THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD, Buxton Opera House
It’s good that the Gilbert & Sullivan festival, though now removed from Buxton to Harrogate, lets its old home in on a bit of the action by sending its National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company there, at least for a few days.
I saw The Yeomen Of The Guard, my favourite of all the standard G&S operas. What I love about it is the sense that Sullivan is trying out some ideas for a model of English vernacular opera – more Romantic than most of his other collaborations with Gilbert – seeking the Holy Grail of a popular lyric style based on ‘traditional’ English music, as identified by Macfarren and others, but bringing in some of the qualities of his own time. At times it sounds almost like Dvorak. He took it a stage further with Ivanhoe, shortly afterwards (the opening production at what we now know as the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, then the new English Opera House), but alas found no real successor.
It’s also got a superb book in which Gilbert produces mock-Tudor dialogue that is still perfectly comprehensible, and a storyline with pathos – tragedy, even – mixed with comedy on an almost Shakespearean level. It’s a long way from the topsy-turvydom of much of the rest of popular G&S.
The result is a very fine series of second act numbers, and slightly grander operatic features in the overture and two act finales, than you get elsewhere. Director John Savournin responds to these with imagination, darkening the stage and stilling the silliness from time to time, and ending the opera with a curtain-call line-up minus bows or curtseys. The tears – and death – of a clown (in this case, the jester Jack Point, who finally loses his longed-for love, Elsie Maynard) are moving indeed when you’re forced to look them in the face.
Richard Gauntlett is a class act as Jack Point, though not quite the master of the patter song that some of his predecessors have been, but superb in the final scene. Jane Harrington, too, has a fine voice and presence as Elsie. Bruce Graham, a seasoned veteran of the G&S tradition, brings his clarity and stage sense to Shadbolt the jailer (who eventually gets his prize in Phoebe, beautifully acted and sung by Fiona Mackay). And the noble English tenor role of Fairfax is very well taken by Nicholas Sales, fitting it like a glove in Free From His Fetters Grim and elsewhere.
One thing Yeomen needs is a generous collection of principal talent, as there are two quartets with only the tenor role in common (Strange Adventure – beautifully sung with English Vocal Union seriousness – and When A Wooer Goes A-Wooing) . Here they had the resources for it, and conductor David Steadman paced and phrased the score with a sure hand.