Alex Fice is transported to Venice by The Gondoliers, the Cambridge University Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s latest offering
Image Tristan Selden
Just ten minutes into the Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s most recent production of The Gondoliers, I had the peculiar sensation that I’d stumbled into the reunion of some secret society (I hesitate to use the word cult, though that may not be an unfair description), brought together by the unseen forces of a shared love for the creators of this Savoy Opera. Between 1871 and 1896, the virtuosic Victorian duo, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, combined their respective talents for theatrical writing and musical composition to produce a rambunctious repertoire of fourteen operas, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Princess Ida and The Yeomen of the Guard. In a similar vein to Shakespeare’s comedies, Gilbert’s libretti (the texts used for musical performances such as opera, cantata and musicals) teem with vibrant and charming characters caught up in an utterly bewildering series of events hell-bent on disaster, before reaching a rather neat resolution by the end of the two-hour romp. If you’re looking for opera that’s packed with pathos and cathartic comeuppances, then The Gondoliers probably isn’t for you. What was clear from those first ten minutes is that those watching had come along for exaggerated emotions, camp choreography and a jolly good laugh. In fact, the audience could barely contain their titters as they gleefully anticipated the arrival of the next joke…
It was clear that the artistic intent behind this production of The Gondoliers was to have fun, with rose-clad contadine (Italian peasant women) fighting over who will get to marry the dishy Palmieri brothers, aka our Gondoliers – played superbly by Seb Blount and Owen Elsley – who rock up in their trusty vessel looking like Italy’s answer to the Blues Brothers. One member of the chorus procures a rose vine from one of the contadine and begins an elaborate skipping routine in time with the high-paced orchestral accompaniment, which could so easily end in a bind, but which instead reaches its climax tangle-free. Flourishes like this really capture the spirit of the show that the cast and crew have worked hard to create. “The show is just bursting with vibrancy and silliness, and we wanted to stage a production that embraces this in its entirety,” says the director, Rose Painter. “Set in mid-eighteenth-century Italy, I took inspiration from commedia dell’arte, and by focusing on physical comedy, characterisation and anachronistic props we have created a wonderfully colourful, pantomime-esque style which so wonderfully combines the folly and light-heartedness of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta.” The slapstick humour, carefully choreographed routines and attention to detail with tongue-in-cheek props, best seen in the brief cameo of a top that reads “My husband went to Barataria and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”, all pays off to create a delightfully playful atmosphere on stage. There were also a handful of jibes aimed at our current political landscape thrown in for good measure, with one of the Gondoliers erupting with “I thought this was a work event!” after the ominous Don Alhambra arrives to break up a banquet in Act Two (non-socially distanced, cheese and nibbles provided).
Musical director Richard Decker did an expert job of injecting energy and regal pomp into the score, with the ingenious touch of situating the brass players in the upper wings of West Road’s auditorium to evoke a suitably palatial feel during the second Act. In places, the orchestra lacked the clarity you might expect to hear in a professional production, but I think it’s fair to say that perfection was never the end-goal of this particular show. The singers, on the other hand, all revealed extraordinary talent, with stand-out performances from the Ducal party, played by Harley Jones, Hebe Hamilton and Emily Callow. The latter showcased remarkable maturity in her voice and thrived in her role as the endearingly brattish daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro. The decision to strip back the music to several unaccompanied sections was a wise one too, resulting in a choral feel and putting the spotlight on the singers’ voices.
Overall, the joyful spirit of The Gondoliers is sure to win over any audience, offering a boundless energy that will no doubt fuel future productions by the Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society – so watch this space!
Reviewed by Alex Fice