The Yeomen of the Guard at the Opera House

The Yeomen of the Guard by Gilbert and Sullivan

Wellington G & S Light Opera. Musical director: Hugh McMillan; stage director: Gillian Jerome

The Opera House, Friday 14 August 2009

The Yeomen of the Guard is often considered the one G & S comic opera that comes closest to being an ‘opera’; it is a case of a work in an essentially comic genre that ends sadly, with the jester losing his girl.

It becomes poignant because the jester, Jack Point, is sung with such feeling and conviction by Derek Miller; he has been the company’s stalwart character singer, pivotal in their productions, for many years. Again, all eyes were on him whenever he was on stage, with agile, expressive movement, characterful singing and great facility in delivering floods of witty words at high speed.

But there were several other fine performances, starting with Chris Whelan as the Head Jailer, Wilfred, with whom Miller duets brilliantly in Act II. Tall, oafish and a bit thick, Whelan’s voice and comic movements were inimitable, though perhaps his portrayal overlooked the fact that a Head Jailer may well be a pompous ass, but need not be quite as stupid as Whelan had him. Lindsay Groves as Sergeant Meryll and Chris Berentson as the quasi-hero Fairfax (the object of female efforts to rescue from imminent beheading) took their fairly big roles well.

Among the female singers, the sad clown’s partner and love, Elsie, who eventually falls for Fairfax, was sung with real style by the vocally accomplished Celia Falchi. She and Miller sang the quite moving duet that is undoubtedly one of Sullivan’s finest, a real trouvaille, ‘I have a song to sing’.

Not far behind were the Phoebe of Malinda Di Leva and the Dame Carruthers of Sharon Yearsley.

It’s an operetta where the story does count for something: for one thing, perhaps arguing for the sanctity of marriage regardless of insincere or fraudulent original motives. So it was a pity that the words from one or two singers were hard to understand, but not so as to make it hard to follow.

The set is simple – in a courtyard of the Tower of London, costumes conventional, of Tudor times. Movement on stage was fluid though the yeomen themselves overdid the military stiffness. Normal first night shortcomings were evident: a tentative orchestra in the overture and for some distance into the first act; so were some of the early choruses. But the show, full of great music, gained confidence during the first act and there were, particularly in the women’s chorus, some very poised and attractive singing in the second act.

The test of good theatre is whether you start to care about what happens to the characters on stage; I did, and the pathetic denouement quite had its way with me at the end.

(the full and edited version of the review that was abbreviated in The Dominion Post)

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