Lively performances by beleaguered ENO with a topsy-turvy mingling of “serious” and comic
in Gilbert & Sullivan’s rarely performed opera
It’s a sad commentary on the way administrative bodies work that at a time when English National Opera is finally benefiting from the recent arrival of talented artistic and musical direction, the company is to be ousted from its home at London’s Coliseum. A relocation to Manchester is suggested as the Arts Council plan to “level up” grants in smaller hand-outs to a larger number of applicants.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s rarely seen The Yeomen of the Guard, premiered in 1888, and staged last week by ENO at the Coliseum for the first and possibly the last time, is not an unmitigated success despite first rate performances by the cast. This is largely due to Gilbert’s oddly mixed plotting of the serious and the comic in a mock-Elizabethan historical drama. Colonel Fairfax, imprisoned in the Tower of London as a spy, is due to be executed on Tower Green in an hour’s time. The comic interludes rely on the Shakespearean-style schtick of street entertainer Jack Point. In fact it looks as if Gilbert intended to show just how unfunny were Shakespeare’s court fools.
Director Jo Davies updates the action to the Elizabethan London of the 1950s, with a BBC Television news reel of the time aptly headlined, “Rail Strike Chaos”. The stage opens out to designer Anthony Ward’s tenebrous set of crenelated Tower, square wooden grid, and dark, swirling lighting. The condemned Colonel Fairfax, lyrically sung by Anthony Gregory, catches the eye of Sergeant Merrill’s daughter Phoebe (Heather Lowe). She helps him to escape from his cell by swapping his clothes with that of her brother Leonard (Innocent Masuku).
To the band of Beefeaters, Gilbert adds a pair of street entertainers – Jack Point, played by Scottish stage and film actor Richard McCabe, and Elsie Maynard – a delightfully fresh performance by young ENO Harewood Artist Alexandra Oomens. The opera’s subtitle “The Merryman and His Maid,” gives rise to the signature ballad between the two, “I have a song to sing O”, on the uncertain course of love; as a ploy to prevent his wicked uncle inheriting his property, Fairfax proposes marriage to Elsie and she agrees, on condition that as a widow she can return to Jack.
Eventually Heather Lowe’s lively high-kicking Phoebe links up with the reprieved Fairfax, and Elsie finds herself affianced to Beefeater Leonard instead of her glum Merryman. As McCabe’s rejected Jack Point runs round the stage in huge distress, shedding his clothes, we come to the serious ending that Gilbert intended. Yes, it’s a pretty miserable business being a comic. Excellent playing by the orchestra of English National Opera under conductor Chris Hopkins, and high energy performances by the cast are all the more remarkable for the shadow hanging over the company.
Conductor Chris Hopkins
Director Jo Davies
Designer Anthony Ward
Lighting designer Oliver Fenwick
Video designer Andrzej Goulding
Sound designer Nick Lidster
Choreographer Kay Shepherd
Production pictures (tab)