30 July 1995 - John Reed and His Friends
31 July 1995 - Patience
1 August 1995 - H.M.S. Pinafore
2 August 1995 - The Chieftain
3 August 1995 - Pirates of Penzance
4 August 1995 - Yeomen of the Guard
5 August 1995 - The Sorcerer
6 August 1995 - Ruddigore
7 August 1995 - The Mikado
8 August 1995 - Pirates of Penzance
9 August 1995 - Princess Ida
10 August 1995 - Iolanthe
11 August 1995 - The Gondoliers
12 August 1995 - Festival Awards Banquet
13 August 1995 - Closing
I did not take detailed notes during the two weeks of the festival but did keep a 'diary' of events. What I report is a distillation of those notes with the recollections of highlights and 'lowlights' of the Festival tempered by passing of the intervening two months.
I was only able to attend the final three days of the First Annual Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in 1994. After those three days, and hearing about what I had missed, I made sure that I was not going to miss a second of the Second Annual Festival. In general, I didn't. Performances every evening, morning coffee and conversation with former D'Oyly Carte Stars, master classes, excursions, and the evening Festival Club made for an extremely busy yet the most relaxing and enjoyable vacation which I have ever had.
Since I have never performed on stage in G&S ( although I have been in the pit for several productions), my observations are those of an audience member not actor. Since my background is in music, not theater, I tend to be less critical of 'average' acting performances than I am of weaker musicality. I went to Buxton to enjoy myself, not to be a critic, and I enjoyed every performance (to a greater or lesser extent.)
Many conversations with fellow Savoyards during intermissions, in the Festival Club after performances and at various meals, bus rides and other meetings provided additional perspective as did the comments of the Adjudicator, Mr. David Turner, which were presented to the audience after each of the competing productions. The results of those conversations are incorporated in my observations. In viewing the same performances that I did, others will have seen things which I did not, responded differently to what they did see or reacted in a totally different fashion to the turns and twists of 13 performances of 11 different works - everything from Sorcerer through Gondoliers plus The Chieftain (two Sorcerers and two Pirates).
The Buxton Opera House, the site of the performances, is an 1900's building which seats about 800 in four levels. The wonderful acoustics, without any amplification, provided for easy listening and comprehension. My seats were in the second or third row in the center of the Dress Circle providing for an excellent view of all of the action. The theater is not air conditioned and the hottest (average temperature) and driest summer in England for the 350 years of record-keeping provided for a decidedly informal atmosphere. Except for those whose association with the Festival compelled more formal attire, tee- shirts and shorts or slacks were the preferred dress. The British buildings are constructed wonderfully for the normal climate - buildings keep heat in, definitely not appropriate for the unusual weather for the two weeks of the festival.
There were two major changes from the First Festival, both in response to attendees' comments (complaints?). This year there were a very large number of daytime activities including Coffees and Conversations and Master Classes with the former DOC stars as well as a choice of four excursions to scenic and/or historic regions within a short (two hour) drive of Buxton.
The only souvenirs of the first festival (besides the programs) were tee-shirts, which ran out fairly early and were not reprinted. This year there were: two different tee-shirts, a sweatshirt, special authorized reproductions of the Players G&S Cigarette cards, a Festival Plate, a bust of Gilbert and Sullivan, two sets of mugs (high quality bone china - not your usual clay mugs normally prevalent upon such occasions), and two Wedgwood (Coalport) figurines of John Reed as Sir Joseph Porter and Alistair Donkin as John Wellington Wells - orders taken for Christmas delivery. There was a souvenir program encompassing the entire festival as well as programs for each evening. For a collector it was too much happiness. All of the Souvenir items, as well as videotapes of all of the amateur performances, are still available from the Festival Organization.
The opening activity on Sunday afternoon was a costume parade through the park next to the pavilion and the center of town ending up in the Octagon. The parade was somewhat chaotic and relatively small. Most participants came as individuals except for the Houston G&S Society which paraded en masse in their matching society uniforms with ten-gallon hats since their costumes had not arrived. Prizes of Festival Plates were awarded to: First - the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro; second -Sir Despard and Mad Margaret; and third - King Paramount.
The Opening Ceremonies - welcome by the Festival Organizer Ian Smith, the Festival President John Reed and obligatory comments by some of the other officials - and the Big Sing (the audience sang choruses in public) interspersed by solo numbers by the stars of THE D'Oyly Carte Company (not the New D'Oyly Carte) provided the proper relaxed mood which was to set the tone for the next two weeks. John Reed received a very warm welcome, particularly in view of a serious illness which had made his attendance somewhat doubtful. Indeed, he was still able to participate only in the opening day, the first Saturday and the final banquet (his Morning Coffee and Master Class had to be cancelled).
The evening performance was entitled "John Reed and His Friends" and provided the appropriate nostalgic opening to the Festival. David Steadman, Assistant Conductor and Chorus-Master of the New D'Oyly Carte acted as MC and pianist for the evening. Julia Goss, Kenneth Sandford, Gillian Knight, Donald Adams, Thomas Round and John Reed sang solos, duets and trios and engaged in reminiscences and banter, making for a most delightful evening. The biggest surprise (at least to me) to emerge from their conversation was that none of them had ever been involved with G&S before joining the D'Oyly Carte and, with one exception, had never even been to a performance of G&S.
Every evening concluded with a Festival Club - an organist to kill time and for dancing (although very few people indulged), a Gilbert and Sullivan quiz for teams of four with festival mugs as prizes (a SavoyNet team of Peter Zavon, Chris Wain, Sharon Curtis and I, under the name of the Titipu Town Band, won the first night, helped by the various discussions which have sometimes encumbered the Internet discussion group), a late-night supper (pie-and-peas only one night - see last year's festival for the deep inner meaning of this item), a bar which remained open until 1 a.m., and a cabaret, usually led by the company which had performed that evening. Each quiz team vied for cleverest name with a prize to be awarded at the final banquet (None was, either because of the rush of the evening or the difficulty of deciding on the cleverest of an large number of very clever team titles). On occasions such as this when there was really no performance the audience entertained itself by performing choruses in public. The host for the day, the DOC star who gave the morning Coffee and Conversation and afternoon Master Class usually obliged with at least one number.
The first morning featured Coffee and Conversation with Donald Adams. He talked about his involvement with the D'Oyly Carte and his subsequent career, which began with extensive tours in Gilbert and Sullivan for All. He seemed to be a rather shy person in such a role - answering questions but unable to elaborate and extend the response beyond what was specifically asked. Mr. Adams has become a major star in the world of grand opera. He was not able to participate in the final night due to a commitment to sing in Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" in Japan. He indicated that he would be making his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1996 as Quince in Britten's "Mid-Summer Night's Dream." His Master Class in the afternoon was less satisfactory. Apparently he had never run one before, so that his did not know how to really work with the performers in taking a song or bit of dialogue apart and putting it back together. He concluded by singing "The Ghosts' High Noon" himself; he is in as great a voice as ever.
The first production of the festival was Patience, presented by the Wakefield G&S Society, of which James Newby, the Music Director of the Festival, is the resident Music Director and Producer. (The Producer is what is termed in America the Director.) The society presented a decent but slightly sloppy performance - ragged entrances and cut-offs from the chorus were most noticeable. Many of the tempi seemed rather slow, but Mr. Newby has been accused of this before. Ultimately, the society suffered from two of the ills which seem to plague many G&S Societies these days: a shortage of men and a group which has grown old together with very little new blood. The man shortage was so severe that they could not even to find a non- singer for the role of Bunthorne's Solicitor - one soldier changed costume to fill the part for the first act finale, subsequently reappearing in uniform later (why not a female solicitor?). Except for a very few young-looking choristers, most of the performers were in their forties and fifties, comfortable with each other but without the competition for roles which might have jolted greater enthusiasm. Not a bad performance but not spectacular.
The morning Coffee and Conversation were hosted by Thomas Round and a greater contrast to the previous day could not be imagined. Here is a man celebrating this year his 50th (!) year on stage - and close to, if not at his 80th birthday. He was comfortable with the conversation - one reminiscence led to another so that it was hard for Ian Smith to stop him long enough for the audience to ask questions. He was, for many in the audience, their D'Oyly Carte Matinee Idol and they came with old programs, records and posters to remind him of where they had seen him so many years ago and to draw forth more memories. (His debut with the D'Oyly Carte was in 1946.) The afternoon Master Class was likewise a great contrast to the previous day. Mr. Round helped performers take their roles apart and put them back together again, illustrating in song and dance how he viewed a particular piece. One striking memory: a duet with Lee Patterson in "A Tenor All Singers Above." Mr. Round sang several Irish folksongs a capella. While the voice is not there any more, he can still put over a song.
The evening production was H. M. S. Pinafore by the first of the American societies: the Houston Gilbert and Sullivan Society. The Producer of this production and star, as Sir Joseph Porter, was Alistair Donkin, the last comic baritone of the D'Oyly Carte (1979-1982). If one wanted a "traditional" performance, this was it. Tradition, of course, is relative. For those who first saw the D'Oyly Carte in the 70s or 80s, this was traditional; for those in the audience whose memories go back further (mine to the 60s and others even into the 30s), tradition is relative. This was a spectacular musical and operatic performance; Robert Linder, the Musical Director, received the award for best musical director. The Josephine of Kimberly Lane (award of Best Female Singer) and the Ralph of Nathan Wight were among the best musical interpretations of these roles that I have ever heard.
Yet as theater, something was lacking. One could have closed ones eyes, imagined that one was at a D'Oyly Carte performance, opened ones eyes at any point and predicted where the cast would be on stage and what they would have been doing. Perhaps what was missing was any sense of spontaneity, it was all so predictable although wonderfully executed. All five of the 'traditional' encores of the "Bell Trio" were presented, even though the audience had basically given up by the third. There were only two new (for me) bits of staging: Hebe being a closet lush and hitting the sherry decanter on the tea table during "When I Was a Lad" and an on-deck dinner for Josephine, Captain Corcoran and Sir Joseph during the musical introduction to Act II, with a slight jolt of passing glances between Josephine and Ralph, who was one of the sailors waiting at table.
A concern which led to many mutterings when the performance received the First Runner-Up Prize (i.e. Second Place) is the role of a professional on-stage in an amateur production. Donkin was not adjudicated himself and his performance was ignored in scoring. Is there an unfair advantage to a production when the central character, around whom the entire play revolves and who will usually make or break a production, is a professional? I can think of several other productions in this Festival, which, if they had been able to substitute a professional for a less- than-adequate amateur, might well have fared much better in the final tally. This is a question which I would hope will be seriously addressed by the Organizer and Adjudicator before next year's events. (Note: I take no position on this question; I only know that several people were very upset at being put into what they perceived at being placed in competition with a professional, regardless of the fact that the professional didn't count in adjudication. I understand that adjudication itself was extremely controversial at the First Festival. This year I only heard one complaint about it. As one not attached to any society, I seemed to become a confidant of anyone with a complaint. Certainly since Donkin has performed with Houston for so many years, it would have disadvantaged them if he had been excluded, but some thought ought to be given to the future.) There was also some concern among the amateur producers at being placed in direct competition with a professional (Donkin also received a nomination for the Best Producer Award.)
The evening Cabaret was as musically spectacular as the performance. Many of the soloists performed operatic arias. I would like to single out for special mention: Lisa Young (Little Buttercup) for a country-western version of "I'm Called Little Buttercup," Ralph Katz for "If I Were a Rich Man" from "Fiddler on the Roof" (Ralph is a Cantor in real life) and Kimberly Lane for an incredible "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," with the requisite (partial) strip-tease.
For me the biggest disappointment of the Festival was the performance of Sullivan and Burnand's "The Chieftain" by the Dagger Lane Operatic Society of Hull. This is by far the weakest of Sullivan's non-Gilbert works and the rewrite of the libretto by David Eden did not really make any difference. It is still third-rate Burnand. (I know that sentence is redundant - there is no first or second-rate Burnand. His one theatrical 'success' Cox and Box was taken so much from John Madison Morton's play "Box and Cox" that when Burnand and Sullivan 'went commercial' with "Cox and Box," they had to pay Morton one-third of the royalties. But I digress.) The real problem with the work is not the libretto but the songs. Burnand, as an editor, quipster and raconteur, simply had no feel for the kind of rhythmic and melodic line which so characterizes Gilbert's work. Many of the songs start strongly, then fall flat because a couplet or quatrain is rhythmically incomplete. What one misses in this work is the detailed work for chorus, including the double choruses, which characterizes the best of Sullivan. Burnand never gave him the opportunity.
A great company might have been able to make more of the work but this was not the group to do so. Whatever their individual limitations, their efforts were undercut by stage direction which did not make as much of the strengths as could have been done. Two examples will suffice. Simply because the play takes place in Spain and features a group of Spanish brigands, the use of fake Spanish accents absolutely killed most chances for making an unfamiliar work comprehensible. Secondly, while there were twice as many women as men - instead of emphasizing the bit of dialog where it is explained that many brigands have more than one wife, it was glossed over.
Some of the music was familiar, as anyone acquainted with Sullivan's habit of borrowing from himself might have expected. "Let All Your Doubt Take Wing" from his previous opera Utopia, Limited reappears here as "Tis Very Hard to Choose" while another bit from The Chieftain reappears in the subsequent opera The Grand Duke as "Your Highness There's a Party at the Door." When the highest praise in an opera goes to the orchestra, there is clearly something wrong.
While it is very worthwhile to include unfamiliar works in the festival, a more judicious screening beforehand would have alleviated this particular problem. Ultimately, this is probably not a group which could do any G&S very well at this level of competition.
One solution to unfamiliar works is to do what was done during the original performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan and later Savoy operas: leave the lights up and sell libretti so that the audience can follow the works as if presented for the first time (which in a sense, they are).
Today brought David Turner, the Festival Adjudicator for Morning Coffee and an afternoon talk entitled "Speaking Personally." He is an amusing raconteur, full of theatrical anecdotes. He spoke about his own background, how he became an adjudicator and how he became (and still is) the producer of "The Mousetrap." The questions on everyone's minds seemed to relate to professionals in an amateur festival. He indicated the he was very much in favor of amateur companies being able to work, at least occasionally, with professional directors as did four of the companies in this year's festival. Obviously, the question of professionals performing with an amateur company in a competitive festival went unanswered.
This evening's production was the first Pirates of Penzance, presented by the Manx G&S Society, Douglas, Isle of Man, of which John Reed was the Producer. The opening scene included what now seems to be established practice: singing "Happy Birthday" to Frederic. Unfortunately, it occurred after the first chorus and before Samuel's solo, breaking up the rhythm of the piece. A unique interpolation occurred when the Major General, stuck for the rhyme for 'strategy' exclaimed "Oh, God" - and was answered! He and God, who sounded like Mel Brooks, then had a dialog leading to "sat-a-gee." Properly quaint and amusing and different. The company took advantage of the shortage of men (where have we seen that before) by introducing into the Policemen's chorus the first two WPCs (Women Police Constables) that I have seen. Unfortunately they couldn't sing in tune. Overall, an enjoyable performance led by the award-winning performance (Best Character Actor) of John Craige as Major-General Stanley.
Today's hostess was Joyce Wright, former soubrette with the DOC. I missed the day's activities as I went on the excursion to the Lake District. Now I know why upper New England was settled by so many Scots and English from the North counties - the Lake District reminded me very much of New Hampshire and Vermont.
The evening performance was The Yeomen of the Guard, Rose Hill Musical Society. The group presented a well-paced, musically satisfying performance which was appropriately both comic and tragic as appropriate. The pantomime during the overture of the fire in the Wakefield Tower added nothing to the comprehension of the piece and provided a distraction from listening to the overture, which is Sullivan's best (he did write this one himself).
Ellen Godfrey as Phoebe was an incredibly funny actress as well as an excellent singer and really stole the show. Her scenes with Wilfred (Jonathan Godfrey) make getting the videotape essential. Wilfred Shadbolt was equally comical and the inclusion of "When Jealous Torments, " which he sang wonderfully, humanizes him to a considerable degree. Peter Featherstone, as Sergeant Meryll, has a wonderful bass voice and did full justice to "A Laughing Boy." Ultimately, the song really adds little to the plot development (and Gilbert wisely removed it after opening night.)
Colin Ashton was assured and confident as Colonel Fairfax (at least as confident as one can be getting ready for a beheading). He was very short and much older than one normally expects to see in the part for him to make a credible Fairfax (younger make-up would have helped); the shortness made is difficult to accept him as a credible Yeoman. The star number of the piece was "Were I Thy Bride" in which Phoebe really gave Wilfred a going over. There is no way he would have noticed her stealing the keys the way she sang and used her hands to excite him. Ultimately, one action overdid it, Phoebe ran her hands though Wilfred's hair - a very natural action considering the circumstances. Her reaction of an obvious grimace followed by wiping her hands on his shirt during the song, rather than during a vocal break, drew hysterical laughter, killing the vocal line. Otherwise a very strong performance with no weak links either in singing or acting.
Today brought another innovation to the Festival: a G&S ephemera and collectibles fair. Dealers from England and Canada (Wilfrid de Freitas from Montreal) as well as the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society sold new, used and very collectible books, sheet music, posters and just about anything else a collector could ask for (or afford). The G&S fair was an adjunct to an old-fashioned British crafts fair which charged admission and led to a few mutterings among the G&S crowd and dealers who had been promised otherwise.
The performance of The Sorcerer with former members of the Original D'Oyly Carte Company provided for another nostalgic evening. The chorus was provided by Ian Smith's group the West Yorkshire Savoyards. The production was produced by Roberta Morrell and was loosely based on the last D'Oyly Carte production. The chorus was one of the stars of the show; they were costumed and acted as individuals, not members of a group with identical or matching costumes. Present on stage were maids and other servants, the village idiot, the town band which included Ian Smith as a drunken cymbalist.
The former Savoyards were mostly a different group from those of the opening evening with Geoffrey Shovelton as Alexis, Julia Goss as Aline, John Ayldon as the Notary, Patricia Leonard as Lady Sangazure, Michael Buchan as Sir Marmaduke, Alistair Donkin as John Wellington Wells, Peggy-Ann Jones as Mrs. Partlet, Lorraine Daniels as Constance and ESPECIALLY Kenneth Sandford as Dr. Daly, probably his greatest role and one which, alas, he has never recorded. This production was not recorded, unlike last year's Yeomen of the Guard, because one of the soloists did not want to be remembered for a performance which did not come up to that person's previous abilities. (No, it was not Ken Sandford who objected. He was perfect.) Peggy-Ann Jones was a wonderfully comic Mrs. Partlet and John Ayldon made much more of the role of the Notary than is usual. Geoffrey Shovelton was an appropriately snobbish and condescending Alexis (my choice as least likeable G&S character.) Donkin played Wells as a somewhat snobbish and condescending character, rather than the put-upon tradesman - not to my taste.
Ian Smith is planning to bring this production to Philadelphia next year and will try to do a 'professional' Ruddigore as well. At some point, however, he will have to decide whether the nostalgia outweighs the quality of the performance - the former D'Oyly Carters aren't getting any younger, although Ken Sandford seems ageless.
More innovations in the Festival today: a lecture by Prof. Arthur Jacobs on Sullivan showing how he either supported Gilbert's text with his music or in many cases went beyond it in softening some of the sting by his use of music. Unfortunately, either the sound system or the tape he used was totally inadequate making his musical illustrations rather painful.
Prof. Jacobs was followed to the lectern by Stephen Turnbull, Secretary of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, who entertained the audience with examples of his little list of the ten worst Gilbert and Sullivan recordings, most of which were from the early days of recording. His list included a handbell rendition of The Lost Chord as well as the John Charles Thomas performance of When I Was a Lad. Also included were a concertina version of The Lost Chord and an excerpt from a take-off called The Coolest Mikado (not to be confused with The Cool Mikado.)
The talks were followed by a Thanksgiving Service in memory of Sir Arthur Sullivan, featuring some of the hymns for which he had composed the music. Also presented were several solo numbers from the G&S canon as well as choruses and solos from some of Sullivan's oratorios and cantatas. The soloists were some of the winners in last year's festival: David Lace, Stella Whitehouse and Betsy Walker who were in as magnificent voice as ever.
The evening brought forth a lively production of Ruddigore by the South Anglia Savoy Players led by the award-winning performances of Sally Brown as Rose Maybud (Best Female Performer), Mick Wilson as Dick Dauntless (Best Supporting Male Performer) and Paul Lazell as Sir Roderick (Best Male Performer). For Paul this was the second year in a row in which he captured the Best Male Performer award.
The overture (the Geoffrey Toye version) was accompanied by TWO different pantomimes - the original curse followed by the breaking up of the wedding of a young Hannah Trusty with Sir Roderick. The latter did not seem to make sense to many viewers until one read the program notes. Neither added much to the comprehension of the story and were distractions from the overture. In fact, one wondered why the original overture was not used since all of the numbers which Toye cut in the 1920s D'Oyly Carte revival of Ruddigore - "The Battle's Roar is Over," "Away, Remorse" and "Henceforth all the Crimes" and "When a Man Has Been a Naughty Baronet" - were restored in this production.
Unlike too many Ruddigore productions, this one moved and at the end of the first scene between Rose and Richard the audience knew it was in for something special. Instead of giving Rose the usual peck on the cheek when told he could "salute the flag," Richard gave her an "Oklahoma Hello" during which Rose, after a modest struggle, gave up and heaved her Book of Etiquette across the stage. While Howard Brooks started out playing Robin as too "Diffident, Modest and Shy," he came alive and emphasized Richard's defects in a quite pointed manner. As Robin and Rose went off, Richard (whose theme song should have been "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love, I Love the Girl I'm Near") grabbed two of the bridesmaids and headed into the tavern, which was conveniently situated on the Village Green across from Rose's house.
Rachel Yelland as Mad Margaret was acceptably more neurotic than mad and she and Rose interacted in a wonderfully comical manner during their scene. The Sir Despard was much too tame during his opening scene and rather underplayed throughout.
The restoration of the second verse of "I Once Was as Meek as a Newborn Lamb" in the opening of the second act adds considerably to the change in the characters of Robin and Old Adam as do Robin's later recitative and aria "Away, Remorse" and "Henceforth all the Crimes." The ghost scene was expertly handled and Paul Lazell as Sir Roderick fully justified his award. In fact, when he sang "When the Night Wind Howls" during the earlier Master Class, Donald Adams could not add anything to his performance. Some trouble with killing the lighting behind some of the portraits at the end of the scene marred the effect in the transition back to portraits.
Unfortunately, the one production miscalculation killed the mood of "There Grew a Little Flower" and ruined the transition to the finale. After Robin is sent off Sir Roderick summoned Old Adam to serve tea. After chasing Sir Roderick and Dame Hannah with the tea table through the first two verses, Old Adam finally collapsed in a chair and drank the tea himself - during the third verse - drawing uproarious laughter which drowned the remainder of the song. I was reminded of Gilbert's remark when an actor suggested some funny business: "So it would be funny if you sat down on a pork pie." The tea table was simply out of place. Still, a superb effort and one for which I am anxiously awaiting the videotape to see again.
The Mikado presented by The Savoy Company was everything which one could want in a production of this most popular of the G&S canon. The most memorable of the many unforgettable performances was that of Betsy Walker as Katisha who was wonderfully menacing, pathetic and humorous as required. She has a marvelous contralto which filled the hall and made every word a delight. She received the award as Best Character Actress to go along with her Best Female Performer award from 1994. The Ko- Ko of Sam Griffith was equally comical, even if he did dry during the first verse of "As some day it may happen," something which seems to happen all too often when the second and third verses have been rewritten for topicality. ("The adjudicationist - I've got him on the list," etc.) Most notable of the many original touches in the production: Ko-Ko's page who carried on a golf bag filled with a variety of swords and who acted as a caddy while Ko-Ko tried them out.
Unfortunately, the lasting memory of the production is that of the Mikado having an extensive dry spell during the "Boiling oil or melted lead" scene. No one picked him up and there seemed some very long moments of the cast looking at each other. Ultimately, most of the dialog before "See how the fates" got dropped. Too bad; the Mikado (who was a last minute substitution) had a wonderful bass voice, very tall and thin and much more gentle than we are used to seeing - much more like the original rather than the current psychopathic depiction that is usually evident these days.
Today's Morning Coffee brought David Steadman, Assistant Musical Director and Chorus Master of the New D'Oyly Carte Company. Much of the conversation revolved around the current company, their sense of tradition (or lack thereof) and prospects for the future. I did not attend the master class.
The evening brought the second The Pirates of Penzance, performed by The Essex Group and a greater contrast to the first Pirates could not be imagined. The performance of the Manx Pirates was 'nice'; this one was spectacular: no individual awards, not even any nominations except for the Choral ("Hail Poetry" won) and Concerted items and Musical Director. Just an incredible, fast-paced performance (overture and first act in less than one hour) with no mugging and no obtrusive interpolations - a whole which was very much greater than the sum of its parts.
The curtain rose to a scene on a Pirate Ship (!) with a quick refrain of Happy Birthday Dear Frederick, not the entire song, with the quick entry into the proper opening chorus. The deck was so crowded that Ruth, and subsequently the Pirate King, tended to get swallowed by the chorus during their solos. Following the Pirate King's solo there was a very quick blackout, scene change (15 seconds) and Frederick and Ruth were carrying their luggage across the usual cove, ready for their encounter with the female chorus. Incredibly well done and believable. If Gilbert had had the ability to do such quick scene changes, he no doubt would have done the same thing. (I have since learned that the Joseph Papp Pirates also opens on the deck of a ship, but since I have never been able to watch that movie I was unaware that this transition had been done before.)
The Policemen's Chorus was the usual Keystone Kops affair - made somewhat more ridiculous than usual by their 'forgetting' their trousers and all being in tights. The effect was marred by the fact that the pantyhose used varied in color and texture so that one could see what was being worn, or in one case, not worn, underneath. The Sergeant and Ruth were the weakest singers and Mabel had some trouble competing with the orchestra but overall an incredible performance which some thought merited greater than their Second Runner-Up award.
Morning Coffee and Conversation with the team of Kenneth Sandford and Roberta Morrell who told many tales both in and out of school - a very fast two hours. Likewise their afternoon Master Class which effectively worked over two pages of dialogue - Ruth's scene with Frederic and Grosvenor's Act II opening scene from Patience - showing the participants how to wring every bit out of it.
And what can one say of the winning production of the Lamplighters' Princess Ida? Colorful, imaginatively staged (applause for each of the scenes with the rising of the curtain), wonderful costumes (Special Adjudicator's Award), brilliantly edited to make the characters more human and create a flow which is ordinarily lacking. If the original D'Oyly Carte had ever done a production like this, it would still be in business. Another production which was very much more than the sum of its parts. Baker Peeples received the award as Best Male Singer and there were several other nominations for individual awards, but the individual performances did not distract from the totally of the production.
The chorus was delightfully humanized. Instead of the usual collection of bored nobles scanning the panorama, we were given servants as well as the nobles, a fortune-teller, an astrologer and various others who looked as though they belonged. The dialog was pruned to eliminate the worst of the characterizations of King Gama ("His sting is present, though his stung is past") as well as the "bandy" dialog. As a result, Gama came across as not so much a malevolent being so much as a man sorely put-upon by his various and sundry offspring. Hilarion's mother also put in an appearance - a non-speaking and even non-singing role, but it gave him someone sympathetic to relate to.
Second act like the first - colorful, well staged, beautiful costumes, and surprise of surprises - a human Princess Ida rather than the ice princess as she is usually portrayed. After "Whom thou hast chained" she was on the verge of yielding to Hilarion when along came Hildebrand knocking at the gates to recall her to herself. A believable falling in the stream scene - Hilarion and Ida emerging with stained, disheveled and wet- looking clothing. Lady Blanche - properly put upon and frustrated, tearing the petals from a flower and leaving Ida shocked when she found it. On their entrance Hilarion, Cyril and Florian found a book listing the aims of Castle Adamant - providing a nice justification for "They're going to send a wire to the moon." They entered the Castle to find their robes, a much more believable discovery than the usual robes left on stage for them to find.
Lady Blanche did not sing "Come Mighty Must" even though it was listed in the program. Apparently, after the same number had been sung incredibly by Betsy Walker in the Sunday Sullivan Service, the Producer, realizing that comparisons would be inevitable, clearly went back and excised it; a very wise decision. (After having posted this, I was informed by several of the people from Lamplighters that the program listing was in error. They had not planned to perform it.)
Two major changes were made in the third act which carried through the mood as envisioned by the Producer. Ida's brothers WON the battle, giving much more credence to Ida's eventual 'surrender.' With the elimination of "I see my error now," there was a much smoother flow without the jar to modern sensibilities and carried the production to a flawless conclusion. Everything worked, no mishaps, a perfect production well justifying the winning Festival Trophy - which everyone knew the moment the performance ended -it was inevitable. Barbara Heroux was the winning Producer (director to Americans) and the production, obviously won the trophy as Best Overseas Production. (And isn't it time to eliminate that particular award? With Overseas productions receiving two of the three awards this year as well as the Festival trophy last year, there is no need for such a sop, whose very existence at this point sounds somewhat condescending - as if the overseas societies could not hold their own.)
The highlights of the evening's Festival Club were the parodies put on by the Lamplighters. Who can ever forget King Herod, Salome and John the Baptist singing "His head is on a platter (platter, platter, platter)" and many others in a like vein. Such items were all the more welcome since after almost two weeks the attendees seemed to have gotten tired of the usual repetitions of "Hail, Poetry" and "Dance a Cachucha," etc.
With the return of last year's Festival winners from Hancock County, Maine, there were very high expectations for their production of Iolanthe. And for the first half of the first act these expectations were exceeded and another blockbuster was expected. During the introduction to the act, two cute fairies peeped out from behind the curtain making sure that the scene would be safe for fairy revels - it was. The curtain opened on a real woodland fairy scene, light filtering through the trees and a 'pool' in the background out of which Iolanthe would emerge most convincingly. The Fairy Queen delivered a most solemn invocation with only a hint of the vocal problems to come. The Fairy Queen was dressed in the appropriate 'Wagnerian' costume which gave the usual tribute to the Maine locale by having the helmet and spear topped by lobster claws. Real rejoicing at Iolanthe's pardon and excellent work between Iolanthe and Strephon, soon duplicated by the interaction between Strephon and Phyllis, who came across then and later as a most determined young woman. Leslie Michaud as Iolanthe was an excellent actress, looked seventeen as she is supposed to and, according to some discussion I had, should have merited a nomination for something.
The chorus of Peers entered in spectacular fashion led by a bagpipe and drum corps. The Lord Chancellor of Roland Dube was a wonderful character, great actor, not much voice (in fact more of a tenor), but he carried it off wonderfully. And then, with the entrance of Tolloler and Mountararat, particularly the latter, the production fell flat. Mountararat could neither sing nor act; his dialog was most labored and one always wondered if he was going to in fact deliver his lines. However much the pace was restored in his absence, it died again and again in his presence. (I understand that he was recovering from a serious illness, but unfortunately had not recovered enough.) The Fairy Queen unfortunately shouted her way through the much of her verbal dueling with the Lord Chancellor and not withstanding another funny tribute to Maine ("You shall sit, if he sees reason, through the MOOSE and salmon season"), the entire finale seemed to drag. Virginia Cummingham as the Fairy Queen displayed an excellent voice on many occasions but seemed to have trained at the Anna Russell School of Singing and Acting - too much acting and singing for humor rather than letting the words speak for themselves. One bit of directoral miscalculation, Strephon was given robes and a coronet which were out of place since he is going into the House of Commons, not the Lords.
Private Willis was presented "When all night long" with more enthusiasm than one often sees with appropriate vocal winks and nods and leaning left on 'Liberal' and right on 'Conservative.' After the pipes and drums it was not surprising that he should have become a member of the Scots Guards. The fairies used their wands to great effect, freezing the Peers whenever they tried to leave during "In vain to us you plead." "Oh, foolish fay" was much better sung, with the second verse becoming a salute to the Festival Director - "Oh, Ian Smith, " with Ian squirming in the front row of the Dress Circle.
The Nightmare Song was credible, with the Lord Chancellor accompanied by his teddy bear which was also dressed in wig and robes, but "If you go in" was simple torture. The final scene between Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor was wonderful with Iolanthe using her wand to stop the Chancellor from recognizing until the denouement. She also became very determined rather than pathetic during the penultimate exchange with her acting showing that if she was going down, he was going with her. A wonderful transition to fairyland with lights sprouting in the fairies' hair and on the scenery but the overall production left one with a somewhat let-down feeling of disappointment.
The Festival Production of The Gondoliers, produced by Alistair Donkin, was cast on Saturday, rehearsed and put on within one week on Friday. It was modelled on the Anthony Besch production and included the spaghetti scene and the ubiquitous waiter, who, while an excellent actor, served as a distraction to the other action. For as much as an ensemble piece as is The Gondoliers, another day or two would not have been amiss. The chorus was wonderful, if far too large for the stage; over 80 people tried out and the size was an attempt to accommodate as many as possible. As too much of the stage was taken up by risers, which were not effectively used, with 45 choristers crowding was inevitable.
The singing was uniformly strong but the pacing seemed occasionally slow. "On the day when I was wedded" positively dragged, possibly to give the Duke a chance to clown around with the waiter, but the manner in which he did so detracted from the music and singing. Even with the program in front of me and not having received the video yet to review, I find it difficult to single out any of the very effective cast members to highlight.
The final Festival Club featured, among other things, an impromptu Trial by Jury featuring two defendants, six plaintiffs, two judges, etc. with the audience supplementing the jury and bridesmaids; chorus. It went well as did the inevitable chorus numbers. But, after two weeks, with many repetitions of the same items, there seemed to be somewhat less enthusiasm or audience participation than earlier in the Festival.
Dare I say it: perhaps there was a surfeit of Gilbert and Sullivan. Over the two weeks of the Festival Club many of the most popular items performed were not G&S but familiar and unfamiliar numbers which were in the same spirit: British Music Hall numbers were much appreciated as were show tunes, particularly those which involved some audience participation. Also very popular were the parodies, other numerous numbers - "Albert and the Lion," Tom Lehrer's "The Elements," The Capitol Steps' "That's a Lawyer" and the number which drew the loudest and most enthusiastic audience participation of the two weeks: Flanders and Swann's "The Hippopotamus Song."
The last day seemed quite rushed what with Morning Coffee and Conversation with Gillian Knight (not as spontaneous as some but full of good stories) and her afternoon Master Class (which I missed), matinee performance of a second Sorcerer (much the same as the first with the professionals at least showing how to rescue a colleague who is drying on stage), packing (trying to cram in all of the acquisitions of the two weeks), a trip to the post office to send off the excess, and a very long Festival Awards Banquet.
During and after the drawn-out dinner were the inevitable toasts which were interspersed through the awards. Taking a cue from the Motion Picture Academy Awards Ceremonies, the individual awards were preceded by short video clips of each of the four or five nominees. The awards were presented by various dignitaries as well as by the 'old' (Gillian Knight and Thomas Round), 'newer' (Geoffrey Shovelton, Julia Goss, Roberta Morrell and Alistair Donkin) and timeless (Kenneth Sandford) D'Oyly Carte stars. Each also performed a solo number, mostly G&S except for Gillian Knight who sang "Oh Peaceful England" from German's "Merrie England," an incredible tour-de-force for a contralto and all the more welcome for being different.
While the evening did not drag, it seemed to go on too long. The banquet officially began at 8:00 p.m., with dinner beginning at 9:00 and final choruses petering out about 1:30 a.m. with three of the listed choruses unsung. What with people rushing to get to bed to get some sleep before early busses, trains or other modes of departure, there was not really time to congratulate the winners or say good-byes properly. But there will be the occasion to renew friendships, those that haven't blossomed during the winter, during next year's Festival, Philadelphia, PA, July 20-27 and Buxton, England, August 4-18, 1996.
For those who chose to stay an additional day, there was a 'Festival Fringe' performance of Jesus Christ Superstar by St. Mary's Roman Catholic High School, last year's second place winners with their incredible production of The Gondoliers. Since they were not doing G&S this time, they were invited to participate in the Fringe. I did not stay, heading to London for a week to decompress. I did catch the Hot Mikado before it closed; it made a nice antidote and made it possible to start thinking about seeing some 'normal' Gilbert and Sullivan again.
Updated 9 Dec 1996