Gilbert and Sullivan’s flopera is restored to its rightful place
Good Lord, was I looking forward to this. By which I mean, I drove the four hours to Nottingham for it and the four hours back and I did it gladly. Because for as long as I can remember, Ruddigore, that satire of the Victorian melodrama complete with spectres, curses and witches burnt alive, has been my favourite of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. A resounding flop at its first appearance, largely (if legend is to be believed) because of the sweary title, which first appeared as Ruddygore, the reputation of this ghostly comedy has never quite recovered. Delicate bunch, the Victorians.
In my lifetime I only remember one professional British production, by New D’Oyly Carte, which I (inexcusably) missed. But my admiration survived even the distinctly dodgy amateur staging which graced Poole in my childhood, and was fanned by the wonderful 1982 television film starring Keith Michell, Sandra Dugdale, Donald Adams and – unforgettable as the macabre bad baronet Sir Despard, Vincent Price (yes, that Vincent Price).
So the news that Opera North had revived this skeleton in the G&S closet was enough for me to hotfoot it (albeit late in the run) to Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, four year-old son in tow for his first opera (yes, I’m afraid he is also being weaned on that 1982 film and is already a convert). Neither of us were disappointed.
Director Jo Davies has updated the action to post-World War One, when silent movies were the thing (an apt substitution for the similarly overheated Victorian stage). It’s a brilliant move, a shift forward that allows today’s audiences to easily connect with vampy femmes fatales (Heather Shipp’s terribly tragic Mad Margaret), over-eager sailors (Hal Cazalet’s thigh-slapping Richard Dauntless) and upstanding heroines who positively ooze decency (Amy Freston’s hilariously prim yet spunky Rose Maybud).
Davies even begins the opera with a silent film depicting the early courtship of Sir Roderick Murgatroyd and Dame Hannah, who are due to be married until (as the captions inform us) Roderick’s brother, the baronet Sir Ruthven, is supposedly drowned and his sibling must take the title with its attached curse – by which he must commit a bad deed every day or die in agony. Roderick, here a beefy Great War officer, shoots himself with his service revolver. Trust me, it’s very, very funny and the evening is off to a wonderfully over-the-top start.
The cast has clearly watched a lot of silent films. Every movement was filled with an awareness of the various swoons, semaphore gestures and character-defining walks that used to fill the silver screen (my favourite was Shipp’s decidedly unbalanced, jerky pushing of a pram along the boulevard, in time with the staccato music).
One reason that Ruddigore has never previously caught on, I think, is that the traditional comic baritone’s role doesn’t really exist here. The baritone is actually the romantic lead, the bashful Robin Oakapple who is later revealed to be – gasp -Sir Ruthven in disguise. In the past the role was often nabbed by the reigning G&S comedian, John Reed and the like, who tended to be (or anyway, to sound) too old for the role. It’s a tricky one, because the shy young hero of the first half must, once his secret is out, become the cackling if cack-handed bad baronet of the second. Grant Doyle manages the balancing act perfectly; sweet, funny and warm of voice throughout it all (loved the stick-on villain’s moustache).
Richard Angas as Robin’s long-suffering manservant Adam takes to his latter role as dead-eyed, axe-wielding henchman with gusto. Steven Page clearly has a whale of a time as Roderick, barking out commands to Ruthven and to his fellow ghosts as though still on the parade ground – though he and Anne Marie Owens’s formidable Dame Hannah manage a truly touching moment amid the knockabout for their second-act reunion.
The mostly young cast pay dividends in energy and enthusiasm. Though in terms of G&S vocal style the veterans tended to show the young bloods the way – Page strutting through ìThe Ghost’s High Noonî, Owens summoning exactly the right Verdian chills as Dame Hannah – there were no weak links. Conductor John Wilson made a great splash at the Proms last year with his MGM musicals night and here was similarly driven – his passion for this work was clear and infectious enough to overcome the odd lapse in coordination between pit and stage.
This was, in fact, as enjoyable an operatic comedy night as I can remember and a reclamation of a satirical masterpiece. I hope it comes home, as it were, to London (the Savoy Theatre, perhaps?). I hope it is filmed for all to enjoy. I hope I get to see it again. Oh, and my son now wants to see another opera. Which is safe to choose at that age, I wonder? My first, aged five, was Il Trovatore. Which is basically Ruddigore without the laughs.