ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
The ENO presents the first production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard in the company’s history. This operetta – widely regarded as the finest musical work of the duo’s partnership – swaps their usual farcical comedy and upbeat ending for a poignant turn of affairs.
Set within the Tower of London, the unjustly imprisoned hero Colonel Fairfax is loved by Phoebe, the daughter of the righteous Sergeant Meryll, one of the titular Beefeaters. An audacious plan is devised by the Meryll family to save Fairfax from an unfair death sentence, enlisting the help of Jack Point and Elsie Maynard, roving entertainers. What follows is a complex caper of forbidden romances, fantastical plots, unrequited love and high stakes…
ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.
ENO Responders 22/23
Tap-dancing guards and Brexit jokes? Apart from a slightly questionable Year 6 production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, I was completely unexposed to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan. Jo Davies’ new production of ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ thoroughly exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations.
The score for ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ is widely considered to be Sullivan’s finest work, particularly the memorable overture; a respectable piece in its own right, rather than a ‘greatest-hits’ reel of the main themes. As G&S’s only joint work with a serious ending, it moves away from the absurdity and ‘topsy-turveydom’ of their previous collaborations. This was driven by Sullivan’s desire to move away from comedy, and compose serious opera.
Davies’ concept is a product of parallels, taking inspiration from various different time-periods. Paired with music from the romantic era, the director transposes the 16th century plot to the start of the second Elizabethan age. She draws on similarities between Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebrations and Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, capitalising on elements that are all too relevant in 2022. The production opens with a satirical video reel in the style of a BBC news report, designed by Andrzej Goulding. References to rail strikes and a new prime minister provoked immediate laughter from the audience.
A true operetta, the production’s theatricality masks its musical shortcomings. Davies had a unique creative approach, “applying the same dramatic rigour to G&S as I would, say, to a Shakespeare play”. This is demonstrated through her casting of Richard McCabe as Jack Point – his first operatic role. An award-winning actor, McCabe’s characterisation was mesmerising; however, his musical inexperience was evident. Rhythm was obviously of great importance to Sullivan, prioritised over melody. An opera with such density of text, alongside an unrelenting orchestral pulse, requires impeccable timing from the singers. This was somewhat lacking from the Lieutenant (Steven Page) and McCabe, exacerbated by some questionable intonation.
Referred to as a ‘G&S veteran’, conductor Chris Hopkins commanded the orchestra with excessive flamboyance, perhaps contributing to the chaos. The only clear indication of a downbeat came from percussion – the triangle player, who alone provided rhythmic stability, warrants special commendation.
Alexandra Oomens, as Elsie Maynard, undoubtedly stole the show. The youthful energy she brought to the role was matched by her vocal ease. The execution of the 4-part harmony in ‘When a wooer goes a-wooing’ was impressive, furthered by Anthony Gregory’s (Colonel Fairfax) strong stage presence.
A revolve, seamlessly integrated into the stage, added a new visual dimension. The simple, minimalist aesthetic fit well with Davies’ modern interpretation. Oliver Fenwick’s masterful lighting added to the dramatism – the final spotlight on McCabe was hugely impactful, subtly counteracting the joyful atmosphere.
A lighthearted production, not dissimilar in approach to ENO’s recent production of ‘Così fan tutte’. Davies cleverly retains the libretto’s humour, without subjecting the London Coliseum to a pantomime.
What can Victorian duo Gilbert and Sullivan deliver in an age where phrases such as “helpless ninny” and “slyboots” have, unfortunately, fallen long out of fashion? That depends. If you enjoy the odd bit of panto humour, then you may find The Yeomen of the Guard as “full to the brim of farce” as ENO’s website claims. If not, the jokes sometimes veer on the irritating, though through no fault of the cast.
Touted as the darkest operetta in G&S’s repertoire, the plot follows the falsely accused Colonel Fairfax (Anthony Gregory) in his imprisonment in the Tower of London. His friend, Sergeant Meryll (Neal Davies), determined to help him escape before his execution the next day, enlists the aid of his noble son (Innocent Masuku) and besotted-with-Fairfax daughter. Together, they hatch a plot worthy of Twelfth Night, involving seduction, lies and, naturally, disguise. There’s also a pair of street entertainers, Jack Point (Richard McCabe) and Elsie Maynard (Alexandra Oomens), who wheel in on a hooting, tooting bicycle.
Director Jo Davies has remarked on the “Shakespearean quality” of this operetta, and shadows of the first Elizabethan era persist even as Davies modernises the show into the 1950s, the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation. The dated dialogue takes some mental adjustment and some of comedian Jack Point’s incessant riddling could have been cut. It’s a testament to Kay Shepherd’s choreography that the tap-dancing Yeomen of the Guard often garner more laughs than the dialogue.
The gentle accompaniment of the ENO orchestra, conducted by Chris Hopkins, suits a show which favours light-hearted banter over emotional punches. Alexandra Oomens as Elsie is a standout; she is suitably sweet with an impressive top register. Heather Lowe as Phoebe is also accomplished, though uses a little too much vibrato for my taste. Her acting too brings energy to the stage, but is at times too expansively Shakespearean, something which improves in the second act with subtler meta glances and chemistry with the jailer Wilfred Shadbolt.
Shadbolt is a favourite to watch on stage; from his greasy Snape-esque hair to the wheedling and crawling, John Molloy makes the most of the comedy of his role. Dame Carruthers (Susan Bickley) might have followed his example; she is perhaps too dignified as the feminine mirror of Shadbolt.
Though not a strong voice in a cast of literal opera singers (McCabe is a classical actor), Jack Point’s final reprise of ‘I have a song to sing, O!’ is the most moving performance of the show. The desperate jesting of the past act reaches its emotional climax, and it is the moment where The Yeomen of the Guard most embraces the tragedy of this darkly comic operetta.
With several fantastic performances and some fun modern twists, the ENO can proudly add this production to its beloved G&S series; it’s easy-going viewing and builds to a fantastic climax.
Yeomen of the Guard is Gilbert and Sullivan’s most ambiguous operetta, balancing the tragic and the comic, and it is this tension which Jo Davies uses as the nucleus of her new ENO production. Antony Ward’s effective set design places us firmly in The Tower of London: the rattling chains hanging from the back wall are an innovative way of creating a jail-cell effect whilst partitioning the stage, while the model Tower of London that the Yeomen march around is arresting and charming. The original operetta is full of classic G&S lovelorn couples and mistaken identities, and Davies, in an attempt to bring out the ambiguity of the material, daringly casts not an opera singer but the classically trained actor Richard McCabe as Jack Point. Davies plays down the potentially problematic aspect of the two coerced marriages, treating Phoebe’s (Heather Lowe) surrender to Wilfred (John Molloy) and Sergeant Meryll’s (Neal Davies) to Dame Carruthers (Gaynor Keeble) as comedic capitulation, and instead uses Jack’s bitter monologues to introduce a note of discord to the production.
However, the weakness of McCabe’s uncertain singing voice destabilises Point’s central presence, while his tendency towards the soliloquising over-exaggeration of classical stage acting clashes with the naturalistic behaviour of his fellow performers. He has some excellent scenes, such as his bitter lament about the Fool’s plight: his strength as a Shakespearean actor and consequent acquaintance with the importance of the tragic fool allowed him to deliver his lines, more spoken than sung, with a blend of bitter nihilism and gung-ho clowning that was well balanced by Wilfred’s nonchalance. However, his subsequent duet with Molloy, who has a confidently textured voice, undermines his presence once again, while other more ‘actorly’ moments feel stiff and forced in their operatic setting, such as Point’s slightly-delayed shock reaction to Elsie (Alexandra Oomens) and Fairfax’s (Anthony Gregory) marriage.
It is Elsie rather than Point who unifies the production with her sublime vocal performance. It is powerful, expansive, and silvered with a naïve sweetness that perfectly complements her character. Her chemistry is good with Point and exceptional with Fairfax: their scenes together are charmingly funny. Fairfax, too, sings well, with an assertive and rounded voice, although this too is slightly put to shame by his other love interest Phoebe, whose pure vocals allow for fine shading. Her opening song is a strong start to the production, as is Chris Hopkins’s direction of the orchestra, which wonderfully brings out the brassy nuance of Sullivan’s score.
The production’s choreography is also slick and balanced, with the large, impressively dressed ensemble cast using the space effectively to ground the story in its updated 1950s reality, rather than Gilbert’s original conception of a ‘Merrie England’ fantasy. However, despite some standout vocal performances and innovative design, Davies’s production does not quite hit the mark, wavering between stagey tragedy and frivolous comedy. Too often, it resembles one of Point’s jokes – rather hit-and-miss.
In her production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, Jo Davies arouses some old fashioned Blightyism for the platinum Jubilee – and incidentally strikes an elegiac chord given the Queen’s death. Written in Early Modern English and incorporating Twelfth Night type disguises, Yeomen is theoretically a strong choice for such a project.
The handsome Colonel Fairfax has been framed and accused of espionage by a relative hoping to inherit his estate. Phoebe Meryll, a yeoman’s (i.e. beefeater’s) daughter, has been watching Fairfax from afar during his detention in the Tower of London, and devises a plan alongside her father to disguise him as her brother and marry him. Meanwhile, a Lieutenant arranges Fairfax’s marriage to a random commoner, Elsie Maynard, just before his execution to thwart his cousin’s aim of inheriting the money. Both plans succeed, causing havoc in the aftermath.
The military roles don timeless uniforms, and the civilians wear garish 1950s garb – a nod to the late Queen’s 1953 coronation. Fairfax is played righteously by Anthony Gregory and Phoebe annoyingly by Heather Lowe; Alexandra Oomens is a truly common Elsie Maynard and Richard McCabe the painfully earnest clown Jack Point. All (rightly) stretch character toward caricature.
McCabe’s physical humour and comic timing mark him as Yeomen’s greatest player. And this belies its biggest problem: it is closer to its Broadway descendants than opera. And although Sullivan’s ‘dum-de-dum’s are repetitive, Chris Hopkins succinctly conducts his score. The best numbers are Maynard’s ‘Tis Done! I am a bride!’ and ‘Oh! a private buffoon is a light-hearted loon’ by Point: McCabe is not much of a singer, but Oomens’s soprano is indignant and moving.
The 50s resetting is understandable, but in a country culturally sundered since the Brexit referendum, requires greater consideration. For example, Point oafishly executes a superficial Brexit jibe: it foils the national spirit Davies wishes to evoke, and sustains the perceived divide between the opera watching, (tofu eating, Guardian reading) Londoners and the ignorant, provincial Brexiteer. The ENO’s response to this will only grow more crucial with Arts Council England effectively evicting them from London in the interest of Levelling Up.
Davies’s glasses are rose tinted to the point of farce: if we reference events which traumatised the political landscape, framing the 50s as a ‘golden age’ seems ridiculous when we remember that at this time there wasn’t a single law protecting people of colour. Gaudy uniforms and exaggerated movements may feel familiar like fish and chips, but if I were a Brexit voter considering a wokerati membership, this Yeomen would not convince me to see the opera again.
Chaos, secrecy, unrequited love and comedy combined presents us with The Yeomen of the Guard; set in the Tower of London in 1953. This is a new production directed by Jo Davies, who has teamed up with award-winning designer Anthony Ward to do an exceptionally marvellous job. Although I must say it did not leave me star-struck and speechless like most operas, there was still some charismatic energy in the air.
Anthony Ward’s bold attempt to set the mood with a dark, dim atmosphere and a smoky presence is most effective. Although there’s a very basic set with not much to see, it’s all in the lighting and effects. The constant fog in the air symbolizes a blurred vision, perhaps this relates to more than one situation as there is a theme of unrequited love throughout the operetta. The dull atmosphere is just right for the Tower of London, a ‘cruel giant in a fairy tale that must be fed with blood’. Fortunately, this cruel giant did not get a single droplet of nurture and we are greeted with a happy ending. Colonel Fairfax is adored by almost everyone who mentions his name, Sergeant Meryll is even willing to sacrifice his own life to save him. Despite the constant presence of darkness and danger the music always seems to contrast with what is going on, very joyous, upbeat and happy, at the hands of Chris Hopkins; even in sorrowful times, foreshadowing the joyous finale. Ward sets the scene with cloudy, grey skies and a full moon, often associated with ritual slaughter, fittingly as they are trying to sacrifice Fairfax’s soul.
Elsie Maynard (Alexandra Oomens) was the star of the show. Although the dimness made our vision unclear, when it came to Elsie, she outshone everyone. From her incredible soprano to her powerful voice projection, you really could not miss her. Not only a phenomenal voice, she was also easily the best dressed on stage, wearing a feminine pink dress, pink corset and red shoes, making her the focus of a wandering eye in scenes where everyone else was in monochrome black or blue. Jack Point was another welly dressed jokester in a bright orange blazer, a point of light on a sombre stage. Although we didn’t have much to look at in terms of stage setting, we certainty had a splendid harmony of everyone combined, with all the voices blending beautifully together. An honourable mention to Isabelle Peters who played Kate, Dame Carruther’s niece, who has an astounding voice which was immensely impressive.
Despite the fact that the back of my chair was repeatedly kicked throughout, Alexandrea Oomens and Anthony Gregory made it an enjoyable operetta and were most definitely stars of the show.
Gilbert and Sullivan were fighting when they wrote Yeoman of the Guard. Sullivan wanted to compose a serious opera. Gilbert wanted to continue their successful brand—writing biting parody of Victorian society against the beauty of late-nineteenth century scores. In the end, Gilbert gave in to Sullivan. The result is their most serious opera.
Hefty source material partly explains Jo Davies’ limp new production. Even with a story about the impending execution of a political prisoner at the Tower of London, Anthony Ward’s gloomy and claustrophobic set design is too literal. I feel restless and trapped in the wrought-iron set and long shadows.
This overly dark interpretation of an overly serious libretto leave little room for Gilbert & Sullivan’s trademark humour. Unforgivably, the show fails to bring the audience in on the jokes that do exist in the libretto. The performances are timid and underdone. Key beats in the plot—misinterpreted orders and obvious disguises—fail to land. The night’s biggest laughs are in response to tap dancing royal guards, in the background of the show.
Otherwise, the audience was mostly silent on opening night. After a few strained Brexit jokes, Richard McCabe’s Jack Point, meant to be comic relief, quipped, “This is going very well, isn’t it?” before exiting. Suffice to say, this show wasn’t funny.
It’s a shame as the production started strong. During the overture, a grainy projector flashes vintage BBC news reels. This plants us in the post-war, early days of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and draws parallels to familiar headlines—rail strikes and a revolving door of Parliamentary leadership. This is GIlbert-style satire at its best. Besides a few costume references, like the late Queen’s insignia on the beefeaters, the production fails to identify itself with the 1950s, Gilbert & Sullivan’s own Victorian age, or the original setting in Elizabeth I’s London. This clever point-of-view quickly fizzles out.
If you do go, you’re in for a musical treat. Yeoman has some of Sullivan’s most beautiful writing. The chorus delivers full and rich performances that pleasantly present Sullivan’s 4-part choral harmonies and 3-part trios. Alexandra Oomens’s Elsie Maynard and Anthony Gregory’s Colonel Fairfax offer standout vocals with resonant vibrato perfectly suited to Sullivan’s melodies. Unfortunately, these enjoyable vocal performances fail to fill a mostly empty, dimly lit stage. I yawned in some of the most beautiful arias.
The finale is colourful and joyous. A blue sky is set against a Tower of London miniature. The chorus emerges in its full beefeater glory. It’s camp, but it’s still not funny.
Just as the show itself was written in a disagreement, Davies production has competing ideas that make this Yeoman of the Guard feel like it’s fighting with itself. Leaving the theatre, all I wanted was to laugh.
Thursday saw the opening of the new production of The Yeoman of the Guard at ENO. Continuing the company’s strong recent history of innovative staging of the Savoy operas, Yeoman is energetic and playful although ends on an unusually sombre note. As one of their lesser performed operas, this differs from the usual topsy-turvy tone and this departure ensured a delightful if restrained production with a genuinely affecting finish.
Action is based almost entirely in the Tower of London and these close quarters provide the show with a welcome intensity. The story concerns two travelling performers who are caught up in a typically convoluted plot to rescue the framed war hero Colonel Fairfax from the gallows. In a large ensemble cast Heather Lowe as Phoebe and Anthony Gregory as Fairfax are the standout performers. Lowe is alluring in her role as she effortlessly charms both the audience and her lovesick admirer Shadbolt, whilst Gregory as tenor was in excellent voice and the performance was at its most charismatic and engaging when he was centre stage.
Despite being considered Gilbert and Sullivan’s most serious work, a great tragedy this is not. Instead, it is a comic opera which ends on a melancholy note and the production is at its best then when it remembers to put comedy and frivolity first. Before the curtains rises the show begins with amusing vintage archive news footage, this features train strikes and the opening of parliament before introducing the arrest of Fairfax. This was an inventive beginning; moving the action from the 16th century to somewhere between the 50s and 60s and it was a shame that this comic daringness was not continued more throughout the two acts. A lot of the comedy rested on the shoulders of Richard McCabe as the tragicomic spurned lover Jack Point. Whilst he is a hugely accomplished actor, he is not a trained tenor as the role traditionally requires and the singing suffers as a result, his voice sounding unfortunately flat when next to the other leads. He should be praised however for his comedic timing and physicality; he provides a valiant performance which runs the gamut between laughs and pathos, especially in the second act. The biggest cheers of the night came for his reference to Brexit during his solo of ‘a light-hearted loon.’ Again, it was a shame that there was not a desire for more laughs, as it was this lone contemporary reference felt a bit incongruous. Another addition was the patter song from Ruddigore and this ludic inclusion provided much needed levity towards the show’s conclusion. It seems clear that the production should have made the decision to add these extra touches more often, from the audience it was clear that it would have been stronger if it had focused on these comedic elements. I left the performance just wishing they had been bolder, despite its flaws, this was an accomplished production which demonstrated and celebrated the enduring appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan.
An arquebuss, disdain for conjugal fetters and more than a whiff of derring-do? It must be time for this season’s Gilbert and Sullivan at the ENO.
And timely it is for a fun crowd-pleaser, since following the Arts Council’s announcement that it would slash the company’s funding and suggest it move to Manchester, the audience at Yeomen of the Guard was in full enthusiastic swing. Counting among the seats a WI association, a church choir and a school group, the crowd was delighted by this multimedia production, featuring tap-dancing beefeaters and soaring ravens over a stage-sized model of the Tower of London.
Director Jo Davies has updated the operetta from the 16th century to the 1950s, provoking a chuckle during the overture at a black and white newsreel showing train strikes and a new prime minister (only one? The envy.).
It works well, mostly. In Davies’ update to Gilbert’s libretto Colonel Fairfax is a man unjustly imprisoned for spying (and not sorcery, as in the original). The contrast between the costumes of pomp in the Tower and the A-line dresses of Phoebe, besotted with Fairfax, and Elsie, a travelling entertainer who finds herself unexpectedly married to a non-deceased Fairfax, is pleasing, but the update is inconsistent.
While the language remains Victorian, even in the updated spoken dialogue, the – not one, but two – mentions of Brexit might get a riotous laugh from the audience but seem a forced anachronism. The many, many mentions of Fairfax’s impending beheading are contradicted by the hanging noose at the end of Act 1. For some reason, a song is imported from Ruddigore.
Something doesn’t quite gel. Although it’s a strangely poignant Gilbert & Sullivan piece, this is mostly a raucous comedy of errors, with mixed-up identities and a fluid set, in which chains hold keys and then lanterns and jail bars shift and twist with the – extremely good – chorus choreography.
As Fairfax, Anthony Gregory sings thoughtfully, with an elegant timbre. Heather Lowe’s Phoebe Meryll is almost Julie Andrews-esque in her wide-eyed enunciation, almost to the point of over-acting, but it works well for this piece. Alexandra Oomens as Elsie was a real joy to watch, with a clean and bright upper register. As Eeyore-turned-entertainer Wilfred, the Tower tormentor, John Molloy was impressively versatile, although his accent moved from Waterford to the West Country without passing Go.
Stage and screen actor Richard McCabe as the jester Jack Point was making his operatic debut, which you can tell – unfortunately his voice is weaker than the rest of the cast, noticeable in duets and trios. In classic Gilbert style, the syllables are sardine-packed into the lines of his comic song “Oh! A private buffoon is a light-hearted loon”, and he trips over them. However, his character acting is outstanding and eventually very moving.
Yeomen of the Guard is an enjoyable romp. It doesn’t consistently mesh together as updated, but for the joy it gave this audience, who cares?
Caught in the crossfire of a comedy and tragedy, Jo Davies’ adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta clearly laid bare its struggles to toe the line between musical theatre and opera. The production follow the Merryll family in the Tower of London as they attempt to save the wrongly imprisoned Colonel Fairfax with disastrous consequences. However, this ENO production struggles to decide if it wants to land on comedy or despair.
Opening with a BBC newsreel montage, the video made several timely gags about transport strikes, a government in turmoil, and a new monarch. This adaptation relied heavily on making parallels with Britain today as a way to pull laughter from the audience, including an ill-fitting Brexit joke from Richard McCabe’s bumbling and off-beat Jack Point. This felt an interesting opening choice when contrasted to the opening number of Phoebe Meryll’s ‘When maiden loves, she sits and sighs’. The comic nature of the reel against the backdrop of a political injustice felt jarring, and Heather Lowe’s aggressive vibrato created an emotional barrier between the audience and the voices.
Lowe appeared to ease into her role as the show continued, as the chorus’ fluid movements in the first act acted as the wheels of a well-oiled machine and kept up the show’s momentum when stagnation seemed imminent from the principal cast. Davies’ production owes a lot to the chorus in this show, as the visual signifiers of the ER insignia imprinted on the Yeomen’s robes were the only real indication (apart from the newsreel) that this was a 1950s setting; much of the styling differed from various eras of the early 20th century.
The voices of the chorus also made up for some shortcomings of the lead cast, with Neal Davies and McCabe’s Sergeant Meryll and Jack Point respectively missed several beats throughout the performance as they bumbled around the Coliseum. They could have gotten away with it, had it not been for the impeccable timing of three dancing guards who ended up as the main source of comic relief.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta is one which attempts to be poignant against their typical farcical comedies, but Alexandra Oomen’s sweet soprano solo of ‘Tis Done! I am a bride’ in Act I was drowned out by the Coliseum’s big, dramatic staging.
There was very little relief in the lighting of the set, and the dark, grim nature of the Tower of London felt overpowering in contrast to some of the company’s voices. The lack of warmth against the grandiose environment of endless chains and uniforms meant that the depth of the stage felt overwhelming for both performers and the audience.
Gilbert and Sullivan can often be a tricky adaptation, and it seemed that the ENO bit off more than it could chew in this case.
Brimming with energy and witticism!
ENO’s The Yeoman of the Guard is not your typical Gilbert and Sullivan opera. While still deeply funny, filled with wit and a distinctive charm, the opera has a strong bittersweet aftertaste. During the heart-warming jubilation that typically ends this kind of affair, we are left with one particular character—the dejected Jack Point—in a fading spotlight, leaving us with a moment of deep introspection on his situation before the curtain call.
Chris Hopkins draws out the depth of the score, making a fantastic sound from the beginning of the overture, showing off some of Sullivan’s best orchestral writing. He is joined by a cast and chorus with exceptional ensemble work, as heard in the finale, which treads the line between comic opera and heartfelt chorale. Richard McCabe does an outstanding job as Jack Point, singing and acting well in a libretto that makes demands of both. In addition, his delivery was filled with a great deal of self-aware wit used to frame his jests and japes. The rest of the large cast also sang exceedingly well and were strong throughout, notably Fairfax (Anthony Gregory), Wilfred (John Molloy), Phoebe (Heather Lowe) and Elsie (Alexandra Oomens).
It is packed to the rafters, which are made out of chains by the way, with many exciting attractions. From 1950’s BBC news broadcasts (topically mentioning train strikes), to an impressive Tower of London centrepiece, to a tap-dancing trio of Royal Guards, it’s a spectacle to behold. I particularly enjoyed Dame Carruthers’ (Susan Bickley) PowerPoint presentation, which was staff-training-like and awe-inspiring in equal measure. These elements might have risked distracting from the drama and comedy in a production with less expert coordination, resorting to pure spectacle for entertainment. But here, we see a carefully balanced and managed arrangement that adds rather than detracts from the overall effect.
Jo Davis’s direction has made the spoken word in the libretto come to life in a work that relies heavily on its dialogue to deliver its major beats. The quasi-Shakespearian prose of the text could have fallen flat with such an incongruous set and costumes (police and beefeater uniforms to a backdrop made of chains). But instead, it succeeded in furthering the fasical situations in which our cast found themselves embroiled. There is whiplash between the sombre circumstances at the Tower of London and the idyllic green in which Jack and Elsie sing ‘I have a song to sing, O!’; it is a little jarring at first. However, it provides some much-needed respite from the Schopenhauerian contemplation of mortality that preceded it.
If you are looking for a G&S brimming with energy and witticism, while still containing all of the depths of love unrequited, look no further than ENO’s Yeoman.
The Yeomen of the Guard is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Operas, a set of comic mixed speaking and singing shows, enormously popular in the late 19th century. The Savoy operas are either famous or notorious, depending on who you ask, for their satire and frivolity. Yeomen was a step from Gilbert and Sullivan towards what they hoped was a more serious operetta than their previous works. The plot fits the stereotypical operatic labyrinth as no fewer than 4 unrequited loves and one reciprocal romance are raised and resolved to a varying degree of satisfaction. Personal loyalty and enmity are pitted against each other as two separate schemes for a prisoner’s freedom and marriage intertwine and clash.
ENO’s new production of Yeomen is a mixed bag of political intrigue, clever staging and light comedy. Director Jo Davies has made the operetta her own with modernized quips and steps away from the traditional setting.
The production is set in the 1950’s, Anthony Ward has done good work with the sets and costumes, and something about them initially seems to just work. The occasional idiosyncrasy between the setting and the words does arise but these don’t significantly impair the overall effect. A set of frolicking bearskinned grenadier guards were a particular delight, bringing much needed mirth to some otherwise quite dry scenes.
Yeomen’s often sniffed-at operetta status certainly doesn’t do the music justice. Sullivan’s score flits between rousing, moving and, of course, comic. The horn-blared first few bars of the overture return throughout as a rollicking motif for the Yeomen.
Alexandra Oomens has a stand out performance as battled over romantic interest Elsie Maynard. Her voice has a charm and clarity which rise above all else. Even during loud choral moments Oomens has no problem staying distinct and gripping.
The performance is a mixture of spoken and sung pieces, and both of these in this production are of mixed quality. Actor Richard McCabe plays the comic Jack Point. While McCabe certainly has the comedic chops and stage presence for the spoken sections, his attempt at a baritone is harsh and unmusical. McCabe’s missed notes feel uncomfortable and amusing songs become a pain as he is dragged through them by more capable singers.
The Yeomen of the Guard is a sort of confused jack of all trades show, while it is lightly amusing and lightly musically beautiful, it could do with being more focused on one or the other as it does neither particularly memorably. The spoken sections do tend to drag, at times feeling like an awkward break between the musical numbers. The performers can be clearly heard but personally I wouldn’t mind hearing less conversation and a bit more music.