The ENO may have had its marching orders, but Gilbert & Sullivan hold the fort at the Coliseum.
English National Opera has served Gilbert and Sullivan well over the years, and while its latest foray into the Savoy Opera canon has a lot going for it, Jo Davies’ staging isn’t without its misfires. It’s fair to say these problems arise from the piece itself as it can never make up its mind what it wants to be. The Yeomen of the Guard is certainly one of G&S’ darker works, lacking the feel-good factor inherent in the remainder of the duos’ output, and because of this much of the humour seems incongruous, given the story is one of their darkest.
Davies and her designer, Anthony Ward, update the action from the 15th century to 1950s’ England. This is made apparent at the outset of the evening as a Pathé-style newsreel is projected onto the front cloth during the overture. Fatally, however, this is accompanied by a voice-over, which distracts from a frothy account of the overture under Chris Hopkins’ experienced baton. Who thought this was a good idea?
Once past this miscalculation, Davies tells the story relatively straightforwardly, although often struggles to balance the serious with the comedic. Because of this, at times one felt the essence of the work was being straightjacketed into her updated concept, and in the process much of the plot got lost in translation. Ward’s designs include an impressive Tower of London, but for the most part the stage is adorned in chain mail, which when combined with Oliver Fenwick’s darkly omnipresent lighting plot, only adds to the pervading sense of gloom.
“…Davies… often struggles to balance the serious with the comedic”
The laughs are mostly generated from the two street entertainers – Jack Point and Elsie Maynard – but even here the humour seemed manufactured, as opposed to being unforced and natural. Casting an actor as Jack Point was always going to sacrifice the musical line, yet Richard McCabe cut a tragic Pinter-esque figure – one who also played mercilessly to the gallery. Although set in the ‘50s we got some Brexit jokes, which incidentally got the biggest audience roar of the evening, and at the opera’s denouement his despair at seeing his true love married off to Fairfax was done as a tragedy of almost Shakesperian proportions. Imagine the sense of desolation you feel at the end of Wozzeck, and you wouldn’t be far off from how one felt at the final curtain. Was this really what G&S had in mind?
Still, musically, there was much to enjoy. Alexandra Oomens was a delightful Elsie Maynard – her bright, crystalline soprano full of warmth, combined with superb diction. Anthony Gregory brought a wealth of experience to the role of Fairfax, sang with unflinching ardour throughout the evening, and looked the part to a tee. John Molloy’s oleaginous jailer, Shadbolt, came close to stealing the show. Not only does he possess a rich, resonant bass, but he’s also quite nimble on his feet, as revealed in some impressive Irish dancing. Dame Carruthers was brought vividly to life by mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, who added yet another perfectly etched characterisation to an already impressive list of overbearing harridans. Never descending into caricature (well not often), she cut a formidable, imperious figure as the Deputy Governor of the Tower, and sang gloriously, with the kind of attention to detail we’ve come to expect from her. Neal Davies was an avuncular Sergeant Meryll – his firm, resonant baritone infused the vocal lines with authority from start to finish. All the singers were miked – probably to help them with the spoken dialogue, of which there were great swathes – and the patter trio ‘Does it really matter’ from Ruddigore was inserted into the second act. No one seems quite sure why, although it was sung very well.
As mentioned earlier, conductor Chris Hopkins was a firm hand on the tiller, supported his singers heroically, and drew lithe, idiomatic playing from the orchestra. It’s not an easy work to pull off, but if Davies has a rethink here and there, and a lot of the dialogue is pruned, everything should come into sharper focus.
• Details of future performances can be found here.