Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gettysburg Gibert & Sullivan Festival

This year I spent the last week of June attending the 2nd International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Gettysburg, PA (of all places). Interesting location - especially considering the dates - June 24 through July 3. Now, if you know your American history you know that the Civil War battle of Gettysburg happened over July 1 - 3. As might be expected the closer we got to the battle anniversary the heavier and more challenging the auto traffic got. But even so, the Festival was fun. The main attractions were the evening main stage performances. These began with a special Victorian Orchestra concert to kick it off and ended with a Youth production of "Mikado" (I missed both of these along with the Festival performance of "Pirates"). In between there were a variety of companies - both British and American - who performed a total of 10 operas over 8 evenings! Quite an accomplishment. In addition to this there were daytime fringe performances and a lecture series. Overall it was really fun. I had a great time and enjoyed the performances very much.

There is not enough space for me to review everything - but I want to list a few of the highlights and then make a couple general comments about the experience. So here is a list of my favorite moments. It was so fun to finally get to see a production of "Ruddigore." The company from Maine did a good job. I enjoyed the well-danced Hornpipe by the Richard Dauntless - Fran Vogt. The Despard and Margaret were very good as was the Robin Oakapple and Rose Maybud. The chorus was particularly excellent and I really enjoyed the professional Bridesmaids - they were very funny at times.

Perhaps the best series of performances for the whole week occurred on Monday evening - the Triple Play. Three one act operas - two by Sullivan without Gilbert - "The Zoo" and "Cox & Box" - concluding with G & S's first (real) effort "Trial By Jury." "The Zoo" and "Cox and Box" were performed by a group of British performers - Charles Court Opera. "Trial By Jury" was performed by a combination of efforts from the Philadelphia and West Chester, PA G & S groups. It is hard to describe ow outstanding "The Zoo" was. The work was performed without chorus. But it is a work I barely know and I didn't miss the chorus at all. All of the 5 principals were outstanding. I especially enjoyed David Menezes as Carboy and Catrine Kirkman as Laetitia. They made an adorable nerdy couple of lovers who reminded me a little of Harold and his fiance on the "Red Green Show." The plot is really silly - and I don't think the music is Sullivan's best - especially the "aria" (if you can call it that) for Laetitia. But Catrine was so outstanding and made it work as an actress and what a beautiful voice. John Savournin played the Duke of Islington and he was great! This would not be the last time we would experience John this week. Savournin and Menezes were next joined by Sebastian Valentine for an outstanding "Cox and Box." Finally I felt that the Pennsylvania "Trial" was the best American production of the week. This "Trial" was flawless. The stars of the show were 1st - the chorus. This chorus was absolutely outstanding! I loved all of the extra chorus characters and all of the little bits of business - like the jury pulling out newspapers during the Defendant's defense. And their ensemble was flawless. 2. I really enjoyed Guillermo Bosch's Usher. 3. Sam Griffin as the Judge was terrific. The whole evening was outstanding.

Tuesday brought the British Nomad's production of "Sorcerer." I had never seen this live before. It was very well done. The cast and production were excellent. For me the standouts were: 1. John Savournin was John Wellington Wells (I loved his costume too!) and 2. American Richard Holmes as Dr. Daley. When I have read this script Daley comes across as such a drip - but not in the this performance. Holmes was terrific. There were at times a few coordination problems between stage and pit, but overall it was a very enjoyable production.

Wednesday gave us the English Trent Opera production of my favorite G & S - "Iolanthe." This was the only opera where the Festival had scheduled two performances - an afternoon matinee and an evening performance. It seemed as though this schedule might have been a little hard on the cast. A couple of the singers sounded fatigued in the evening. But otherwise I loved this show. The standouts for this production: 1. Andrew Nicklin is an outstanding conductor and stage director. I was really impressed with his musical control of the performance. 2. Nick Sales and Stephen Godward as Tolloller and Mountararat were top notch. 3. Bravo Chorus - especially the fairies 4. John Torr's Lord Chancellor was very well done - especially the "Nightmare Song." My favorite scene was the recognition scene between Iolanthe and the LC was beautifully done by Mr. Torr and Jessica Nicklin and I really loved the entrance of the Fairy Queen in that scene. Joan Self was perhaps the most diminutive Fairy Queen I had ever seen, but she did a wonderful job. She was very funny but she was also able to be effectively dramatic and serious.

Friday evening, and my last show, was another performance by Trent of my other favorite G & S - "Yeoman of the Guard." Again directed by Andrew Nicklin and again, this was also a fine performance. Nick Sales was a powerful and excellent Fairfax (what a beautiful voice too), Michael Tipler was an excellent Sgt. Meryll - it was fun to hear the restored song for Meryll (I wish they had let Strephon sing "Fold you Flapping Wings" in "Iolanthe!"). I also enjoyed Jessica Nicklin's Pheobe and Sarah Hughes' Elsie. John Savournin was back playing the Lieutenant of the Tower - he is fantastic and I loved his performance. But the star for me was Stephen Godward's Wilfred Shadbolt - what a terrific actor and what a beautiful voice. Even the rat bit was funny (gross - but funny) and his puppy dog devotion to the manipulative Phoebe was so believable and effective. I also enjoyed the Jack Point of Alastair Massey. On the whole - this was a great performance. The chorus was excellent. The sets for both Yeoman and Iolanthe were minimal - but they had to ship them from England so it was completely understandable and ultimately it didn't really matter because the acting and singing was so good by Trent. It was a real treat to get to experience these performances.

I have two other comments. I do not want to be critical but I found the Thursday performance of "Pinafore" troubling. The Sir Joseph might be a fine actor, but the choice - either his or the stage director - to play him so creepy I found very troubling. It reminded me of an Australian "Pinafore" from the late '90's. It is not necessary to make Sir Joseph creepy to make him "odious" to Josephine. He is "odious" because she is already in love with someone else. If you have ever been in love you know that even the idea of being with someone else is repulsive - and add to that Sir Joseph's healthy self-regard and there you have it. The only other thing I will say is that the cat bit was funny at first - but it got old. I really liked the Buttercup and the Captain was also good. I also enjoyed this company's "Fringe" performance of "The Racketeers."

I should also mention that I really enjoyed the Fringe performance of "Foggerty's Fairy" by the Maryland group. One never gets to see Gilbert's plays. What a treat! I really enjoyed it. I also really enjoyed the lectures - especially the presentation by Caroline Williams. The pre-performance lectures by Ralph McPhail were also excellent and very enjoyable.

Finally, I want to make some comment about the orchestra. As a former professional oboist, who had a career as both an orchestral player and a teacher which spanned over 25 years and who served for a number of years as a contractor and personnel manager for orchestras, opera companies and touring groups I would like to suggest that I do not understand why it is necessary to bring an orchestra over from England. There are so many absolutely outstanding orchestral musicians who are experienced and accomplished and who could do a great job. All you need is an good contractor. I could put together a top notch orchestra myself if I were not retired. I would encourage the Festival directors to engage a top notch contractor / conductor - from New York or Philadelphia and put out a call for players. Now, I do not think this will save much money for I would think that a few extra days of intensive rehearsal might need to be added to the schedule. But it still shouldn't be any more expensive than transporting a pit orchestra from England. But still, given the economic situation and the fact that many fine musicians need to find work I would strongly encourage consideration of this idea. (The concertmaster could be imported if some continuity between Gettysburg and Buxton is desired.) Now, I am not in any way being critical of the orchestra. They did a fine job. But I would hope that more American musicians could be engaged.

One additional comment about the orchestra - it was very disappointing to me that for "Ruddigore," "Triple Play," and "Sorcerer" an arrangement of Sullivan's orchestration was used which eliminated the bassoon. Caroline Williams points out in her book that Sullivan was very intentional in his orchestration and used the orchestration as a way of coloring the score. And the bassoon was one of Sullivan's favorite instruments. The Usher's song in "Trial," for example, was almost ruined by replacing the clever and funny bassoon solos ("From bias free of every kind") with clarinet. It's not the same and Sullivan would not have approved. Perhaps the pit was too small for a full orchestra (only ONE viola in the spinning song in "Yeoman"). If so, this might be another good reason to look for a different venue. And without the travel costs perhaps a couple additional players could be engaged to ensure that Sullivan's orchestrations are performed as he created them.

By the way - as an oboist I need to say hats off to the oboist. She played beautifully all week!

In closing, I really enjoyed my week at the Festival. I know that the attendance was not what would have been desired. Even so, I hope it continues. I hope to attend in the future. Thank you for this Festival and especially thank you to Rich Wiley for all of his excellent and outstanding work organizing this Festival.

So for all of the festival organizers and performers: Now give three cheers, I'll lead the way. Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurray!