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The Trumpet Bray

March 2004

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THE (IN)COMPLETE WORKS OF GILBERT & SULLIVAN: New England Light Opera, now in its second season, presented this G&S revue at the Tsai Performance Center of Boston University on February 20 and 21, and at Masconomet Regional School in Topsfield on the 22nd. I had resigned myself to non-attendance, as I was in a competing show that weekend; but to my great delight, the group added a Saturday matinee at the last minute.

The ticket price of $30 originally seemed steep to me for a revue with piano accompaniment, but within the show's first five minutes I firmly repented. This is a thoroughly professional company: in addition to fine singing and acting, the players exhibit the kind of infectious energy that has saved many an amateur show, and that is sadly lacking in too many high-priced productions.

Artistic director Mark Morgan (who served as music director and collaborated with stage director Peter A. Carey on the adaptation) learned much of his G&S from James Stuart at Ohio Light Opera, including a fondness for the lesser-known works of the canon. Morgan and Carey set themselves the challenge of using material from all 14 operas and creating a storyline that would make the show more than simply a concert. I think they and their cast did themselves proud.

The principals included baritone Richard Conrad, who needs no introduction to Boston G&S audiences, and contralto Eugenia Hamilton, who toured with Opera a la Carte and has worked with Donald Adams. Hamilton was in fine voice (her "Silvered Is the Raven Hair" was a highlight), and if the same could not be said for Conrad, at least he can still sell a comic song as well as anyone. There was a nicely contrasted pair of lead sopranos in Sol Kim Bentley, a petite charmer of Asian descent, and Kaja Schuppert, a tall Nordic beauty with an electrifying high E-flat. They were ably partnered, respectively, by local favorite Daniel Kamalic as lyric baritone and by Jason McStoots, the possessor of a creamy tenor voice and an impressive opera and concert resume.Grow!

The setting was a Victorian parlor, with a grand piano onstage and a rich Oriental rug underfoot (doubtless provided by Landry & Arcari, who took the program's only color advertisement). Schuppert and McStoots, acting as maid and butler, admitted a gaggle of party guests (the remaining soloists plus a dozen choristers) who each wrote on a slip of paper and dropped it in a hat. For the rest of the show, the guests took turns drawing slips and singing songs, which - wonder of wonders! - turned out to suit their voices perfectly. Scores were passed around as needed; the THESPIS scores (for "Climbing over Rocky Mountain," with the original lyrics) were a great sight gag.

None of the singing or acting seemed rushed, quite a feat when both the songs and the dialogue shifted from one opera to another at a split second's notice. I was so busy playing "name that opera" that I didn't realize until near the end that there was actually a kind of plot: through various impediments, the couples were working their way toward "happily ever after." (So that's why they kept calling each other "Young Soprano," "Lady Mezzo," etc., instead of using the original characters' names.) It was a bit like Anna Russell's "How to Write Your Own G&S," with the genuine article replacing Russell's pastiche.

Apart from a few fluffed lines and a couple of mispronounced words (in "Poor Wandering One," "lowers" ought to rhyme with "ours"), the show went off without a hitch. Mark Morgan served as party host, page turner, and discreet choral conductor, and Karen Gahagan at the piano managed to keep up with the dozens of quick segues (she also got one of the biggest laughs with her only vocal line, "My opinion doesn't matter"). Ilyse Robbins was credited as choreographer; the blocking ranged from graceful to deliberately chaotic but was so seamless that one couldn't tell where Carey's part left off and Robbins's began.

Seeing this show made me glad I'd decided to subscribe to NELO's season, which includes a Jerome Kern night and a new musical by Mark Morgan and Ken Proctor. Quality obviously matters to these people. The bad news from a G&S viewpoint: Morgan is committed to reviving rarely heard works, and he has strongly implied in the past that G&S is not a priority. The good news: in this show's program he speaks of some G&S operas as being "largely unknown." Does that mean he might produce one? Time alone can tell. He includes YEOMEN in the least-known category, while admitting "some might quibble." Many NEGASSers certainly would; but if NELO were to give us a professional-quality YEOMEN (or IDA, with Ms. Schuppert in the title role), I wouldn't complain.

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MIKADO IN FRANCE:: Two seasons on from PIRATES in German in Vienna, I have just had the good fortune to see a rare professional production of MIKADO in French, at the Opera-Theatre of Metz, in north-eastern France. This was a production of the opera company of the city of Tours, that has played successfully in a few other French provincial cities since its premiere in 1992. Yum-Yum and the world

Thanks to the excellent programme notes, I learned that French and German MIKADOs had had some success early in the 20th century, but there had been little follow-up, other than a radio version in Paris in the 1960s. The artistic director of the Metz opera is the renowned British tenor Laurence Dale, who no doubt influenced the decision to put on the show there. The French translation was credited to Tony Mayer, with help on the lyrics from Annick Minck and the Tours opera head Michel Jarry.

As with the German PIRATES, some parts of the show remained in English, partly because of a perceived difficulty in making an adequate translation and partly to give some British flavor to the goings-on.

Overall, this was an excellent production, bursting with energy, but to my taste losing out occasionally when it became a little too Gallic. The costumes showed great imagination, as did the set to some extent (given that this was a touring production), and the singing and acting was of a good level, give or take the few specific points below. I'm not too sure how much the show actually appealed to the mainly elderly Metz audience; at the end, the cast milked the applause through various encores and other business, but the most enthusiastic response seemed to come from some of the very few youngsters present. On the Saturday night, the theater was about two-thirds full, with the side aisles and top balcony only very sparsely filled.

And now for some corroborative detail, to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative...

Costumes/make-up: the idea of Japan-ness was mainly conveyed by painting large red circles on both cheeks of all the cast, and also on the trousers of the chorus men - no other eastern-effect make-up, though the girls did have identical black wigs which made them rather anonymous. For the opening chorus, the Britishness was cleverly conveyed by the men all coming on sporting mini-bowlers, plus eye-catching green briefcases from which they extracted their fans, and - a nice touch - thin walking-sticks (rather than normal city-attire umbrellas) which they deftly used as oars to accompany the naval verses of "Wand'ring Minstrel". However (not having taken any notes), I seem to recall finding many of the principals' costumes rather off-putting, principally Ko-Ko's - of which more below. Looking back, I think the overall effect was somewhat reminiscent of a circus, with hints of Charlie Chaplin, but I'm not sure I thought that at the time.

Set/props: between Nanki-Poo's entrance on a penny-farthing and Katisha's on a Boadicean chariot, the palm for inventiveness went to Pooh-Bah's arrival in a gigantic tea-pot that had perhaps strayed from a forthcoming SORCERER production. The 3 maids' arrival inside large eggs was perhaps a trick too far, as they had some difficulty in extracting themselves. For the Mikado's entry, the back of the set opened up for the first time to reveal him atop an impressive Aztec-style pyramid, which was later adapted for staging a few other tricks in the rest of Act Two.

My main reservation about the show concerned the character of Ko-Ko, played as a rather effeminate member of a Viking motorcycle gang, if that sounds possible. As the actor concerned (Jacques Duparc) was also the stage director, I think he should have a quiet word with himself. Maybe this brought the role - and thus the production - more into line with current French operetta staging, and thus more to the presumed taste of the audience. At any rate, when he finally removed his headgear to serenade Katisha, I for one breathed a sigh of relief, even if his blonde crew-cut rather clashed with the Japanese (OK, Aztec) setting. But our Jacques did give a spirited rendition of his role, for all that.

Of the others, I appreciated the performances of Katisha and Nanki-Poo, but found the other leading men perhaps a little too hammy - but then, French humour, like Katisha herself, is something of an acquired taste.

As noted above, about a quarter of the production was in English, mostly in various songs. For example, the opening and closing verses of "Wand'ring minstrel" were in French, but the middle part was all in English. Pooh-Bah's song "Young man, despair" was sung by him in French, but his colleagues' interjections were not! Several other songs were entirely in English, though surprisingly the "Big Black Block" song was all in French. (A thought - given that most Offenbach operettas are presented to Anglophones entirely in English, it must be some kind of tribute to Gilbert's lyrics that they are preserved even in these conditions.) A very competent sur-titles service ensured that the audience was able to follow all the language switches.

A word on the theater itself - as in many French provincial cities, the Metz municipal theater ("the oldest active theater in France") puts on a mixed bag of plays, operas and operettas through the nine-month season, giving about three performances of each show, playing every other weekend. The theater has the advantage of a mid-town setting in a spacious riverside site, gazing up at the vast bulk of one of France's most impressive medieval cathedrals.

And lastly a few words on the programme. I recall from my days in the States that these were included in the ticket cost - is this still so? [in Our experience, yes - mlc] - but in Europe they come at a price, generally an inflated one. The Metz programme cost 5 Euros (say $ 6.40), quite reasonable by current standards, and was excellent value for money. It included, inter alia, quite a long plot description of every G&S work, picking out the more interesting musical items in each, except for PATIENCE, of which I was delighted to see that editor Robert Pourvoyeur stated that "connoisseurs consider this the best of the series, and it is impossible to pick out anything other than the entire work" - my own thoughts entirely !

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MORE REVIEWS?! Where are the reviews We’ve been promised for the Sudbury desk workSavoyardsPIRATES (starring NEGASS VP Tony Parkes as the Major General) - or the Carl Rosa MIKADO...? We hope to be able to print them next month!

Did anyone catch the world premier of A Perfect Plan, composed by Seymour Barab, based on Gilbert’s play Tom Cobb? According to the NY G&S Society’s newsletter, The Palace Peeper, it was performed at Symphony Space (Broadway at 95th street) in NYC on February 26-27. We’d love a review!

Did anyone catch Valley Light Opera’s concert version of The Rose of Persia on Feb 28? How did it go?

Has anyone seen the updated G&S Archives web site - what do you think?

    -Tell Us, Tell Us All About it! - mlc
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REVIEWS SOUGHT: BROUDE BROTHERS CRITICAL EDITION PINAFORE. Elma Sanders of the Editorial Department of Broude Brothers writes: Broude Brothers has published a critical edition of H.M.S. Pinafore edited by Percy M. Young. We would like to send a copy to the New England Gilbert and Sullivan Society for review. [How lovely! We have already received one offer - but if anyone else would like to get in line to review this important work for the Bray, please let Us know and We’ll pass the copy on to you! -mlc]

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