Scottish Opera’s “Utopia, Limited” was at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh tonight, and this single night performance is a rare chance to catch the penultimate Savoy Opera from Gilbert and Sullivan. “Utopia, Limited” was created immediately after their hugely successful “The Gondoliers”, so it is appropriate that this Scottish Opera Premiere is being staged as a new co-production with D’Oyly Carte Opera & State Opera South Australia alongside the production of The Gondoliers (Edinburgh, Glasgow and London performances).
I have to admit that prior to this performance, this was a G & S work that I knew almost nothing about and with an updated libretto by director Stuart Maunder and a revised musical version by Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark, I was surprised to find something very different in parts from what I have come to expect from any G & S production.
“Utopia, Limited” (aka The Flowers of Progress) was first performed in 1893 (Scotland 1894) and failed to achieve the success of many earlier works, and part of this may be the content, part may also be that this story of an island nation and total monarchy, embracing the new culture of The British Empire and everything that is “English” was hugely expensive to stage due to the need for two very different costumes for each of the performers and elaborate stage sets. In this production, that large production expense is avoided by using a semi-staged concert (one new background and no period costumes), performed by the cast of The Gondoliers, and this economical approach works well because, as always, the words and music are what at the core of any G & S work, and of course a cast and orchestra capable of breathing life into both, as we had on stage tonight and our main performers Zara Ellie Laugharne, Lady Sophy Yvonne Howard, Captain Fitzbattleaxe William Morgan, Scaphio Richard Suart, Mr Goldbury Mark Nathan, King Paramount Ben McAteer, Nekaya Catriona Hewitson, Kalyba Sioned Gwen Davies, Phantis Arthur Bruce, and Lord Dramaleigh Glen Cunningham give some fine performances that blend both opera and comedy together seamlessly.
Ben McAteer is so obviously having fun here as King Paramount and so much more of the comedy element here is provided by the two wise men Scaphio (Richard Suart), and Phantis (Arthur Bruce) in pure Victorian Vaudeville style. Ellie Laugharne also gives some fine vocal performances as Princess Zara.
Watching my first performance of this work was an at times odd experience as there are so many unexpected elements in it, and some of these may be caused by the fact that this work was written at a period when the working relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan was, to say the least, a strained one. Despite this though, I think “Utopia, Limited” has some of the best work by both men and there is no disguising here what Gilbert thinks of the law that allows Limited Liability Companies to be formed and those who run them to use their ability to possibly run up substantial debts, go into administration protected from paying their creditors by their “limited liability”. Having done this, the very same people can simply start a new “limited liability company” the next day with no personal responsibility for previous company debts. Over a hundred years later this “protection” and “misuse” of the law is still causing major problems and misery to many people.
The most surprising element of “Utopia, Limited” for me is the way that Gilbert uses the opportunity of the settings of this fictional island Monarchy to cast his satirical wit over the very institutions that underpin “British society” of the time. The return of the King’s eldest daughter to the island after being educated at a top private English college, together with the “advisors” that she brings with her to transform her own land and society also provides an opportunity to look at the cultural impact of British Empire and Colonialism on countries that came under their expanding global influence. It is strange that a work of the late 19th century should now have such 21st century relevance as we look with new eyes upon the cultural impact of British colonial history.
This, as I have said, is an odd work, and although there are still the core elements of pure Victorian theatrical entertainment here, it is obvious that this work is taking G & S in new directions and to some extent that old “fantasy bubble” of their works is being forced into the real world. For some unexplained reasons there are also some plot lines from Act I that are never resolved in Act II; it is almost as if a little bridging act, a few pieces of paper, have somehow been lost to history here. This work though is still the Scottish Opera that I like so much, a company always willing to do something unexpected.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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