This is a busy week for Liverpool and the RLPO. We are staging a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Yeoman of the Guard.’ It coincides with the ‘Sea Odyssey – Giant Spectacular’ taking place in the streets of Liverpool. Not unlike the massive ‘giants’ running amok about the city centre, William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan bestrode popular theatre like colossuses.
This week has also seen the one hundredth anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic region. The band on board the Titanic were from Liverpool and there is a plaque to their memory at the front of Philharmonic Hall to this day. I went round to take a photo of this very historic and moving bronze plaque and was interested to see a party of tourists travelling around the city on the ‘Duck Bus’. The Duckmarine semi-amphibious vehicle ‘Wacker Quacker 1’ stopped, the party disembarked and the guide began giving them a lecture about the band and the tragic events, by the memorial plaque.
Meanwhile inside, the effervescent John Wilson was getting to grips with what many regard as Gilbert & Sullivan’s finest achievement together. The following brief synopsis of the plot is mostly ‘lifted’ from Samuel Silvers’ excellent Gilbert & Sullivan Archive.” The ‘Yeoman of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid,’ opened October 3, 1888, at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 423 performances. Said to be the darkest of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Yeoman ends with a broken-hearted main character and at least two reluctant engagements, rather than the usual armful of marriages.
However, Gilbert’s “pointed” satire and punning one-liners abound, there are plenty of topsy-turvy plot complications, and many believe that the score is Sullivan’s finest. Indeed, some enjoy Yeomen particularly because of its ever-changing emotional balance of joy and despair, love and sacrifice.
The setting of Yeomen is laid in the Tower of London in Shakespearean times. The plot concerns Colonel Fairfax, a gentleman, soldier and scientist, who has been sentenced to be beheaded in an hour on a false charge of sorcery. To avoid leaving his estate to his accuser (a cousin), and with the help of the Lieutenant of the Tower, Fairfax secretly marries Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer. The bride agrees to be blindfolded during the ceremony and expects to be a well-paid widow in an hour.
With the help of the Meryll family, Fairfax escapes, throwing the Tower into confusion and the astonished Elsie (and her mentor, the jester Jack Point, who loves her) into despair. But Fairfax, disguised as Leonard Meryll, woos Elsie, and after a number of plot complications are worked out, she falls in love with Fairfax and leaves Jack Point broken-hearted.”
The RLPO production, in keeping with several recent performances, was to be semi-staged. We do not have an orchestra pit in Philharmonic hall and in any case, the audience has got used to seeing the orchestra in both opera and our well regarded Filmharmonic series; where the film is shown on a huge backdrop screen above the orchestra.
Gilbert & Sullivan is enjoying something of a successful revival. Reports have been reaching us of commercial success all over the UK. Certainly, John Wilson himself has an excellent reputation for delivering quality revivals with all appropriate authenticicty intended at the time of original performance.
With the above in mind, I was pleasantly surprised when popping down to the box office to get a ticket for my friend to attend. “… I’m sorry Brendan, but there is only one ticket left in the Grand Circle…” Well that would do. How different times are now compared to ten years ago. Back then, even top drawer names and the the best programmes would be ‘papering’ houses and ‘comps’ would always be available to players for their friends.
I have always liked ‘Yeoman,’ especially since it was one of the first real bits of professional work I was involved in when I left The Royal College of Music. I ‘deputised’ on several operas when The new D’Oly Carte company rose, like the Pheonix from the ashes of the original company and enjoyed many years of success thereafter.
Down to the music, which is exquisite, I have long been intrigued by the Overture, which stands on its own as a regular concert item. There would appear to have been a lot of tension prior to Sullivan agreeing to undertake to write the music for this opera. Having been granted more freedom than before, Sullivan excelled himself.
His attention to detail is unusual. Apparently, Sullivan rarely prepared his own overture, but went to immense trouble on this occasion. He was afforded extra instruments in the pit and the Grandeur he employs in both the mood and structure shows an entirely new direction compared to previously.
Sadly, he is said to not have bothered much since, as most of the audience just talked loudly throughout this magnificent prelude!
The cast was as excellent as could be. Most had worked worldwide in G&S roles, and the couple who hadn’t were internationally renowned in opera and as soloists in the concert hall, in their own right.
Of course, a one off concert performance demands a lot of concentration to ensure that all attention to detail is immaculate. I sometimes wonder why the RLPO don’t put on a month of opera each year, at the end of the season…
I think that the full houses we have been attracting for this type of work, not to mention the response of the critics, would seem to indicate a market for commercial success, in this area.
The performance had a real ‘buzz’ about it. There wasn’t a seat available in the house and I could observe that there were many new faces in the audience compared to the usual, much appreciated, regular attenders.
My guest, a visitor in our country from Japan, had sat in on the dress rehearsal, and had already expressed an eagerness for the performance, was very excited. G& S has, over the years, suffered as a result of mundane performance and lucklustre production (these opinions are my own) but this show definitely had that ‘showbiz’ pizazz in the ambience.
For my own part, I felt comfortable under Wilson’s direction. He is still regarded as a ‘new kid’, but John has been around nearly as long as I have! He has become the trusted pair of hands in which to place such a difficult juxtaposition: marrying the old with the new. The attention to detail is perhaps unappreciated by today’s popular music audience, who are so used to the big budget of international ‘live(!)’ television. It is, indeed, a skill to be admired.
Well, it was indeed packed out and the audience absolutely loved it. I wonder why we don’t repeat the show’s ‘hit’ song as an encore? At the original premiere, ‘I have a song to sing, O,’ was encored twice!