tue 16/07/2024

The Yeomen of the Guard, English National Opera review - half-good shot at an unusual G&S misalliance | reviews, news & interviews

The Yeomen of the Guard, English National Opera review - half-good shot at an unusual G&S misalliance

The Yeomen of the Guard, English National Opera review - half-good shot at an unusual G&S misalliance

Sullivan’s music is masterly, but director Jo Davies doesn’t solve Gilbert’s Tudorbethiana

Crunch time for Jack Point (Richard McCabe) as his Elsie (Alexandra Oomens) marries her Colonel (Anthony Gregory)All images by Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Sullivan’s Overture to The Yeomen of the Guard isn’t quite the equal of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger – what is? – but its brass-rich brilliance and wholesome ceremonials wouldn’t have been possible without that great example.

Cue the first of director Jo Davies’s missteps as a 1950s newsreel gives us the “backstory” of alleged spy Colonel Fairfax’s imprisonment: loud broadcast voice over Chris Hopkins’ already speedy account is a big mistake.

Sometimes the fidgety routines for the chorus and three busbied tapdancers look like a halfhearted attempt to rival the more successful antics of Cal McCrystal’s excellent Iolanthe and mostly sharp HMS Pinafore at ENO. But it’s difficult in any case to get the tone(s) right for Yeomen, G&S's closest attempt at “serious” opera. Frankly I think those Savoy operettas which hit pathos only selectively – Iolanthe, The Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers especially – work better; we always want the topsy-turveydom.

Some of it is there in the rescue plot here, whereby Fairfax’s escape from the Tower of London disguised as Sergeant Meryll’s son – who none of the Yeomen have seen, odd in the update when photos of his derring-do might have circulated – is complicated by his pre-execution marriage to a woman he’s never seen: travelling player Elsie Maynard, stepping in for her ailing mother on a tour by not-so-funnyman Jack Point (Richard McCabe and Alexandra Oomans pictured below). Scene from ENO YeomenThere are plenty of delicious performers to keep the ball rolling (as Hopkins also does, perhaps pressing a bit too much where the operatic elements need expansiveness). Miked for the dialogue but not the singing, they have to work hard on the too-big open spaces of Anthony Ward’s uncertain sets. The two leading ladies have bags of energy, and ENO Harewood Artist Alexandra Oomens turns in a second winner as Elsie after her Pinafore Josephine. Both ladies have set-pieces unusually big by Sullivan standards, and Oomens goes the whole mile in her Act One soliloquy on blindfold wedlock for cash.

Heather Lowe, having to deal with distracting business from the start, leaves us in no doubt of Phoebe Meryll’s vivacity – no wonder Fairfax is attracted to her before his “bride” turns his attentions – and makes a good team with unwelcome suitor Wilfred Shadbolt, head jailer and “assistant tormentor” (the resonant John Molloy, who might as well run the whole mile with the Irish accent that comes and goes. The two pictured below on the right with Susan Bickley and Neal Davies). Scene from ENO YeomenCasting consummate actor Richard McCabe as tragicomic Jack Point was a much better move than the unsuccessful star-bait of Les Dennis in ENO’s Pinafore. He’s no singer either, but overcomes the tricky fact that this wag’s jokes aren’t funny with dramatic dettness. Like many recent and alas deceased comics, Jack is a sad man underneath, so the impact of the inevitable rejection by Elsie doesn’t seem too contrived (and the ending is a tear-jerker, though a person in the first-night audience laughed when Point sobbed – there’s always one).

Sullivan’s high-point of Olde English style, the two-chord Ballad of the Merryman and his Maid, is enhanced by McCabe’s accordion skills. And the leaguing with Shadbolt in Act Two is genuinely funny, the second (and better) of his two solos spiced up with a Brexit reference which got a big round of applause. McCabe lives up to the (for me) indelible memory of his insanely jealous Ford in the National Threatre production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Anyone thinking of a new production of Osborne’s The Entertainer has their man. Scene from ENO YeomenAnthony Gregory’s first lovely solo as Fairfax gets upstaged by busby business; the second (the ineffable “Free from his fetters grim”) makes its lyric mark, and he’s strong in the abounding ensembles. The usually fine Susan Bickley doesn’t seem in her comfort zone as Dame Carruthers, in this version “Deputy Governor of the Tower” to Steven Page’s Lieutenant Cholmondeley; a cutting chest voice is a must, and we don’t get that. She acts well in interplay with Neal Davies’s Sergeant Meryll though it was a big mistake, in my books, to replace the “Rapture, rapture/Ghastly, ghastly!” duet, admittedly undoable these days, with an adaptation of the Patter Trio from Ruddigore, turned into one last quartet

The chorus relish their elaborate set-pieces – another plus of Sullivan’s ambition – though it’s odd how for once Gilbert doesn’t seem to know how to fit words to the lovely tune of “Night has spread her pall once more”. I do hope audiences see through the snags of production and libretto and hear the countless felicities of orchestra colour – the breathless string phrases of the first trio, for instance, or the little clarinet refrain of “A man who would woo a fair maid”, taken over at the end by Elsie – which Sullivan graces with all his loving invention. And don’t miss some excellent performances. Footnote added after the awful Arts Council news: ENO needs and deserves your support more than ever. Its recent track record has been excellent. Surely if Berlin and Vienna can run three successful opera companes, London deserves at least two? For the answer as to why not, look to the government of the last 12 years.


Re: "..it’s odd how for once Gilbert doesn’t seem to know how to fit words to the lovely tune of “Night has spread her pall once more”..." The fault, if there is one, would be Sullivan's and not Gilbert's. Gilbert wrote the words and then Sullivan set them. Only once in their entire collaboration, in Utopia Ltd, did Sullivan provide a tune to which Gilbert then fitted some words.

So we're told. But I do wonder about this one - it's a beautiful sweeping melody to bring up the curtain on Act 2, a bit like the idea for Act 2 of The Mikado (which then isn't the melody for 'Braid the Raven Hair'). So I take your point, and yet...

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