Planquette: Rip Van Winkle at Gothic Opera | Live Review

Lauren McQuistin
Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Fun, slapstick and nuanced combined in this joyous performance of Robert Planquette's operetta at Hoxton Hall

****

Alice Usher as Katrina | Photo: Craig Fuller

For its fifth season Gothic Opera has taken another buried work, Robert Planquette’s operetta Rip Van Winkle, and staged it in the intimate Hoxton Hall – somewhere not unlike the Victorian Music Halls where operettas of this era would be performed in. It was easily filled with the boisterous energy of the ensemble, a group of settlers jovially mocking the monarchy, with moments of comedy, bawdiness and occasional tenderness created between each of them, under the detailed direction of Evangeline Cullingworth. Robert Garland fully embodied the work-shy dreamer Rip, with levity and ease, whilst Béatrice de Larragoïti created a sincere depiction of his exasperated wife, with a pure and nimble voice. It blended playfully with Garland’s, particularly for the charming Canoe Song. Stephen Whitford, an Act 1 highlight, performed his pompous rival, Derrick, with maturity, and a developing vocal richness through the melodrama of his feelings for Gretchen and vendetta against Rip.

An operetta, usually characterised as a farcical and unserious work, seems an unusual choice for a company inspired by gothic and supernatural themes but a very committed second act fulfilled all the requirements. As Rip quests into the forest, the Gothic tropes of omens, curses, fear and mystery are introduced, when he meets the troop of Dutch Sailors who haunt the mountain. In this realm of the supernatural, all elements of lighting, costume and choreography were utilised to create an eerie – yet at times absurd and camp – magical realism sequence, involving ghosts, bowling pin costumes and sailors falling into drug induced sleep. Neither director nor cast took itself too seriously, allowing the singers to take risks and explore their comedic potential, particularly ensemble member Phoebe Rayner during the Ninepins Chorus, whose warm voice and committed acting really sparkled in this scene.

The cast of Rip Van Winkle | Photo: Craig Fuller

As Rip returns to the village after his curse of 20 years of sleep, he is reunited with his daughter, vibrantly sung by Hannah Bennett, with great vulnerability and hopefulness in her letter aria. However, as the rest of the cast is reintroduced, the end takes a chilling turn, as Rip has missed the American Revolution and now has walked into a world he doesn’t recognise and doesn’t understand. Garland impressively conveys his distress during a chorus tableau, as he walks, disorientated, around the people from his old life – the cheerful melodies, sung with great precision, were once an anchor for him, and now show how the world has moved on without him. He lunges back to the forest as the joyful finale persists, in a simplistically powerful, fittingly sinister finale.

Performing a European work set in colonial times faces acknowledging the unmentioned injustices of the conquest. Designer Elliot Squire subtly referenced this by depicting the natural world suddenly overturned by the presence of those who decided to take it, adding a layer of appropriate darkness. Gothic Opera is doing great work in showcasing younger singers in their development stage. This work allowed for opportunities to explore slapstick, subtext and nuance – as well as a great deal of fun | gothicopera.co.uk

 

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