English National Opera 2022 Review: The Yeoman of the Guard
Jo Davies Brings a Searching New Production to an Uneasy WorkBy Benjamin Poore
Photo credit: ENO 2022 © Tristram Kenton
Gilbert and Sullivan have become English National Opera (ENO) staples. Jonathan Miller’s much-revived radical “The Mikado” in the ’80s provided the template: serious singers and serious comedy. In recent years cultural heavyweights like Mike Leigh have created productions for the company.
The last two shows—“Iolanthe” and “HMS Pinafore”—were directed by Cal McCrystal, most famous for his work on the “Paddington” movies but also renowned as a director of slapstick in the West End. Now Jo Davies turns to the darker-hued and more enigmatic melodrama “The Yeoman of the Guard,” having previously won plaudits at the lighter end of the repertoire for “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Oklahoma!” at Opera North and Grange Park Opera, respectively, in 2018. Chris Hopkins, who conducted “HMS Pinafore” last season at the Coliseum, is in the pit, building on excellent performances for the same company of “Iolanthe” and “The Mikado.”
“The Yeoman of the Guard” is the darker end of Gilbert and Sullivan. Colonel Fairfax (unjustly) awaits execution in the Tower of London, and to get him out of it identities are swapped, with the help of the titular Yeoman and his daughter Phoebe, and the co-opting of a traveling comedian, Jack Point, and his assistant Elsie. The latter is coerced into marriage for money and the former is ultimately humiliated. The petty humiliations of comedy have an especially pronounced bitter quality in the piece, which has an unwieldy, archaic libretto by Gilbert.
A Revised Book
Davies has produced a revised book for the show, touching up Gilbert’s cod-Shakespearean and adjusting the setting to the 1950s, an era of austerity and pompous reserve, reflected in designs—by Anthony Ward—which are imposingly grand, but also all the emptier for it. Ward’s dangling chain curtains have something of the Soho S&M dungeons about them, as if to suggest a darkly-repressed sexual sadism is also in the mix. References to Brexit get a big laugh; a patter song is imported from “Ruddigore” for some needed slapstick levity; and Colonel Fairfax is suspected of espionage rather than sorcery. A newsreel plays over Sullivan’s pomp-and-circumstance overture, in a cunning dovetail of sound and aesthetic, which narrates the tweaked backstory of this 1950s setting. It is a pity to get in the way of Hopkins’ nimble and characterful conducting, but as an establishing, dramaturgical shot, it works a treat.
There are some striking points of visual reference that further update the piece. The dancers who flood the stage before Jack Point and Elsie’s (rather uncanny) “Pagliacci”-style performance in Act One pay homage to Jerome Robbins’ choreography in “West Side Story.” The model of the Tower, first in the distance and then downstage for the second half, evokes Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (‘tis a silly place’).
Some further trimming of the dialogue would be welcome: the lengthy soliloquies lack the oomph of Gilbert’s usually energetic dialogue, and some of the tension sags between musical numbers. But there are many high points, not least in Richard McCabe’s performance as comedian Jack Point. His singing is far from excellent, and hardly helped by the discreet use of foldback, but the strength of the characterisation sufficiently transcends this. In his absurd kipper tie—the overstated phallus of someone truly emasculated—and chequered suit, he encapsulates the ragged, world-weary quality of uniquely British inadequateness, being both loathsome, pitiable, and witheringly incisive in the space of three or four gestures. McCabe’s performance is a tour-de-force in this regard, and his final, inebriated collapse, spotlit brutally alone, dares to push the emotional buttons. The magic tricks impress too, and at times the bleak absurdity edges up against Samuel Beckett.
There is artful restraint too. Elsie delivers her big Act One aria—”Tis done, I am a bride”—on a near-empty stage, which, given the cavernous Coliseum, summons the mood of foreboding and despair that lurks in the wings of the piece. The empty space also allows the Donizettian grandeur of the aria to do all the talking, joyfully letting Sullivan’s craft shine in its own right without any distracting business. The literal gloom of the design works well to express the peculiar mood of the piece, whose satire—when it is there—is implied rather than explicit. The opera has a cheery fondness for public execution and ghoulish seriousness about an institution—The Tower of London—which Gilbert and Sullivan would surely otherwise lacerate with abandon.
So too does the performance’s aesthetic perfectly capture the mixed feelings which plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan fans have about this tonally complex drama. Hopkins does an equally fine job of traversing the show’s varied musical terrain, which veers from the quasi-Grand Opera of the Act One finale—think “Don Carlos,” but more dour—to the lighter Bel Canto territory of arias and music-hall patter. Whatever the musical weather, the textures remain crisp and well-crafted and the music is treated with seriousness and care.
Anthony Gregory, a fine Nanki-Poo in “The Mikado,” takes the role of Colonel Fairfax, which he sings with bright ardor and a devilish glint in his eye; the parody of English pluck in the face of certain death is deftly done. His voice oozes charm and he faces no difficulties in filling the expansive Coliseum with his sound.
Alexandra Oomens sings street-entertainer Elsie with jewel-like clarity, remarkable precision, and glittering articulation. When blindfolded to marry the unseen Fairfax, she moves with a vulnerability and tenderness that is one of the show’s moments of true pathos.
Heather Lowe’s Phoebe makes a dramatic impression from curtain-up, buzzing around the stage in her scheme to save Fairfax and try to evade the advances of gaoler Wilfred Shadbolt, and is in generous, exuberant voice throughout, creating a strong bond with the audience.
Neal Davies, as Phoebe’s father Sergeant Merryll, is earnest and avuncular.
Steven Page, singing Sir Richard Cholmondeley, is perfectly-calibrated for Gilbert and Sullivan: a charismatic and dashing stage presence—with a hint of madness—and a voice that is commanding and well-drilled to support the character work.
John Molloy’s voice is a touch wayward as the gaoler and ‘Assistant Tormentor,’ but as a creeping sadist he hits the spot perfectly, and in vocal terms is as strong and well-defined as the stones of the Tower themselves.
Susan Bickley is a stentorian luxury as Dame Carruthers, the housekeeper for the Tower, with a voice and manner as strong as steel across her entire register, but polished to a luxurious gleam.
This correspondent went to see the show the night before Arts Council England announced that ENO would lose their government investment—some 12 million pounds a year. Their future may involve relocation; it will almost certainly involve job losses. London has great opera in an abundance, but only two major houses. ENO has been a critical mainstay of British opera since the Second World War. Without ENO, the UK classical music scene will have a different relationship to opera, and a different—diminished—status internationally.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote brilliant and incisive satires concerning governments and bureaucrats—ENO is now a victim of both in a way they would satirize without mercy. To summarize its value in three sentences would be impossible, but still: ENO was created to bring opera to people from all backgrounds, and it represents a historical tradition that sees culture as integral to society and democracy. It has cultivated great singers, put on new and contemporary works that would not get a look in half a mile down the road at Covent Garden, and has brought great artists to light, including Jonathan Miller, Alberto Remedios, and Mark Elder, to barely scratch the surface. ENO Harewood Artists include many singers who have built significant international careers subsequently.
This is a life-and-death time for opera in Britain, given economic woes and post-pandemic struggles. Like Colonel Fairfax, ENO must escape the gallows.