an ax-faced plot with unfortunate echoes of ENO’s own predicament

ENO's The Yeomen of the Guard - Tristram Kenton

ENO’s The Yeomen of the Guard – Tristram Kenton

Even by the usual standards of the first night at English National Opera, a special atmosphere hung over the Colosseum as its new production of The Yeomen of the Guard began. It had less to do with the odd mix of celebrities (so assiduously courted by society) and hardcore Gilbert and Sullivan fans than the implications of a story featuring the doomed Colonel Fairfax’s final hour in the Tower of London. .

On the eve of a widely dreaded Arts Council England funding announcement, it looked like an unfortunate plot choice, and it has been: the ax falls on ENO as we know it, the company losing all its subsidies and being told to leave London if it wants future funds. Will he survive?

Fairfax does, of course, though this comedy is as close to serious opera as G&S gets. He is assisted by his secret admirer Phoebe and his father, Sergeant Meryll, who boldly enlist the help of traveling performers Jack Point and Elsie Maynard. Still, even though Yeomen is a bit darker than some G&S and more musically sophisticated, there’s plenty of dialogue that could have been shortened here, as most of Act I’s humor feels leaden. As for the sung numbers, if you need G&S supertitles, something is wrong.

One indisputable thing about the G&S canon is its steady and depressing decline. Enthusiasts will say Yeomen was written (1888) at the height of their powers, and it certainly includes such haunting inspirations as the folksy “I’ve got a song to sing, O.” But the subversive assaults of Trial by Jury and HMS Pinafore had given way to comfortable snobbery by the time they arrived at the Gondoliers, and Yeomen dates from a year earlier. It’s a short term thing.

In the absence of a still relevant device such as The Mikado’s Little List, Yeomen struggles to acquire a modern resonance. Still, the tearoom nostalgia is well-negotiated by director Jo Davies, though in updating it from Tudor times to the coronation year of 1953 she runs the risk of giving in to a different kind of feeling. In a double update, so to speak, the news projections during the opening remind us that this was also the time of a new prime minister and railway strikes, and in the Act II, Jack Point’s good Brexit joke brings things closer to home.

Anthony Ward’s designs are rightly dominated by dark metal grilles. In the second act, a large scale model of the Tower of London occupies the revolving stage, with London Bridge as a backdrop. Kay Shepherd’s choreography features Beefeaters tap dancing. Everything is kept under the constant baton of Chris Hopkins.

Alexandra Oomens wins all hearts (including Fairfax’s) as the bright-toned Elsie, and Heather Lowe does something deliciously quirky from Phoebe. Anthony Gregory brings an elegant tenor to Fairfax, and Richard McCabe is the best with words, making the not-so-subtle desperation of his buffoon Jack Point quite heartbreaking.

Although his accent comes and goes, John Molloy is amusing in the self-deceiving stupidity of Jailer Shadbolt, and, if not quite in his comfort zone, Susan Bickley as Dame Carruthers emerges with her dignity intact. The small roles are well held by Neal Davies (Meryll), Innocent Masuku (Leonard) and Steven Page (Sir Richard). A perfectly usable sight, but whether ENO actually needs a durable Yeomen is another matter. Time – and the crows of the Arts Council – will tell.

Until December 2; eno.org

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