus. The set of paintings that were the props in the original 1887 production can today be seen in the Normansfield Theatre in Teddington, but this group of ancestors do not emerge from picture frames at all. With the set now revealing the interior of Ruddigore Castle, we see them slouched in chairs or emerging from the chimney, suggesting how they both lived and died. The costumes are brilliant as each reveals how the person met his fate, so one has knives in his back, another an arrow in his temple, and one who was executed actually carries his own head. Stephen Gadd, seen earlier in the season as Rigoletto, gives one of the strongest performances of the night as Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. With his assertive baritone and focused acting being supported by such a colourful band of ghosts, ‘When the night wind howls’ makes for quite an overwhelming experience. The fact that by this point in the evening it is dark outside the tented area only adds to the effect. 

The cast is ably led by Llio Evans as Rose Maybud and Matthew Kellett as Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, but it is several of the supporting principals who really stand out. David Webb displays a highly pleasing tenor as Richard Dauntless, while Heather Shipp is a class act as Dame Hannah, revealing a sumptuous mezzo-soprano and some astutely observed gestures. During Rose’s ‘If somebody there chanced to be’, she desperately tries to rip apart Rose’s book of etiquette before failing and using it as a fan. John Savournin, who also directs the production, gives a tremendous performance as Sir Despard Murgatroyd, as he utilises his strong bass-baritone and mastery of the required style of acting to create a highly compelling performance. His interactions with Heather Lowe’s Mad Margaret, who takes the stage by storm in ‘Cheerily carols the lark’, are also excellent, so that after the interval the pair create the most entertaining of double acts. Finally, despite Old Adam Goodheart being a small part, Richard Suart still succeeds in shining, such is the prowess of this ‘old hand’ who has played Ko-Ko for English National Opera in every revival of Jonathan Miller’s The Mikado since the late 1980s.

• The performance on 12 August at 14.00 is a Discovery Matinee and Relaxed Performance.

• Opera Holland Park’s 2023 season continues until 19 August. For details of all events and initiatives, and to book tickets, visit the OHP website

• Details of Holland Park’s 2024 season will appear in due course on its website.


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