Wellington G&S with another hit in funny, well-sung The Gondoliers

Wellington G & S Light Opera Company

The Gondoliers by Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert
Musical director: Hugh McMillan; stage director: Wayne Morris; producer: Stuart Gordon

Lead singers: William McElwee, Orene Tiai, Laura Loach, Charlotte Gartrell, John Goddard, Malinda Di Leva, Georgia Jamieson Emms, Mark Bobb, Chris Whelan,

The Opera House

Saturday 19 September, 7:30 pm

G&S goes on and on. Hard to think of another composer whose music in a certain genre has acquired such a single-minded following from so many, and of those, one suspects, some don’t particularly enjoy any other kind of opera or musical theatre, or even any other kind of classical music. Offenbach has no comparable cult status in France; nor Lehár or Kálmán in Austria; nor any one composer of zarzuela in Spain. Though in all cases, the relevant numbers of operettas is considerably larger than the usual
canon of G&S.

The G&S repertoire is rather small after all. Out of the total of fourteen operettas on which the two men collaborated, only about eight can be regarded as being in the standard repertory. Compare with the far greater number from each of the many prominent operetta composers of France, Austria, Germany. The number of extant zarzuelas is reputed to exceed 1000.

The Gondoliers, which was the last successful collaboration between composer and librettist, was well chosen for its contemporary New Zealand relevance. It deals with one unusual issue – the novelty of the introduction of the limited liability law – but also normal social issues of class, the nobility, honours, republicanism, the question of equality – everything but the flag; perhaps the flag controversy can be seen hovering just below the balustrade. As important for the success of the piece, apart from the full ration of splendid tunes, was the conventionally contrived plot involving misalliances, a missing heir to a Ruritanian throne, which is temporarily shared, giving Gilbert’s legal background rein for mockery; by shifting the setting for gentle satire of English royal and parliamentary institutions to Venice and an obscure, mythical central European state, they avoided censorship dangers.

The interpretation, staging and design were presumably the collaborative work of producer Stuart Gordon and stage director Wayne Morris.

After the overture that offered assurance that the players, mostly from Orchestra Wellington, would support the singers pretty professionally, the chorus confirmed a well-coached ensemble. And the chorus remained a delight throughout the evening, even taking account of moments later on when the voices of men and women of the chorus parted company. Under musical director Hugh McMillan, balances between orchestra, chorus and soloists were conspicuously comfortable, and the pace and expressive character remained lively and sensitive.

The stage revealed an expansive grand canal with stylized buildings, hinting rather shyly at Venice, rising from it. Some of the solo singing at the beginning showed a little uneasiness; but William McElwee and Orene Tiai as gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe, grew steadily into their roles… as did the two maidens, Gianetta and Tessa (Laura Loach and Charlotte Gartrell) to whom they would shortly be betrothed. The four sometimes operated better as a quartet than separately, for example in the ‘Then one of us will be a queen’.

The entry of the visiting Spanish Duke and Duchess (John Goddard and Malinda Di Leva) with their lovely daughter Casilda (Georgia Jamieson Emms) soon embedded the story in serious improbability, and this was a strength that enlivened the performance in the true spirit of absurdity; Goddard’s early vocal unevenness settled after a little while.

The farcical element helped obscure weaknesses in the singing by the less experienced singers; on the other hand none of the nonsense obscured the fact that there were excellent performances, by Emms, and by McElwee and Tiai, who found themselves sharing the job of temporary monarch. The important role of the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, was splendidly carried by Chris Whelan, without excessive overacting, displayed brilliantly in his ‘I stole the prince … no possible doubt whatever’, which reveals the crux of the problem that dominates the drama.

The denouement sees the temporary dual-king(s) deposed, to their great relief, and the heir to the Baratarian throne, is revealed as Luiz, tenor Mark Bobb, a recent arrival in New Zealand. One of the most vivid figures on the stage, he sang excellently with a fast, disciplined vibrato. In the first act he had acted as ducal orchestra, displaying finesse on the side-drum to herald the Duke’s arrival. He and Emms – lovers, unaware of how things will evolve – sang a charming duet, ‘There was a time’.

The stage scene at Act II is the interior of the royal Barataria palace, quite an imposing affair with grand staircase set to a curious perspective. Giuseppe’s amusing solo about the troubles of a king, up-dated, had the edge on Marco’s ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’, pretty as that was.

The action proceeds with an energetic Spanish dance and then the Grand Inquisitor’s (Chris Whelan) classic show-stopper, ‘There lived a king’, showing how equality and republicanism are quite absurd. These moments are usually furnished with localised political lyrics, this time by the singer himself, which I have permission to reproduce here. The singing was accompanied by a series of pertinent illustrations of many of the leading comic figures involved in the following narrative.

In southern oceans far away
A strange perversion once took sway
The people wanted greater say
And MMP resulted

It meant that none could rule alone
Without some partners on the throne
And compromise would be the tone
At least that was the theory.

Soon parties formed in every hue
Of red and blue and yellow too
So every wretched fellow knew
Their interests were cared for.

But parties needed ways to share
The power so that all seemed fair
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody

Now it is clear and plain to see
That ranking colleagues equally
Will put an end to rivalry,
Promoting everybody.    

Soon ministers were everywhere
With rank and perks in equal share
But trade and finance ranked the same
As arts and social housing

Like Judith Collins some were bad
Or Gerry Brownlee slightly mad
Though voter faith did gently sag
The PM seemed delighted.

The coalition held its course.
Dave Seymore was a trifling force
And Peter Dunne was a resource
Among the minor minions.

So party leaders you might meet
In twos and threes in every street,
Professing with no little heat
Their various opinions.

Now that’s a sight you couldn’t beat
Two party spokesmen in each street,
Professing with no little heat
Their various opinions.

The end can easily be guessed,
When skill no longer is the test
Soon personality was best
For getting voter traction

The voters favoured charm and wit
And ranked good hair above true grit
Soon one emerged that seemed to fit
In Southland and Kaitaia

The voters turned to one who seemed
Averse to baubles though he preened
Through spluttering indignant schemes,
Was Winston made kingmaker.

In short whoever you may be
To this conclusion you’ll agree
When everyone is somebodee,
Soon no one’s anybody.

Now that’s as plain as plain can be,
To this conclusion we agree:
When everyone is somebodee,
Soon no one’s anybody.

And there were various references to current political scandals scattered through the score, for example the ennoblement of The Duke of Plaza-Toro dotcom.

While the build-up to the denouement goes along nicely, as the former nurse is finally persuaded to tell the court that neither of the joint-temporary kings is the heir, no imperishable musical hits are to be found in the last scenes, apart from a reprise of the big dance scene.

The costumes were elaborate, the sets ingenious and appropriate, and the direction generally lively and credible, paying some attention to the traditions of 1880s comic opera, and today’s tendency sometimes to do violence to the original conception and to impose our own interpretation. There was nothing at which one could take offence in this.

It had been see already in Lower Hutt, Kapiti and Whanganui, so that any teething troubles would have been sorted out and word spread of its virtues. Thus there was a good audience at the Opera House.


Popular for the best reason – the NZSO’s Classical Hits Concert

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:


James Judd (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 19th September, 2015

Appropriately enough from my point of view, this concert began with the very same music that enthralled me almost fifty years ago, at the beginning of my very first concert-going experience in Palmerston North’s Opera House. I still recall, at the start of the “William Tell” Overture, the beauty of those two NZBC Symphony Orchestra solo ‘cellos (played by Wilf Simenauer and Farquhar Wilkinson), and the thrill of the orchestra “opening up” for the ensuing storm, before the cor anglais (I can’t remember the player’s name) and Richard Giese’s flute flooded us with sunlight and dried us out in time for the excitement of the concluding march. No better introduction to the capabilities of a symphony orchestra could have been devised by anybody, I thought, and especially when the conducting was to my youthful ears as exciting and volatile as was Piero Gamba’s on that occasion.

So, almost as much fond memory was activated as was “here-and-now” sensation and stimuli when Saturday evening’s “Classical Hits” concert got under way in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre with that very same overture, conducted on this occasion by James Judd – Andrew Joyce’s opening ‘cello solo and his duetting with section colleague Ken Ichinose did full justice to the example set by those aforementioned illustrious predecessors – and the rest of the overture literally went like a train, taking time out in between excitements for the pastoral pleasures of shepherd’s pipes and birdsong. Michael Austin and Kirstin Eade most beguilingly did the honours as shepherd and songbird respectively, causing me to fall in love with the music all over again. The rest (not forgetting the Lone Ranger!) is, as they say, history!

A pity that the opportunity wasn’t taken to insert a home-grown classical hit in such a programme – any of David Farquhar’s Ring Round the Moon dances surely qualify with flying colours by now – but at least European hegemony was challenged by Aaron Copland’s exuberant, so out-of-doors Rodeo (well, even rugby stadiums are practically indoors, now!), four foot-tapping “dance episodes” whose “Hoedown” concluding number brought forth at one stage a full blooded “YEE-HA!” from an audience member simply doing what his conductor had told him to do! Incidentally, I thought James Judd’s spoken comments welcoming us all to the concert and explaining aspects of each of the pieces throughout were just right – there was nothing patronizing nor over-modulated about what he said, but simply the conveyance of a message inviting us all to have lots of fun, with both listening and in one or two instances getting physically involved with the music-making!

In the light of such invitations from the conductor, I was half-expecting at least one or two adventurous souls to leap to their feet in the aisles during Offenbach’s famous “Can-can” from the Orpheus in the Underworld Overture – but perhaps Judd’s tempi were a shade too quick for comfort – a bit more weight and “point” to the rhythmic trajectories and textures might have otherwise tempted those who could have felt rushed off their feet at the music’s frenetic pace. However,  no-one could complain regarding the delicious rhythmic subtleties wrought by the conductor and players during Johann Strauss Jnr’s Blue Danube Waltz – right from the pianissimo magic of its opening on the strings, over which sounded those so-familiar horn calls, one was simply entranced – and each episode of the dance, here, had its own particular brand of beguilement, the music’s “character” allowed plenty of variety throughout.

Mirroring Copland’s “Rodeo” Dances before the interval, the second half also included a more extended work, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. Beloved of concert audiences world-wide because of its instant appeal, the piece still doesn’t “play itself” – and James Judd certainly didn’t allow a single moment of anything but committed, characterful and sharply-focused music-making, right from the opening wind chords (so rich, grainy and redolent of “once upon a time in a place called Verona”) to the full-throated passion of the string-saturated utterances at the piece’s climax. Along the way, we heard the most beautifully-shaped phrasings from both strings and winds in the piece’s first section, and plenty of sound and fury from brass and percussion throughout the conflict sequences. And the voicing of the “big tune” by the violas in unison with the cor anglais produced a sound to die for, as did the answering phrases from the other strings, sounded here with such breath-bated tenderness.

I loved the idea of introducing the often-played “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the piece that precedes it in the complete work, the lovely “W.N.” (the initials of Winifred Norbury) – Elgar, though happily married, obviously enjoyed the company and friendship of  a number of women, some of whom are “enigmatically” represented in this set of variations. So we got the graceful G Major portrait of Winifred and her sister Florence in their beautiful eighteenth-century house, before the music magically modulated down into a rich and noble E-flat, the key of “Nimrod”, a word-play on the German surname of Elgar’s publisher and friend August Jaeger, and supposedly enshrining discussions between the composer and his friend on the slow movements of Beethoven. As in the complete work, the grace and charm of “W.N.” became the perfect foil for the profundity of the noble “Nimrod”.

After this Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was a near-perfect choice, even if I always feel somewhat cheated in the concert-hall when the “Hoyotoho! Hoyotoho!” isn’t there, though for people not familiar with the music in an operatic context it obviously doesn’t matter. I did wonder whether there might have been a spontaneous irruption of Valkyrie-like shouts from some off-duty Valkyrie in the audience carried away by the excitement of the moment! Had I been the concert organizer I would have been tempted to try and “plant” a few such people (dramatic sopranos in mufti!) in antiphonal places in the gallery, just for the sheer fun of it! This was a swift and lightish performance throughout, James Judd keeping his forces “airborne” right to the end, unlike some of the weightier realizations of famous Wagnerians like Hans Knappertsbusch, whose concert performances on record of the last few bars of the work have to he heard to be believed!

And so we came to the orchestra’s final programmed offering, a spirited rendition of the younger Johann Strauss’s Polka “Thunder and Lightning”, Judd positively exhorting his audience to “make a noise”, which we did, albeit a little inhibitedly. It did the trick, however, as conductor and players rewarded our efforts with one of the classic encores from the famous Viennese “New Year’s Day” concerts, the elder Johann Strauss’s most famous work, the Radetsky March, during which, to everybody’s delight, the conductor “directed” the audience’s clapping, taking particular care to secure the correct dynamic levels for each sequence! The item brought a most successful concert to a bubbling and exuberant conclusion, an antidote for a blessed couple of hours to the dreadful weather which we encountered when making our way home. One wonders which of the tunes we heard during the evening would have made “top of the pops” amongst the satisfied patrons! Thank you, James Judd and the NZSO!