This is a delicate time for English National Opera. Some commentators suggest the company should leave its cherished home at the London Coliseum and move to a smaller location; others wonder if London doesn’t even need a second opera house: isn’t the Royal Opera House enough? If I were ruling the world I would say ‘no’ to both suggestions, but more worrying is an impending decision by Arts Council England on ENO’s future grant prospects, which are far from rosy.
For now, at least, the show must go on, and when a show is in order, ENO often turns to Gilbert and Sullivan. The Yeomen of the Guard, created in 1888, now joins a long list of ENO productions dating back at least as far as Jonathan Miller’s famous 1985 staging of The Mikado. G&S liked an exotic setting and they placed Yeomen in the 16th century, a conceit that hinders Gilbert’s verbal style, and which in turn inhibits Sullivan’s music.
The plot does not lack the requisite absurdities: Colonel Fairfax is falsely imprisoned in the Tower of London as a spy; in an hour he will be hanged. Phoebe, daughter of one of the Yeomen, thinks she is in love with him and concocts a rescue plot; she succeeds, but finds that her affections are focused on Elsie, a passing street performer. Somehow it comes out right, sort of, in the end.
ENO’s production, in Anthony Ward’s rather weighty designs, is directed by Jo Davies, who, along with choreographer Kay Shepherd, is hard at work injecting some flamboyance onto Broadway. Conductor Chris Hopkins ensured the ENO Orchestra offered its full support, but success was only intermittent. Davies moves the action to the middle of the 20th century, and it is set free with Gilbert’s text.
Some of his amendments are laborious: do we need more Brexit jokes, just to show how message opera can be? Others are clever, like borrowing a number from Ruddigore, another G&S opera, and sprucing it up so it almost towers over Gilbert. On the contrary, the show could be more irreverent, noisier. Shorter wouldn’t hurt either: the stilted spoken dialogue would be improved by a few wobbly cuts.
Musically, things work better. As Fairfax the hero, Anthony Gregory’s tenor is fiery but sometimes tense, while Richard McCabe’s comedic turn as a worn buffoon turned hustler – think George Cole in Les Belles de St Trinians – comes and goes .
The women fare better: As prison warden, Susan Bickley puts her resonant mezzo-soprano voice to good use, while Heather Lowe’s Phoebe is brilliantly sung but somewhat overplayed. The most winning characterization, both vocal and dramatic, comes from Alexandra Oomens as Elsie, insightful and clear as a bell, just as Gilbert and Sullivan would have wanted.
London Coliseum, to December 2; eno.org