The Yeomen of the Guard is Gilbert and Sullivan's most nuanced operetta. Loosely set in the librettist and composer's Victorian era, but against the backdrop of the 1000-year-old Tower of London and at times Shakespearean in its tragic-comedy, it drops easily into the post-war days of cheery if weary relief shot through with austerity. Not every character gets a happy ending.
But musically Arthur Sullivan reached the heights to which he aspired, as a serious composer and not only the gifted creator of clever rounds, patter songs and choruses. Verdian moments show that, far from being a buttoned-up Englishman he was a European at heart.
Alexandra Oomens and Richard McCabe as Elsie and Jack Point. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Yeomen gets off to an uncomfortable staff. Wittily flagged up by genuine and invented news bulletins, the imprisonment for treason and impending execution of an Army officer, Colonel Fairfax, prompts jokes about capital punishment that the modern audience struggles with. But in Jo Davies's new production at the Coliseum, we edge on to easier ground with the arrival of a high-octane, low-rent vaudeville act.
Soubrette Elsie catches the eye of Fairfax, whose escape and disguise as a Yeoman Warder has been engineered by insiders, leaving her lovelorn companion Jack Point out on a limb. Also floundering is the Tower sergeant's daughter Phoebe, another Fairfax fan, pursued by the creepy gaoler Wilfred Shadbolt. Here are the nods to Shakespeare, in the gloomy jester and the droopy, loveless Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
As Jack Point, ENO has brought in a performer who is an actor first and foremost, the very comical Richard McCabe, and as a loudly dressed cheeky chappie he brings real humour and pathos to what can be a mirthless role and, but at a cost to the music. His diction is wonderful but reaching some of his notes proves a stretch. Fortunately, all around him are at the top of their game.
Firefighting Phoebe, Heather Lowe, falls for Fairfax. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Soprano Alexandra Oomens is delectable as Elsie Maynard, a petite entertainer with a massive personality, Oomens' glorious, gilt-edged voice gleaming through the complex ensemble numbers.
Mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe as Phoebe is physically and vocally both warm and witty, although Davies pretty much fades her out towards the end. Fellow mezzo Susan Bickley's Dame Carruthers calls to mind the women who stepped up to men's jobs during the war, and were not going to step right back down to the kitchen afterwards.
As Fairfax, fine-voiced tenor Anthony Gregory is suitably dashing. Phoebe's father Sergeant Meryll is sung by Neal Davies, who is as entertaining as ever, and there is a pleasing ENO principal debut by Isabelle Peters as Kate.
Susan Bickley's Dame Carruthers is the real boss at the Tower. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Much fun is had by all in the ever-portable number 'It Really Doesn't Matter' (it pops up in many a G&S production, and it really doesn't matter which). Gilbert and Sullivan were making fun of their contemporary society, and here both jokey choreography by Kay Shepherd and additional lines do the same. Richard McCabe's scathing reference to Brexit – 'Going well, isn't it?!' – draws a huge round of applause.
The 1950s is affectionately summed up in costumes by Anthony Ward that have finally left behind the pinched 40s. But don't get carried away. The Fifties was a pretty dreadful place (I was there): terrible teeth, dreary food and ingrained misogyny.
But Fifties Britain invested with passion and imagination in arts for all. So, go Elsie! Go Phoebe! Go Dame Carruthers! And yes, go, go GO to this Yeomen of the Guard! As Arts Council England cuts all its funding to English National Opera, box office receipts mean more than other. Use it or lose it.
The Yeomen of the Guard is sung in English with English subtitles. The 2:30PM performance on Sat 12 Nov is a relaxed performance
|The Yeomen of the Guard, English National Opera review
|English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP
03 Nov 22 – 02 Dec 22, 10 evening performances; 4 matinees. Start times vary. Running time c2hr 40min
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