Composer: Robert Planquette
Arranger: Leon Haxby
Director: Evangeline Cullingworth
Conductor: Robin Wallington
In among the ghostly goings-on and the horror evident in the man who was cursed to sleep for 20 years, what really comes through in Gothic Opera’s staging of Rip Van Winkle is the danger of oblivious over-confidence.
Van Winkle is a local character, ducking out of debts and unstable in his habits, prospects and commitments. As a settler in the new Dutch colony in upstate New York, these are not desirous qualities. His long-suffering wife, Gretchen, bears the frustrating brunt of the 18th-century version of a get-rich-quick scheme as he returns from a tramp around the mountains with an idea to go back to get more gold than can last a lifetime. She warns against it, mentioning hauntings and dangerous supernatural presences, but, of course, the heedless husband has to go. His subsequent cursed 20-year sleep comes as no surprise, waking up after Gretchen’s death on the day of America’s first presidential election.
It’s unlikely in real life we’ll be cursed by the spirits of Dutch sailors to rest unconsciously for decades in a forgotten forest glade. But by making Rip’s character at once so relatable and so heedless to his surroundings, to the impact of his actions, and to the dangers he places himself and others in, we can fully see ourselves as the protagonist who nearly loses everything. The pointed, glaring reference to the feckless colonial being hypnotised by ghostly gold is, for example, most enjoyable. It’s a far scarier thought than any ghost can convey.
Leon Haxby’s new arrangement of Robert Planquette’s operetta, in a version that cuts down on characters as well as refining the instrumentation to six players, has us sweeping cleanly through the story with vigour. The venue was not built for acoustics, so when Robin Wallington’s musicians at times over-compete with the vocals it’s a shame, but understandable. Though the numbers are reduced, the nuance and detail in the score are retained with flicks of brightness and light coming through strongly. The flute line, for example, in the Election chorus in Scene 3 is a great example of the delicate embellishments from Planquette well-preserved by Haxby.
That retention of melodic inventiveness goes across the sung parts too. Robert Garland as Rip and Béatrice de Larragoïti as his wife Gretchen turn in lovely performances. Their complex romance (puppyish adoration diluted by selfishness on his part combined with her deep and committed devotion) is well portrayed, and in their solo songs, they provide the emotional infrastructure upon which the rest of the work can succeed.
While musically it’s great and hosts some good performances with warmth and humour throughout, the staging feels like it gets in the way at times. Bringing the action right to and through the audience is a good choice, and when it works it works well. It’s inconsistent though. A local pub crowd, boisterous and highly charismatic, turns suddenly into a static and staid arranged chorus. A surreal and captivating dreamy sequence through the Nine-Pins Song is wonderful in its own right but seems out of place with the rest of the piece. It comes across as stop-start and prevents the momentum the good parts create from building consistently to ensure the strong final moments are as impactful as they should be.
Hoxton Hall, for years run by a temperance organisation, is a wonderful location for a story like this. It skirts the border between moralising and empathetic, landing on just the right side without bearing down too heavily with its message. Designer Elliott Squire has created a superb ambience in the old hall too, mixing the natural and dramatic surroundings of the Catskill mountains with elements of the settlers’ encroachments and attempts to tame their new country.
What we have here is a ghostly story with a solid message, conveyed through solid performances and engaging music. The revival of Planquette’s rarely-seen work is a treat from a talented small opera company. Given how enjoyable it is, it’s a real shame it has such a short run.
Runs until 1 November 2023