Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Gondoliers @ Coliseum, London

18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 27 November 2006

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

English National Opera continues its long tradition of house-filling Gilbert and Sullivans at the Coliseum with its first ever production of the duo’s final big success, The Gondoliers. With a Disneyland Venice and sumptuous costumes, this is a well-sung, lively romp that is just a little too pristine for my liking. The characterisations may be paper-thin and the plots ridiculous but I’m not sure that Gilbert and Sullivan has to be given the glossy, superficial treatment.

Everything about Martin Duncan‘s production is spotless, rather like a soap powder commercial. Glorious though the costumes are, I’d like to have rolled them all in mud for a bit. The set is framed by a huge picturebook backdrop. Act 1 is a mini Venice with little bridges and canals that the performers step over and everything is brightly coloured and terribly clean. The second act, set in the kingdom of Barataria, is a health farm, for some reason, with a rather inviting swimming pool on the wall, or rather the page.

The chorus is the usual mixed bag of ages and shapes and, I have to say, are not as good vocally as they can be. The singing is a little ragged and diction unclear, not the ENO Chorus at its best.

The principals are much better with strongly sung and well-acted performances all round. Ann Murray is luxury casting as The Duchess and her husband, a youthful Duke of Plaza-Toro, is played with relish by Geoffrey Dolton. Veteran baritone Donald Maxwell is outstanding as the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra del Bolero. His is a big barnstorming performance, looking like a besparkled Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with every word clear as a bell.

The quartet of juvenile leads are appropriately youthful, with Sarah Tynan characteristically delightful as Gianetta. There are excellent turns also by a couple of young debut artists, Rebecca Bottone and Robert Murray as Casilda and Luiz.

The big cachucha dance sequence is beautifully done by choreographer Jonathan Lunn, a real high point of the evening. Richard Balcombe takes the ENO orchestra on a lively tour through Sullivan’s joyful tunes and there’s a sharpness and clarity about the whole production. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit bland and characterless too. Ashley Martin-Davies‘ sets are elegant and inventive, as are Duncan’s groupings, but it’s all rather twee.

But this is G & S after all, and If you’re looking for a stylish, energetic, very light evening of campery, this could be a show for you. If you don’t catch one of the performances before Christmas, the production returns for a longer run in March.

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The Gondoliers @ Coliseum, London