Cher Public

The Importance of Being Rudolph

Since Gilbert and Sullivan remain constant in the light-opera repertory, somewhere between Fledermaus and Les Mis in popular esteem, there must be good reasons their final collaboration, The Grand Duke, is seldom revived. There are. 

The show is large, sprawling, complex and not terribly good by the impossibly high standards of their earlier works. But The Grand Duke is G&S, and it challenges—less often rewards—the aspirations of an ambitious company or a reckless director.

The Utopia Opera Company, which has been giving lively versions of pieces like Princess Ida and Der Freischütz for several years now in Hunter College’s Lang Recital Hall (main building, fourth floor), fills that bill nicely. If you want to check The Grand Duke off your list, you probably won’t see a better one for the same money. (There are two more performances next weekend.)

What went wrong, back in 1896? Well, there’s a natural life to these things. Gilbert and Sullivan had been working together (among other projects) for twenty-five years. They were aging, they were weary, they were, worst of all, rich and famous beyond their wildest dreams. Sullivan had even been knighted.

The operetta that resulted is overstuffed with Gilbertian jokery, but we have heard many of these jokes before, in fresher circumstances. The quirky little grammatically phrases inverted to achieve proper rhymes are no longer quite so funny. The melodies too, though no one but Sir Arthur could have written them, have a slightly recycled air. It is a piece without heart, without even vaguely real feelings in any of the characters. It’s a three-hour skit.

We find ourselves in Pfennig-Halbpfennig (Penny-Ha’penny), a minor German monarchy that, like so many of the real ones in 1896, is notable only for its artistic life. Half the country, indeed, seems to belong to Ernest Dummkopf’s theatrical troupe, but their day job is plotting to blow up stingy Grand Duke Rudolph. (You might update this by having them be the staff of Saturday Night Live, a missed opportunity. Sad.)

The story ambles about until Ludwig, the low comedian who was about to marry the soubrette at curtain-rise, has himself become Grand Duke (per one of Gilbert’s beloved preposterous legal fictions) and, as a result, finds himself engaged to four ladies at once. This being late G&S, that means each lady gets a song about the situation or a duet with the right or wrong man. Late Gilbert plots are all rather clockwork where the early ones were amiable fantasies, logical, absurd, charming.

A typical joke pushed much too far is the appearance with the theatrical troupe of an “English” leading lady with a heavy accent—but since everyone else is performing in English, Julia acts and sings with a German accent to indicate how foreign she is. The original Julia was a German star who had been signed by D’Oyly Carte; Gilbert couldn’t resist a chance for topsy-turvy. Utopia Opera’s Julia is American, but plays the role in stage accent. Tradition!

There are surtitles at Utopia Opera. You may expect a rant here against surtitles with English-language and unamplified performance; fine; let us suppose I have let fly and get on with it. In fact, since Gilbert’s word-play is even more obscure than usual in The Grand Duke (a three-verse patter song with the jokes in Ancient Greek? a chorus sung in Ancient Greek?) and since hardly anyone knows this show (unlike Pirates or Pinafore, where we all sing along), titles are a very good thing.

This though Lang Hall is quite small and the cast, with one exception, possess excellent Gilbertian diction skills. The exception is the Prince of Monte Carlo who, evidently taking his hint from Germanic Julia, speaks and sings every line with a “stage French” accent, un véritable vache español in both tongues. I do hope someone will persuade him to can it before next weekend.

A word on the text: Gilbert wrote many “current” references into his shows but doubted they would prove immortal. He favored updating—but few producers can do it on his level. Several current event references have been inserted into Utopia’s Grand Duke, and the audience on Saturday night either did not notice them or did not realize they were supposed to be funny. There were also references to previous productions by this company; they weren’t funny either. There were also cuts of dialogue and business, all of them good ideas with this waddle of a show.

Sir Arthur’s orchestrations are so winsome it would be a pity to do without them. At Utopia, a scrappy and string-light 20-piece orchestra, led by company music and stage director William Remmers, started bumpily, like a jalopy on first turn of the crank, then grew more reliable as it gathered speed and hit the straightaway. There were pretty tunes, and plangent harmonies that pointed the sentiments being expressed in philosophical ensembles, as usual in G&S. It was a pleasure to hear so many unfamiliar tunes so amiably sounded.

Utopia’s cast boasted many an enthusiastic comic performance and attractive voice (how microphones would have ruined things!), and they all passed the time of the slower and more confusing numbers with slythy dance steps that never interfered with their pronouncing Gilbert’s wicked syllables.

Ben Cohen made excellent work of Ludwig’s rapid-fire asides and complexes and patter, but for sheer ebullience the bouncy Ernest Dummkopf of Matt Hughes is precisely what the job calls for. Martin Everall, as the self-pitying Grand Duke Rudolph, whined tunefully but should work harder to express the character’s essential seediness. Dustier clothes would help. David Tillistrand was the incomprehensible Prince of Monte Carlo and Kevin Miller the legal counsel to the assassins (every conspiracy needs one) who also slices the Gilbertian knots of the plot.

Hannah Spierman’s junoesque figure and flailing fan suit both a leading foreign actress and a grand duchess driven mad with jealousy. (Julia must be both, or rather, she must be one portraying the other.) She possesses a lovely, limpid soprano and tidy coloratura skills. Kat Liu’s deeper mezzo suited the pathetic Lisa’s sweetly brokenhearted arias.

Hanne Dollase threw herself into the amorous clamor of Baroness von Krakenfeldt, but her costumes—green in Act I, black in Act II—were far too elegant: The Baroness is the tightest wad in Germany after Rudolph himself—she only reads the paper because her breakfast came in it. To imagine her changing a wearable dress merely to marry violates Gilbert’s caricature. (It is rare to criticize a small opera company for being insufficiently drab, and I revel in the opportunity.) Allyson Herman, as the Princess of Monte Carlo, went exactly as far with her accent as the part requires. She should give Mr. Tillistrand lessons. Before Friday please.

Mr. Remmers is the company’s stage director as well as music director, and to him goes the credit for turning Gilbert’s too-elaborate, too-dry fantasy into something considerably more enjoyable than it appears to be on the page. His cast are spunky and vivid even when the material is stuffy, and there is much pleasure in these performances.

It was, for me, a most agreeable introduction to the company and aroused my curiosity about their next project, The Ballad of Baby Doe, which will be given May 6-13. On the company’s web site, you are encouraged to vote for next season’s projects, and there are rumors that Gilbert & Cellier’s The Mountebanks is under consideration. Well, okay, that was my suggestion. Go vote for it right now.

  • grimoaldo2

    Thank you for the interesting and perceptive review! I must say well done to this company for such a venturesome venture!
    “how microphones would have ruined things!”
    Yes, they always do.
    I would love to see “The Mountebanks”, don’t know what the music is like but it is one of Gilbert’s best librettos in my opinion, he tried and tried to get Sullivan to write the music, but Sullivan couldn’t swallow the plot about a lozenge that, one ingested, turns people into what they pretend to be.

    • William Remmers

      Timing has never been better for Mountebanks. At least, it would be great to do an orchestral, semi-staged concert. It’s never been more available. The first proper, professional recording was just assembled by some UK friends from a recent full score by another UK friend, Robin Gordon-Powell. Here are the details on the recording from the Sullivan Society:

      Alfred Cellier’s The Mountebanks (1892), featuring the BBC Singers and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by John Andrews, was recorded at the Watford Colosseum 18-22 January. Issue projected for the end of the year.

      • John Yohalem

        Revenge without anxiety!
        (that is, without unnecessary risk!)
        (The Mountebanks)

    • Camille

      What’d I tell you, grimoaldo, here it is all
      laid out on a buffet table to feast upon! it’s indeed fortunate to be able to benefit from the reviewer’s considerable knowledge of this genre and one may accordingly rely upon that judgment. He’s not just a fellow who stumbled into a performance one night and is regurgitating his impressions but someone who thoroughly knows his subject. And this is becoming a highly specialised genre and this particular work a subdivision thereof which is seldom touched upon-ergo—

      What overwhelmingly occupied me during this evening’s Pleasant Idyll was this consideration:

      “How does the sum of all these parts add up somehow to less, rather than more?”

      There are so many of all those finely-hewn G&S trademarks — but — The Grand Duke, as Ernest as he well might be, just does not equate to the Princess Ida, and which I’d been more happily engaged by on the very same stage. Nor certainly, comparisons with the wonderful Iolanthe, given in what appeared to be for all intents and purposes, a future NYCO production out of town tryout in San Francisco, are moot and hors de concors!

      “The Roulette Song” is some of the best Offenbach I’ve ever heard (hors Offenbach), but for some reason, it was cut after the initial performances in 1896, by Gilbert, wasn’t it? Why? That’s why the rather lateish appearance of Le Prince de Monte Carlo is a rather critical factor in all this as he wakes one UP!
      [Aside to le Prince: as a general rule,
      for les étrangers when affecting a French accent: less is more DO remember to stick it in the NOSE! It’s the nasality in the TONE, above all, and not mangling consonants with everything in ‘zese ‘n ‘zose affectations.]

      It was an awful lot of work for everyone involved, to memorize and perform a work such as this one, and which rarely one will reasonably have opportunity to perform again- BUT -- that’s show biz, and one is adding a valuable credit to one’s résumé, not to mention, one’s memorisation skills chut alors!

      I would just like to make mention of one lone performer—-a shout out to that guy in the Prince of Monte Carlo’s back up band--the guy in shorts—honey, you were a hoot and provided some much needed merriment at that eleventh hour.

      I will be back for more fun at the upcoming Ballad of Baby Doe, as I’ve suddenly realised it’s one more on my bucket list! Utopia Opera is a truly worthwhile and smart company which affords young(ish) singers and actors valuable opportunities, and its casting director has a very apt sense of the right person for the right role, plus the director’s ability in making it all work on that teeny-tiny stage so as to avoid unfortunate headlong collisions is remarkable! They are a group to be commended, worthy of our encouragement and our support. I deeply appreciate and applaud all their entirely earnest efforts!

      • William Remmers

        Thanks, Camille! Very glad to have you in the audience again! The hilarious performer you gave a shout-out to is Roman Laba; the Prince’s back-up band [simply called supers from the Theatre Monaco that are rigged out in said company’s costumes] consisted of performers in their costumes from past Utopia shows. Roman has played many roles for us, always with a wonderful sense of humor and musical panache, including Pandolfe, Truffaldin, and Haly. In this case, he was reprising his Pistola. It seems that Pistola has learned some English in the interim.

        • Camille

          Pas de cela!and not at all, for it’s refreshing, you see, to see some *ideas* and imaginative creativity at play rather than an over-produced set and gimmick (“Fiasco”) which does not function!

          And one does hope so that you are successful in finding a mentor/sponsor comparable to the one you lost a year or so ago, and who was apparently so instrumental to its establishment. His commemoration, as seen after the performance Princess Ida.was both a touching and persuasive one.