Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Oh misery me": The problems of "Yeomen of the Guard" are unsolved by Winter Opera

Contemporary Yeomen in period costume at the Tower of London
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas follow a fairly predictable format—so much so that Anna Russell once made it the basis for a sixteen-minute comedy routine on "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera." The one oddball in the G&S canon is "Yeomen of the Guard," a somewhat indifferent production of which opened Winter Opera's current season the weekend of October 30th.

"Yeomen" comes at a time in Gilbert and Sullivan's partnership when Sir Arthur Sullivan was beginning to see himself as a victim of his own success. Like his literary contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle, Sullivan felt that his popular works were overshadowing his more serious efforts. As Doyle would come to resent Sherlock Holmes, Sullivan was beginning to resent his comic collaborations with Gilbert. So when Gilbert proposed a more serious libretto, Sullivan jumped at the chance.

First performed in 1888, "Yeomen" wasn't a total departure from the familiar formula. There are disguises, complex plot reversals, and a fair amount of comedy. But the satirical jabs at British institutions are absent and the ending is, if not really tragic, at least unhappy. The result is an uneven mix of Gilbertian absurdity and unconvincing drama that never really works as either comedy or tragedy. Its appeal has always escaped me.

Set in the Tower of London in the 16th century, the story of "Yeomen" revolves around Colonel Fairfax, who is about to executed for sorcery on the basis of false testimony from an evil cousin who plans to inherit Fairfax's fortune if Fairfax dies unmarried. Fairfax offers 100 crowns to any woman who will marry him, sight unseen, and so cheat his cousin of his ill-gotten gains. Elsie Maynard, a young singer more or less betrothed to the jester Jack Point, takes him up on the offer in order to buy medicine for her ailing mother.

Unknown to Fairfax, his old friend Sergeant Meryll and daughter Phoebe have hatched a plot to save his life by disguising him as Meryll's son Leonard, newly arrived to take a position as one of the Tower guards (the "Yeomen" of the title). Once sprung from prison, Fairfax woos Phoebe and then, still disguised as Leonard, seduces Elsie while pretending to be helping Jack Point woo her.

By the end of the opera both Phoebe and her father are trapped in dreary marriages to (respectively) the loutish jailer Wilfred Shadbolt and the bloodthirsty Tower housekeeper Dame Carruthers as the price for keeping their plot secret. Fairfax claims Elsie and poor Jack Point falls senseless to the stage.

In short, no good deed goes unpunished and Fairfax, an ingrate if ever there was one, goes on his merry way.

The inadequacies of the libretto aside, Sullivan produced some wonderful music for "Yeomen," including an artfully constructed overture which was, alas, cut in half for this production. Most of the other optional cuts were apparently made as well, bringing the show in at under two and one-half hours, including intermission. Unfortunately, the slow pacing and static staging by director John Stephens made it feel longer.

As is often the case with Winter Opera, there were some truly fine voices in this cast, with mezzo Amy Maude Helfer leading the pack as a completely engaging Phoebe. She displayed a fluid, smooth voice and impressive acting skills. Soprano Eileen Vanessa Rodriguez was an excellent Elsie and bass James Harrington brought a welcome touch of dry humor to the role of Sergeant Meryll.

As Jack Point, baritone Andy Papas had the kind of rich, powerful voice that one doesn't often hear in the "principal actor" roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. He did well by Point's patter numbers, although he made the character a bit more querulous than I would have liked.

There were vocally strong performances as well from tenor Clark Sturdevant as Fairfax, contralto Sharmay Musacchio as a rather young-looking Dame Carruthers, and bass-baritone Adrian Rosas as the one historically based character, Tower Lieutenant Sir Richard Cholmondeley. Baritone Gary Moss sang well as Shadbolt and had some nice comic business, but insisted on delivering all his lines facing downstage, even when interacting with other characters, which simply looked bizarre.

The chorus was small but mighty; credit Chorus Master Nancy Mayo for that.

Scott Schoonover did his usual polished job conducting the orchestra, which generally did quite well by Sullivan's music, that annoying cut in the overture not withstanding. The fact that the Viragh Center has an actual orchestra pit also eliminated some of the balance problems you sometimes encounter in performance spaces that weren’t designed with musical theatre in mind.

Scott Loebl's set gave a nice sense of the Tower's imposing presence while still leaving lots of playing space available and JC Krajicek's costumes evoked the period quite effectively.

If "Yeomen of the Guard" was not, on the whole, one of Winter Opera's better efforts, the bulk of the blame must fall to Mr. Gilbert for producing a libretto that was neither fish nor fowl. "Yeomen of the Guard" is a problematic work, and this production didn't solve it.

Winter Opera's season continues with Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" January 22 and 24 and concludes with Verdi's "Il Trovatore" March 4 and 6. There's also a festive "Holidays on the Hill" concert December 8 and 9 and Dominic's on the Hill. For more information:

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.