'The Victorian equivalent of going to Ibiza' - Scottish Opera's fresh take on The Gondoliers

Scottish Opera’s new Gilbert & Sullivan double bill will give fans plenty to enjoy – and it may even win a few more converts to the G&S cause, writes Ken Walton

Richard Suart in Scottish Opera's new production of The Gondoliers PIC: Jane Barlow

Aficionados of Gilbert and Sullivan must be in seventh heaven. Not only is Scottish Opera about to mount a full-scale production of The Gondoliers as its main-scale season opener, but the company is complementing that with a semi-staged performance of the lesser-known, to some extent partner work, Utopia, Limited.

Among the fans, few come more passionate than Australian opera director Stuart Maunder, who first encountered G&S as a 16-year-old in a performance of Ruddigore at his New South Wales agricultural high school.

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“I was so hooked my teacher gave me a copy of Martin Green’s Treasury of Gilbert and Sullivan, which was annotated with all the D’Oyly Carte performance practices and a lexicon of all Gilbert’s strange words,” recalls the current artistic director of State Opera South Australia. “Who the hell uses ‘caravanserai’ any more? But I just devoured that book, so I came to love the stuff purely from the words.” His passion for Sullivan's music came later.

Almost half a century on, and tasked with directing both works for Scottish Opera, Maunder is still like a kid with a new toy. “I don’t know if it was deliberate on the company’s part to package these late G&S works together, but there’s merit in doing so,” he says.

Sure enough, they both pursue, as was the satirical Gilbert’s wont, ludicrous storylines: one in which two carefree gondoliers, unable to verify which is the lost heir to a wealthy kingdom, rule it together as a chaotic republic until the real heir convolutedly emerges; the other a wicked allegory presenting Britain as a lazy island paradise resting on its dubious laurels.

“They are very different pieces,” insists Maunder. “Gondoliers dances all night, it never stops. I think we all want to feel great the moment the cast come on dancing the cachucha. It’s so much happiness, so British.” The tone is very different in Utopia, Limited, however. “ From the opening chorus, it remains languorous, very hot, very humid.”

But there are practical attributes that comfortably tie them together. Both, for instance, require a large cast. “Gilbert said of Gondoliers ‘I’m going to write an opera with no stars’, failing abysmally because they all turned out to be star roles. It’s a happy piece of serendipity that the sizeable cast in Utopia can operate with the same personnel.”

Consequently both operas feature such seasoned G&S singers as Richard Suart, Ben McAteer and Yvonne Howard. Scottish Opera’s head of music, Derek Clark, conducts both productions. As for any visual correspondences, Maunder admits to further cunning. “We’re re-using a lot of the Barataria landscape [the fictional kingdom in Gondoliers] as the lush Utopian backdrop.”

Was there ever any temptation to update Gondoliers? “I don’t want to put a gloss of post-modern deconstruction on it; you can’t send up a send-up or you shoot yourself in the foot,” he argues.

“More importantly I have a responsibility to ask, in staging a piece like Gondoliers, whether it’s as energised, frenetic and joyous as a West End musical, whether it’s staid, and crucially whether we respect its Victorian sentiment. We still all respond to a little bit of sentiment, otherwise – as Richard Rogers said – we’re ‘sadly maladjusted’.”

He loves that Dick Bird’s stage designs also look at it “not through Victorian eyes, but in a way we believe are Victorian eyes”.

“It’s got a penny plain, tuppence coloured, Pollock’s Toy Theatre feel to it, also an element of Canaletto. The whole idea was: this is the equivalent in Victorian England of going to Ibiza. Going to see Gondoliers was like that.”

As for Utopia, Limited, the hope is this newly revised version by Maunder and Clark – “bits of the text have more commas than Henry James” – will give those G&S fans something new to drool over. Who knows, it may even convert more to the G&S cause.

The Gondoliers is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 16, 21 and 23 October; Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 28-31 October; and Eden Court Inverness on 10, 11 and 13 November. Utopia, Limited is in Glasgow on 20 October and Edinburgh on 5 November. Full details at www.scottishopera.org.uk

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