|Kevin Miller and Hanne Dollase as Dr. Tannhauser and the Baroness von Krakenfeldt|
Who else beside W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan could churn out one hit after another with such relevance to their time and place, and yet still feel relevant today! Who but William Remmers and his Utopia Opera could capture the wild and crazy spirit with which they invested their works! Opera (without getting into a discussion of whether operetta and music theater fit under that umbrella) must be both artistic and entertaining. This production of The Grand Duke, alternatively titled The Statutory Duel, definitely filled the bill. Lucky for you, dear reader, you will have two chances next weekend to enjoy the piece that entertained us so royally (ahem!) last night.
Gilbert and Sullivan began their joint writing career for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company with a work entitled Thespis in which a theatrical company aspires to political power. How fitting then that their final collaboration in 1896 took on the same theme. No opportunity was lost to skewer political patronage, an issue still dear to our hearts. A further theme, written about so eloquently in Mr. Remmers' program notes, deals with the extent to which one's role in life, echoed by the role the actors assume in the theater, affect the script of one's life and that of other people.
The conceit of the story is that interpretation of the law can alter lives in multiple ways. The so-called law of the (fictional) land of Pfennig Halbpfennig is one of dueling by drawing playing cards, a situation in which the loser is "dead for a day" and the winner assumes all his responsibilities and debts. The law is uncovered by the notary Dr. Tannhauser who later discovers a loophole, a deus ex machina which permits a happy ending in which everyone can marry someone.
Until that time, Ludwig, the leading comedian of the troop (the talented Ben Cohen), was engaged to marry the soubrette Lisa (the beautiful and sweet voiced Kat Liu); then wed to the British comedienne Julia Jellicoe (the hilarious Hannah Spierman) whom he "inherited" when he trounced theater manager Ernest Dummkopf (the superb Matt Hughes); then to the aristocratic Baroness von Krakenfeldt (the smoky voiced Hanne Dollase) whom he took over from Rudolph the stingy and despotic Grand Duke of Pfennig Halbpfennig (the excellent performer Martin Everall); then to the Princess of Monte Carlo (delightful Allyson Herman) to whom he was betrothed as a child. Is that clear?
It all centers around a plot to depose the Grand Duke who is none too popular. Much of the audience laughter would suggest a certain contemporary topicality. Gales of laughter also greeted many of the scenes. The late arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo (the fine David Tillistrand) who paid off his debts by inventing roulette, involved the worst and funniest French accent ever heard. Come to think of it, how topsy-turvily funny it is that this German (or Austrian) theatrical company spoke in British accents whilst the British comedian spoke with a rather spotty German accent.
The parts were perfectly cast and the voices were all eminently listenable. Duets and ensembles were particularly fine, Gilbert was such a fine wordsmith and Sullivan such a fine tunesmith! That some critical opinion opined that this 14th and final collaboration of the pair was not up to par did not mar our opinion a whit. What we did consider is that the two "smiths" had had a falling out and perhaps that inspired the plot in which the lead comedian takes over the position of the theater manager by means of a "statutory duel" in which no one gets hurt. Converting daily struggles into art is what the artist is supposed to do.
There was no scenery to distract one from the fine performances. Fortunately there were titles so that none of Gilbert's clever words and rhymes would be missed. All of the players sang and spoke clearly but the words of the chorus did not come through and we were glad to have titles.
Costuming by Eric Lamp and Angel Betancourt added to the fun.
Mr. Remmers conducted the orchestra which occasionally sounded a bit ragged but always brought out the excellence of Sullivan's music, whether it was waltz or march or ballad. Once or twice we heard echoes of Offenbach. At the turn of the 20th century, entertainment was evolving and there would be no more Gilbert and Sullivan. How glad we are to have the oeuvre that we do and to have had the opportunity to enjoy a show that had been unknown to us!
(c) meche kroop