mon 17/06/2024

The Yeomen of the Guard, National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company | reviews, news & interviews

The Yeomen of the Guard, National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company

The Yeomen of the Guard, National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company

Three-dimensional performances trump two-dimensional sets in G&S's darkest opera

Fool for love: Richard Gauntlett and Jane Harrington (centre)Charles Smith

By the end of Act One of The Yeomen of the Guard there's been a jailbreak, a clandestine marriage, a swapped identity and a cancelled beheading. The chorus sings, halberds are brandished, and a jester jests. Even by Gilbert and Sullivan standards, it’s one heck of a tangle.

And then, in John Savournin’s touring production, the stage clears and, true to Gilbert’s directions, Elsie faints in Fairfax’s arms while silhouetted behind them, masked and motionless, stands the grim figure of the executioner. At which point you start to realise that the only way Gilbert’s going to be able to solve his own dramatic puzzle is by taking one of his own cheerful, colourfully drawn characters - and destroying them.

The Yeomen of the Guard is the problem play of the Savoy Operas: the one that opera snobs carefully avoid mentioning when dismissing G&S in a flurry of unexamined prejudices and throwaway references to topsy-turvydom. With its Tudor setting and majestic overture, it’s occasionally been called the “English Meistersinger", which even a hardcore Savoyard would probably concede is going a bit far. Undeniably, though, it’s aiming for the same tragicomic kick in the stomach you might get from, say, Twelfth Night, and it’s a tribute to its creators that, however literal the production, it simply can’t be played as straight comedy. The death-haunted logic of the plot, the flashes of self-knowledge that illuminate Gilbert’s libretto and the aching poignancy of one of Sullivan’s most consistently inspired scores all prevent that.

As director, Savournin gets it. Which is why, in this production, he can get away with presenting something that looks at first sight like the hoariest load of old-school G&S clichés. The Yeomen wear picture postcard uniforms, the women have spotlessly laundered period frocks, and there’s a flat, painted set that looks like something left over from a village hall panto. The principal characters, too, seem at first to be playing it straight and not particularly deep, with a mixture of light and more conventionally operatic voices. Fiona Mackay’s Phoebe is a perky soubrette with Martin Lamb bluff and amiable as her father Sergeant Meryll. Nicholas Sales sings Colonel Fairfax with leading-man charm and an elegant tenor, and Bruce Graham (pictured below, with Richard Gauntlett) lurches and gurns cheerfully as the jailer Shadbolt (he's got some wonderfully sepulchral low notes too). It’s all a set-up, though, for the entrance of Richard Gauntlett as the jester Jack Point and Jane Harrington as his beloved Elsie: and when they’re on stage, it’s hard to look at anyone else.

Gauntlett’s physical grace and verbal dexterity make him a natural comedian. As the crowd jostles him, we see fear erase his smile, and then watch him spring back, eyes pleading: a man for whom humour really is a defence. Harrington’s rich, tightly focussed soprano soars over the big choral scenes. Rarely smiling, she becomes the focus of the unfolding emotional tragedy as Gilbert flips operetta convention on its head and turns the comic pair into the leading players, making the grand passions and life-or-death schemes of the loftier characters feel like the trivial diversion. “It is easier to die well than to live well,” comments Colonel Fairfax in Act One; in Sales’s caddish portrayal he spends much of Act Two (having cheated death) seemingly proving that point. Gauntlett’s patter songs, meanwhile, are in the Richard Suart class, and his scenes with Graham were both witty in themselves, and a fascinating study in the nature of comedy. There’s something touching and intensely troubling about Gauntlett’s portrayal: of a piece with Gilbert’s whole, Petrushka-like notion of taking a stock comic character and giving them a human heart. His final collapse was wrenching.

Musical values are high, on stage at least: Pauline Birchall brings dignity and a velvet-and-steel voice to Dame Carruthers (one of Gilbert’s less cruel mezzo roles), the choral singing is crisp and powerful, and David Steadman, conducting a decent-sized orchestra, keeps the pace brisk while letting Sullivan’s lyricism breathe. Scrappy orchestral entries were compensated for by characterful woodwind playing and some extremely fine ensemble singing from the principals; the Act Two quartet Strange Adventure was a moment of radiant stillness.

In other words, there’s a complex and moving opera here (Gilbert and Sullivan never considered it an operetta); there’s also an entertaining, very traditional-looking and clearly low-budget touring G&S production. No doubt there are many who won’t be able to see past that – just as for many audience members, that in itself would be enjoyable enough. It came across handsomely in the mini-Coliseum that is Buxton Opera House, and will doubtless do so elsewhere too. The truth is that it really shouldn’t be left to a privately-funded touring company, operating under severe financial constraints, to stage this repertoire. If it had been composed in a country with a less philistine operatic culture, The Yeomen of the Guard would be a staple of the national companies (one or two of our own could do a lot worse than look at it again). For now, though, Savournin and the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company present it with commitment, insight and considerable style. They deserve to succeed.


Welsh National Opera brought their production to the Royal Opera House, conducted by Mackerras, with limited success. Glorious music, I agree, but how do you avoid the heritage element in the staging?

Yeomen of the Guard was actually the first G&S opera in which the old D'Oyly Carte company did try to dispense with the traditional trappings - at least as regards set design - as far back as 1940: The answer to your question, of course, is that the heritage element could be avoided as readily as it can in any 19th century opera - WNO's recent Donizetti Tudor trilogy being one example, or Richard Jones's Glyndebourne Falstaff. The question is why you'd want (or need) to: I'm convinced that the right director could retain elements of the period setting while at the same time doing something fascinatingly original and thought-provoking (again, Jones comes to mind: think of his Meistersinger). I think I'd just ask for Yeomen to be taken as seriously as any other 19th century opera: removed from that set of prejudices and genre conventions that we call "G&S". I'm convinced Gilbert's text for this opera, in particular, contains as many depths and subtleties as Sullivan's music - and the central performances in this particular production made that very clear, even if other aspects of the staging were hobbled by the budget.

Too many 'thee's and 'thou's: even Princess Ida isn't so extreme in that respect. The dialogues are sharper and more timeless when he's being more contemporary. I used to overvalue the semi-serious Savoy operas; now I think the true perfection rests with Pirates and Iolanthe.

Being of a generation that's never really had any chance of seeing Yeomen of the Guard staged professionally, I can only say that the mock-Tudorisms were a lot less noticeable than I'd expected. Of course, we're happy to put up with Boito's pseudo-Medieval Italian in Falstaff and Hofmannsthal's bizarre fake Viennese dialect in Rosenkavalier, to say nothing of some truly horribly stilted libretti in Purcell's and Britten's operas - so it needn't be an insuperable issue. Meanwhile I don't think anyone would dispute that G&S are at their most perfect in the more outwardly comical of the operas - I just think it's worth noting that their attempt to do something a bit different (a bit more conventional, perhaps) really does succeed rather well on its own terms. And that (in my view) it still hasn't truly had its due in modern times.

Agreed - but are you that much younger than me? I got not only the WNO show but also the last of the D'Oyly Carte seasons with John Reed as Jack Point and Kenneth Sandford as Wilfred Shadbolt...

"I used to overvalue the semi-serious Savoy operas; now I think the true perfection rests with Pirates and Iolanthe." - Iolanthe is semi-serious, isn't it? I always used to find the climax ("I live - now let me die") tremendously moving. Iolanthe was always my favourite, but Yeomen probably second. ENO could do more G&S, but I also wonder why they've never thought to revive Sullivan's grand opera Ivanhoe. There aren't as many Savoyards as there used to be... but enough, surely, to ensure that it would be a hit.

You're right, Alexander - the strain involving the errant fairy has some profound music, not least that very adventurous oboe solo which follows the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream crib as she rises from the waters and the Act 2 scene with the Lord Chancellor. Actually a very small percentage of the music, but it can be deeply moving, as it was in Sasha Regan's all-male version at Wilton's.

As for there not being so many Savoyards now, it seems to me that a whole new generation is being converted thanks to pocket productions like Regan's and the Mike Leigh effect.

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