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Review: The Gondoliers

Back in full force, albeit in an unconventional form, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s virtual August 27th Edinburgh Fringe premiere, followed by an on-demand run and a screening at the Byre on September 7th, marked both the society’s return to live theater and a new era of hybrid presentation. A marriage of 21st century technology and the enduring charm of Gilbert and Sullivan’s iconic 19th century operettas, ‘The Gondoliers,’ proves a thoroughly joyful work.

The 12th opera composed during Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert’s long standing partnership, the ‘The Gondoliers,’ was both a compromise in tone and a staggering success, popularly and critically. Originally premiering at the Savoy Theatre, the opera would run for an impressive 554 performances, enjoying a rare level of success which culminated in an 1891 performance at Windsor Castle. A comedy of errors, the tale is centred around two young Venetian gondoliers, one of whom is, unwittingly, the heir to the fictional kingdom of Barataria. Set against a colourful background of love, marriage, and drunken confusion, a series of unfortunate and serendipitous events inevitably unfold.

The production’s musical director, Charlotte Perkins, expressed that, musically, there is a palpable sense of Sullivan’s joyfulness in ‘The Gondoliers,’ composing in expressive dialogue with the tradition of Italian opera. This interaction gives way both to humouristic elements and a ‘lush and generous-feeling’ soundscape. Through heightened freedom and playfulness, he is afforded ‘freer reign in this score to play with interesting modulations, textures, and rhythmic motifs,’ Perkins explains. Lacking self-consciousness, the operatic form is transformed, lending itself as a choice vehicle for timeless social commentary. Perkins’ direction is expert, and the cast features a number of exceptionally talented singers.

Though the unprecedented has become the norm, and it is, perhaps, redundant to remind the viewer of the extraordinary challenges casts and crews face as they return to live theatre, it is essential to address the irregularities of the artistic process behind a production such as this one. Director of ‘The Gondoliers,’ Tabitha Benton-Evans, shared the unique task of staging an operatic production which would translate to recording, much of the company entirely unaccustomed to performing for the medium of film, all the while maintaining the spirit of live theatre and respecting time-honoured tradition.

While, on occasion, transitions feel asynchronous or adjacent scenes lack cohesion, there is experimentation at play in uncharted territory, a commendable fact. More successful is a creative use of angles and camerawork, panning and circling actors for dramatic effect. Sequences which employ alternate settings are especially spirited and engaging as well: parading through a hallway at the end of their journey, the Duke of Plaza-Toro (Benedict Connaughton,) the Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Perkins,) and Casilda (Bethany Donn) make their entrance as they arrive in Venice from Spain, taking clever advantage of the digital format.

Perkins acknowledged the scale of the project, which presented a great deal of uncertainty and an immense potential for risk. This necessitated a new level of vigilance and precaution. While safety as a chief priority throughout the rehearsal process posed challenges, such instability can breed inventiveness: ‘the Covid-19 restrictions, while at times frustrating, also provided an incredible creative opportunity,’ Benton-Evans reflected. ‘How do you block a love scene with a one meter distance between performers?’ Choosing to employ strands of red and white silk as a physical manifestation of sentiments and bonds, though a practical solution, effectively enriches the performance, adding visual and symbolic depth.

This concept works particularly well in spirited ensemble numbers and an intimate duet between the compelling pair comprised of Casilda and Luiz (Adi Aurora,) as the lover’s impending separation is given physical bearing. Gondoliers and protagonists Marco Palmieri (Sebastian Roberts) and Giuseppe Palmieri (Brannon Liston-Smith) form another charming duo, providing a light-hearted absurdist focal point. Roberts and Liston-Smith’s chemistry and perfectly-executed timing is refreshing.

There is an unavoidable awkwardness to be grappled with when taking into account the required 1m distance between performers, which on the offset is slightly jarring. As the viewer acclimates to this irregularity, the piece comes into its own, and the later ensemble scenes find a more solid footing. Throughout, there is a tangible feeling that the cast is, in fact, having a great deal of fun: this sense of joy in conjunction with effortlessly amusing content is a genuinely rewarding experience to behold.

Costuming is another distinct highlight of the production, with actors robed in a rich, Venetian inspired colour scheme which elevates a comparatively simplistic set and lends a vibrant cinematic quality. John Burnett ported a particularly striking ensemble as Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra del Bolero, delivering a memorable performance whilst white-legged and booted with a trailing red cloak. Each character’s costume, indicative of careful consideration and individual attention, is a true success. The final musical number, an ensemble scene of dance and jubilation, is a visually stunning culmination, in large part thanks to a luscious range of garment shades and textural variety.

Despite satirical commentary on class distinction and thinly veiled criticism of Britain’s own monarchical systems, it was a certain lightness and Sullivan’s vibrant and layered score, accompanied by Gilbert’s characteristically delightful libretto, which first thrilled contemporary audiences. It is, in part, this fact that makes the piece so fitting for the G&S’s post-lockdown revival; the 1889 comic opera was hailed as the partnership at its best, harkening back to beloved earlier works. Whether it proves to be a temporary solution to uncertain times or the start of a new normal, the society’s willingness to assume an entirely new style of production in a manner this ambitious is a testament to the work of all involved

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