Scottish Opera: The Gondoliers, a co-production with D’Oyly Carte Opera is at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh for a short run (Thu 28 Oct to Sat 06 Nov), and this always popular work from Gilbert and Sullivan is the perfect production for welcoming audiences back to the start of their first full season since stages across the world were forced to fall into silence.
The above is an odd statement coming from me because I have to admit to always having some reservations about G & S works as, amongst other things, they often seem to me to take place in some fantasy world in an alternative universe, and to appreciate them fully you always have to be prepared to leave your own reality behind and enter this strange world of the imaginations of G & S. That is maybe the secret of the endurance, but still to this day the massive global success of their works – pure escapism, and the humour, lightness, and at times sheer absurdity of this story (plus of course the music and the lyrics) were obviously tonight just what many in the audience wanted as the darkness of the past 18 months has affected everyone in one way or another.
The Gondoliers would actually make perfect pantomime and this lush production is filled with humour, both lyrical and visual, almost from the moment our story opens to the backdrop of the Venice of a stage sized Canaletto painting. That humour is everywhere throughout this production, but more importantly this cast have not only the vocal abilities required to do these songs justice, but also that light performance touch that this type of light comedy requires.
There is, however, beneath the frothy surface of The Gondoliers some real questions being asked about the social issues of the day, and oddly many of these questions are still as relevant to us today as when this work was first performed in 1889 at the height of the then British Empire and what seemed the never to be ended reign of Queen Victoria. That debate on Monarchy or Republic has not gone away, that question of all being subjects in a strictly regulated order of society, or all being of equal status, is still as much at the core of our society as it was to the world of G & S. Here Gilbert himself makes no secret where his sympathies lie with “If everybody is somebody, then no one’s anybody”.
Bringing so much of this story to life of course are our republican gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri played by William Morgan and Mark Nathan, who find that one of them is truly the son of a King and destined to rule a monarchy (of course there is a plot twist here), and their attempts at a new style republican monarchy underpin so much of this story and its message, which at times mocks both institutions. Their new wives Gianetta (Ellie Laugharne) and Tessa (Sioned Gwen Davies) of course have their own views on their new and unexpected prospects in life.
Adding so much to the comedy of the Gondoliers are the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Richard Suart and Yvonne Howard) who seem to be perfectly cast here and could so easily have a show of their own. Adding to this trio is their daughter Casilda (Catriona Hewitson). There are some wonderful comedy visuals here, from ridiculously sized dresses to an eyepatch that constantly changes sides, and of course some wonderful music and lyrics courtesy of the razor sharp observations of G & S. Perhaps the most over the top role and performance here goes to Ben McAteer as the pure Vaudevillian villain Don Alhambra del Bolero (The Grand Inquisitor).
The actual structures of The Gondoliers as an operatic work have been analysed and debated for over 100 years, and although all of that is important, it all means little if audiences are not enjoying the work. This production of The Gondoliers is just simply escapist fun and some people were still singing or humming some of the songs on leaving the theatre, and that is when you know that something has worked really well on stage.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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