Libretto: William Schwenk Gilbert
Composer: Arthur Sullivan
Director: Andrew Nicklin
Musical Director: Timothy Burke
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Yeomen of the Guard is an oddity in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon and, partly because of that, has enjoyed a fluctuating reputation, at times over-rated (perhaps by Sullivan himself), at others unreasonably neglected. Often thought of a G&S take on grand opera, it is, of course, nothing of the kind: far too much dialogue, some of it very funny, and a plot resolution that, despite a final curtain death, is achieved through chance and comic relationships.
But it is different. There are comparatively few comic songs and much fine dramatic music and even Tudor pastiche. There is ceremonial played straight: when the trumpets sound for the peers in Iolanthe, there is satire implied, but not when they sound for the Yeomen Warders. The plot is not topsy turvy logic gone crazy, but a conventional melodrama, admittedly resolved by sudden Gilbertian coincidences. Above all the characters, with one exception, are taken more or less seriously. For instance, Dame Carruthers, Housekeeper to the Tower, is one of a Gilbertian type – the contralto battleaxe who can’t get her man – but, if her final scene with Sergeant Meryll could fit into almost any G&S opera, before that she has been totally credible in her stalwart identification with what the Tower means to England.
The plot centres around the heroic Colonel Fairfax who has been sentenced to death in the Tower of London for sorcery thanks to the machinations of his influential cousin – it’s the 16th century and that sort of thing happened then. Two attempts on his behalf overlap and confuse. To prevent the wicked cousin getting his property, Fairfax asks the Lieutenant of the Tower to arrange for him to marry and so Elsie Maynard, arriving at the Tower as a strolling player alongside jester Jack Point, agrees to be his wife and almost instant widow. But then Sergeant Meryll, who owes his life to Fairfax, and his daughter Phoebe, who has fallen in love with Fairfax from afar, plot his escape and disguise him as Leonard Meryll, newly arrived as a Warder. So Fairfax survives which is pretty rough on Jack Point who’d got his eye on Elsie himself!
The new production by the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company which is receiving three performances at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Harrogate makes the best of all cases for The Yeomen of the Guard. The NGSOC gets its priorities right. The Yeoman can be staged with lavish scenery, but the NGSOC has no credited designer, though the setting is intelligently functional and only Leonard Meryll has ground for complaint in terms of costume. Instead, we have a talented 20-strong chorus, mostly young, and an excellent orchestra, if numerically a bit thin, under Timothy Burke who conducts a nuanced reading of the score, jolly enough when it needs to be, but with a subtlety that enhances the opera’s “serious” qualities.
Andrew Nicklin’s production is basically traditional, with no suspect “ideas”, but approaches characters with a pleasing freshness. Jack Point’s pathos can so easily be overdone, but not here: Richard Gauntlett’s performance – light on his feet, literally and metaphorically – is a delight. Phoebe Meryll, love-lorn and resourceful, gets such a bravura treatment from Mae Heydorn that we can forgive her for going over the top now and again and Matthew Kellett’s Wilfred Shadbolt is a revelation: the fact that he is “Head Jailer and Assistant Tormentor” gives a clue that this is the one total caricature in the opera. Kellett, filthy, sadistic, cowardly and self-deluding, is a caricature, but so true to himself as to be almost likeable.
Philip Lee’s Colonel Fairfax sounds a touch strained vocally, but he is witty and personable once he sheds the beard and becomes Leonard Meryll. Natalie Montakhab copes admirably with the more challenging vocal lines of Elsie Maynard and manages to suggest the character’s emotional conflicts.
As for the splendid G&S veterans, Gaynor Keeble (Dame Carruthers) and Bruce Graham (Sergeant Meryll) are in fine voice and move from drama to comedy without showing the join and Steven Page commands the stage effortlessly as the Lieutenant – it’s a pity he has so little to do.
The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival runs until August 18, 2019 | Image: Jane Stokes