Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera, The Gondoliers, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Review

a wonderful mixture of real pathos and sparkling good humour

**** (4 stars)

Another first – this time sitting in a theatre with a real live band in the pit: all very socially distanced, but there in front of our very eyes was the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, a welcome sight after so long without them.

The overture began, and we were instantly transported to Venice, the music spilling over with joy, sunshine, and the rippling waves of the Venetian lagoon.  A chorus of contadine – country maidens – eagerly awaits the arrival of their two heartthrobs, completely ignoring the love-lorn chorus of gondoliers surrounding them.  Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri arrive and announce their intention to marry, asking to be blindfolded while they choose their brides and ending up paired with Tessa and Gianetta.  Everyone rushes off to celebrate the nuptials.

The Duke of Plaza-Toro arrives with his wife, his daughter Casilda, and his drummer, Luiz.  Casilda is informed that she was betrothed in infancy to the infant son of the King of Barataria, who for his own safety grew up in the family of one of Venice’s gondoliers – the Palmieris.  The old king is now dead and the Grand Inquisitor alone knows who is the new king – but when asked, is forced to confess he doesn’t know whether it’s Marco or Giuseppe.  For the moment, both men will have to reign in Barataria while Luiz goes to track down the royal nurse, Inez, who will be able to identify the true heir.

There are now three very unhappy ladies – Casilda, who is in love with Luiz, and Tessa and Gianetta, who are not allowed to go to Barataria with their newly-wed husbands.  Marco and Giuseppe, though staunch Republicans, swiftly determine to establish a kingdom where everyone is equal. The Plaza-Toros arrive and swiftly set about teaching the two men “proper royal behaviour”. Tessa and Gianetta turn up, only to discover that one of their husbands is a bigamist.  The Grand Inquisitor appears with Inez who reveals that she placed her own son with the Palmieris and raised the royal prince herself – it is Luiz who is the king.  Casilda is thus already married to her beloved, and the gondoliers are able to return to Venice with their loving wives.

This Savoy Opera is one in which no one character gets to dominate, and many are afforded a chance to shine.  In this sparkling production, Arthur Bruce’s Antonio had his moment in the sun very early on.  William Morgan and Mark Nathan’s Marco and Giuseppe obviously thought very highly of themselves, but did it so charmingly it was impossible not to like them: they did a particularly splendid job of being half a king each in act 2.  Ellie Laugharne and Sioned Gwen Davies made a lovely pair of contadine.  Catriona Hewitson was a wonderfully imperious and touchingly human Casilda in a fabulous frock with a skirt seemingly made of chain-mail, her eye-patch and manner suggesting kinship with Verdi’s Princess Eboli.  Richard Suart made an endearingly down-at-heel Duke of Plaza-Toro, while his Duchess [Yvonne Howard]’s extravagantly wide costume spoke volumes about the run-down state of their finances.  Dan Shelvey’s Luiz was a dab hand with his drum and had his moment of glory when his drab costume was pulled apart to reveal a fittingly regal white satin outfit.  Ben McAteer was a suitably grisly Grand Inquisitor [with overtones of a camp John Cleese] and Cheryl Forbes’ Inez had a field day with her brief, tortured cameo revealing her nursling’s triumphant accession to the throne.

One of the joys of this show for me was the growing number of young singers who are, or have been, Scottish Opera Emerging Artists – many of them products of what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  Their energy and enthusiasm lit up the stage and augur well for the future of opera in Scotland.  The production was full of life and colour, and Isabel Baquero’s choreography was a delight to watch – my personal favourite was during the full ensemble clapping and stamping cross-rhythms in dance a cacucha, which we got to hear a second time at the close of the show.  The Gondoliers is full of musical magic – outstanding number after outstanding number, with the quintet in a contemplative fashion topping the bill for me with its calm, pensive underpinning each character’s dramatic outpouring of emotion.  

The Savoy Operas lampooned many contemporary ills, and the tradition of updating some numbers continues – the Duke’s extremely witty and politically apposite second-act aria being greeted with wry laughter and loud applause.  I was questioning the need for supertitles in an opera being sung in English to an English-speaking audience – but I have to confess that, particularly in this aria, it was enormously helpful to have the rapid-fire words readable as well as audible!

The Gondoliers is a wonderful mixture of real pathos and sparkling good humour, presented exuberantly by Scottish Opera’s soloists, chorus, and orchestra under the baton of their talented head of music, Derek Clark.  I was delighted to learn that a film of this production is being made.  If you aren’t able to get to see the live show, make sure you don’t miss the film – it will go a long way to lightening the drab winter months while also displaying the fantastic cornucopia of talent currently on display at Scottish Opera.

Scottish Opera, Gilbert & Sullivan The Gondoliers, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Runs until Saturday Nov 6th; for tickets go to: The Production will visit Eden Court Theatre Inverness and Hackney Empire London.

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