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.