Friday, 25 November 2011

Ruddigore - Opera North @ Barbican Theatre, Wednesday 23rd November 2011

A remarkable feature of the Cornish village of Rederring is that it possesses a corps of professional bridesmaids, whose services are much underused of late. They suggest to Dame Hannah that she might marry, but Hannah, the victim of an unhappy girlish romance, is pledged to eternal spinsterhood. She had fallen in love with a young man who courted her under an assumed name but who, on their wedding day, she discovered to be no other than Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, one of the bad Baronets of Ruddigore (and the uncle of the current baronet), on whom there is a strange curse. Madly as she loved him she left him there and then. Dame Hannah tells the chorus about the legend – the first Baronet was a witch-hunter, and while being burned at the stake, one of his victims vowed that he and all his male heirs must commit at least one crime a day or perish in agony.

Rose Maybud arrives. Rose is a foundling. She was discovered on the steps of the workhouse with a book of etiquette tucked into the basket. She has kept this book ever since and lives by its instructions. She is fond of a young farmer, Robin Oakapple (who is in reality Ruthven Murgatroyd. In dread of the terrible curse, he fled from home, while his younger brother, Despard, believing him to be dead, succeeded to the family title and the curse). Robin is greatly attracted to Rose, but he is too shy to tell her that he loves her.

A stir in the village heralds the arrival of Richard Dauntless, a sailor, on leave. Robin enlists his services to propose to Rose on his behalf. In doing so, however, Richard falls in love with Rose himself, proposes on his own account and is accepted. But when Rose learns the true state of affairs she transfers her affections to the shy and modest Robin, and Richard in revenge reveals the identity of Robin to Sir Despard Murgatroyd; in consequence Robin has to re-assume his family title with its terrible curse. Sir Despard, now free, proposes to Mad Margaret, a poor, crazed creature whose brain has been turned by his previous heartless conduct; while Rose, in horror of the dreadful curse, once more bestows her affections on Richard.

In the picture-gallery of Castle Ruddigore hang portraits of the baronets from Sir Rupert, the witch-hunter, to Sir Roderic, the most recent. Robin is now in residence with his faithful servant, old Adam Goodheart. They are discussing what the crime of today is to be. Alone before the portraits of his ancestors, Robin confides to them his detestation of the curse and begs to be released from it. His ghostly ancestors come down from their frames, making it clear to Robin that their patience is running thin with his pathetic attempts at crime. He is ordered for his next crime to carry off a lady, and after Robin has promised to be obedient in the future, the ancestors change back into pictures. Adam sets off to capture a lady from the village.

Robin receives a visit from his brother Despard and Mad Margaret, who are now married and devoted to good works.. Despard points out to Robin that he must realize that he is morally responsible for all crimes committed during Despard's occupation of his place, and Robin is more than ever determined to find some means of freeing himself from the conditions of this dreadful curse.

Old Adam returns to Ruddigore Castle having abducted Dame Hannah. She is in a rage at the treatment she has received. Robin in alarm calls to his uncle Roderic for help, and once again he descends from his picture-frame. He denounces Robin for carrying off the lady who was once engaged to him. Seeing their happiness in their reunion, Robin has a brilliant idea. He puts it to Sir Roderic that a Baronet of Ruddigore can only die by refusing to commit a crime and that is tantamount to suicide. But suicide itself is a crime [or it was when the operetta was originally written]. They ought therefore never to have died at all. Consequently they are all alive. It is obviously impossible to contradict this sound logic and there are finally plenty of weddings for the Bridesmaids to attend.
Rose Maybud – Amy Freston
Dame Hannah – Anne-Marie Owens
Robin Oakapple – Grant Doyle
Old Adam – Richard Angas
Richard Dauntless – Hal Cazalet
Mad Margaret – Heather Shipp
Sir Despard – Richard Burkhard
Sir Roderic – Steven Page

Creative Team
Words – W. S. Gilbert
Music – Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director – Jo Davies
Set – Richard Hudson
Costumes – Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting – Anna Watson

How lovely to see that one of G&S’s relative failures can still pack out an entire theatre, and how wonderful to hear Sulliivan’s score played by upwards of 30 musicians (with a second trombone, yet!). How splendid to see a creatively directed production that had had shedloads of money chucked at it. And how disappointing that the singing wasn’t up to anything like scratch. Opera North should be able to field some better principals than this – perhaps they were saving their Big Guns for their production of The Queen of Spades? Whatever the reason, the somewhat limited vocal talent on display serves this production very ill. I’ve actually heard better amateur voices. Amy Freston got quieter and quieter the higher up the stave she climbed, and there were very few – if any – occasions when you heard any of Rose Maybud’s top notes sailing high over the chorus. Hal Cazalet sounded similarly underpowered as Richard Dauntless – in the trio “When Sailing O’er Life’s Ocean Wide” both Freston and Cazalet were roundly trumped by Grant Doyle’s Robin Oakapple. The greatest disappointment was Steven Page’s Sir Roderic – the character only has one song (When the Night Wind Howls) which should be delivered in the kind of deep, fruity bass-baritone that makes the floorboards vibrate. His somewhat reedy baritone totally failed to make the grade for me. Only Heather Shipp’s Mad Margaret and Richard Angas’ Old Adam sounded like they were being sung by members of a well-regarded opera company.

I enjoyed the central conceit of updating the action to the early 30’s, (although this did tend to make a bit of a nonsense of the libretto’s slightly affected early 19th century style) and it was clever and interesting to present the show as an old, faded movie of the kind you get on Sunday afternoons on TV. What didn’t work well was the mixing of this style with the attempt at taking Ruddigore back to its roots in 19th century stage melodrama – there were prominent footlights across the stage of the kind seen in an old “palace of varieties” and several of the numbers were given in a vaudeville style in front of a dropped frontcloth. Use of the footlights and tracking spotlights reinforced this feel, and I began to feel as if I were being dragged backwards and forwards in time constantly while the production tried to settle into a particular period. The design on the drop cloth, while pretty and well realised, was inappropriate to the given location of the operetta being a Cornish fishing village, as it showed a romantically overgrown garden with steps and crumbling columns. Again, fine for “The Good Old Days” variety hall but out of synch with both the 30’s and the supposed village setting. The problem with making everything fit with the “old sepia-toned film” is that the set and costumes had to follow a very proscribed colour range of whites, creams, blacks, browns and pinks – pretty enough in itself but visually quite dull; after a while one’s eyes start to crave the sharp contrast of a splash of sharp blue or green; proof of which came in the form of Mr. Punch (in cherry red) and the bright green crocodile who appeared during the Punch and Judy show. Immediately the eyes of the entire audience were focussing only on them – which was probably deliberate because its probably the funniest bit of the entire show. One of the ghosts was dressed in a dark red Elizabethan costume and, again, the sudden visual contrast meant that my eyes, hungry for colour, immediately focussed on him alone.

What I particularly enjoyed was the “back story” of young Hannah and her relationship with Sir Roderic being presented as a silent film during the overture – if you’ve never seen the show, this “back story” is easy to miss as its explained in a very brief exchange of dialogue, and, if you do miss it, it can leave you wondering what the hell is going on, with serious consequences for your enjoyment of the piece. I also loved the fact that a great deal of thought had gone into scene changes during Act 1 – for the finale, we find ourselves suddenly inside the village church, which fits perfectly with both plot and music.

The chorus of professional bridesmaids were given plenty to do, with lots of highly inventive business and each seemed to have been given a distinct character. If I am going to be really, really picky (and believe me, I am) I would say that the waistlines of their dresses were in completely the wrong place for the 1930s – waistlines were at the natural waist and therefore insufficiently low to give the correct period line.

The technical demands of the second act were extremely well handled, although the sightlines from my seat didn’t enable me to see the entire stage and therefore I missed a fair bit. The “trial” scene was a very good idea and I anticipate this being pinched by at least one amateur director of my acquaintance. The “disappearance” of Sir Roderic could have been a real coup de theatre but I think a lot of people didn’t register it because his cloak was more or less the same colour as the set and so the “trick” was very easily missed if you happened to be looking elsewhere at the time, which was an incredible shame as it should have been a real “oooooooh!” moment. And the director in me was praying that something was going to be done with the polar bear rug – someone should have tripped over it or wrestled with it, or perhaps its eyes should have lit up.

Yes, I have really picked this production to bits rather. But only because it was thought-provoking and enjoyable. Had I loathed it, then I really wouldn’t have invested the time and effort into being quite so pernickety. It can be a tough life being a theatre critic sometimes – your critical judgement gets sharpened to the point where it becomes practically impossible to just sit back and enjoy things on their own terms. So a big round of applause for Opera North for having the guts to revive a lesser-known G&S work and for doing a damned good job with it.

What the critics thought:

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