Yeomen the fascinating dark horse of Gilbert and Sullivan operas


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Hark, all those who might wrongly believe librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan only wrote comic operas filled with jibes, jokes and jolly tra-la-las. Get thee hence to The Yeomen of the Guard.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/04/2018 (1584 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hark, all those who might wrongly believe librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan only wrote comic operas filled with jibes, jokes and jolly tra-la-las. Get thee hence to The Yeomen of the Guard.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Winnipeg presented the fascinating dark horse of the Victorian writing team’s “Savoy operas” that premièred in 1888, with the 130-year old chestnut set in the mid-16th century. It’s rife with Shakespearean-style prose but still packs an emotional wallop, rivalling the loftiest grand operas of more “serious” composers as Verdi and Puccini.

Last staged here in 2008, the 150-minute (including intermission) production directed by Reid Harrison features an all-Manitoba cast with a particularly strong orchestra led by music director/conductor Michelle Mourre, now in her fifth year on the G & S podium.

GARY BARRINGER Sam Plett (left) and Jean van der Merwe appear in a scene from The Yeomen of the Guard.

The opera tells the tale of Colonel Fairfax, sentenced to death on false charges of sorcery, who secretly weds singer Elsie Maynard to avoid leaving his estate to his cousin accuser. With the help of Sergeant Meryll and his family, the colonel escapes, only to return as “Leonard Meryll” and back into Elsie’s arms as her lovesick jester Jack Point collapses from heartbreak.

Having pointed out the emotional undertow of this work, it’s important to also mention there are still plenty of laughs along the way during its twisting, convoluted plot, with the story’s principal characters brought to life by some fine performers.

One of those is Nick Urquhart, who breathed fire into his role as Wilf Shadbolt every time he came onstage. He crafted a swaggering, cocksure head jailer who attempts to woo Zoe Gotziaman’s pouty ingénue Phoebe with “anecdotes of the torture chamber.” Urquhart also displayed keen acting skills and razor-sharp comic timing, matched by his penetrating vocals heard in Hereupon we’re both agreed, among others, sung with relish.

GARY BARRINGER Nick Urguhart and Zoë Gotziaman act in a scene from The Yeomen of the Guard.

Jayne Hammond’s “strolling singer” Elsie Maynard is another standout, her clear soprano voice soaring over opening-night’s crowd of 274 during her lyrical solo Tis done! I am a bride!

Jonathan Stitt also crafted a believable Colonel Fairfax — and even more so after losing his goofy beard from Act I as he morphs into his doppelganger “Leonard.” He projected assured confidence during his two solo arias, Is life a boon? and later, a compelling Free from his fetters grim, despite some slight tension in his upper range.

What a joy to see two pillars of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society doing what they love best. Cathryn Harrison delivered a crisply enunciated When our gallant Norman foes as Tower housekeeper/spinster Dame Carruthers in love with the always incomparable Fred Cross’s Sergeant Meryll. Cross’s plot-driving portrayal infused the entire production with dignified gravitas, with this beloved singing-actor seemingly born to perform Gilbert & Sullivan, while spewing out “thee’s” and “thou’s” as naturally as reciting his own name.

Ben Townsley makes every minute count as the “real” Leonard Meryll during his brief stage time, with his less-is-more portrayal adding to Act I trio Alas! I waver to and fro, while Sam Plett also brought his booming bass-baritone voice to his role as Lieutenant Cholmondeley.

The chorus of townspeople and Yeomen (whose bright red “beefeater” uniforms and white ruffs popped like candy apples against Sheldon Johnson’s Tower of London set) filled the stage with energy during each of their ensemble numbers.

Yeomen is arguably really Jack Point’s story, and Jean Van Der Merwe rises to the challenge of filling his seemingly jolly character with well-nuanced, aching vulnerability. He navigated his two tongue-twisting patter solos, “I’ve jibe and joke” and “Oh! a private buffoon is a light-hearted loon” with crisp confidence, that belies the darker emotional undertow that begins to take root after his beloved Elsie begins slipping away from his grasp. His collapsing during the joyous finale, Comes the pretty young bride, clutching Elsie’s wedding bouquet as she gives her heart to Colonel Fairfax is as good as it gets — breaking our hearts just as his has cracked open in grief.

It admittedly took a while for this show to get going, with some dialogue feeling sluggish, and several early amplification issues that were quickly resolved. The opera itself is also unevenly paced (be forewarned), with Act I clocking in at nearly 90 minutes, followed by a significantly shorter second half. Cutting several of the Act I arias should be considered in future.

Harrison creates several particularly compelling stage tableaux, including a darkly disguised executioner poised with his blade just before intermission, and the final stage picture of the slumped over jester against the wedding revelers. The production rounds out with effective lighting by Rob Mravnik and realistic period costumes created by Jan Malabar and Harlequin Costumes.

With The Yeomen of the Guard traditionally billed as a comic opera, it feels folly to call it thus. However, let’s just say Gilbert and Sullivan’s venerable work remains one for the ages, with its potent themes of love and loss still shuddering across generations.


Updated on Friday, April 6, 2018 3:21 PM CDT: Corrects photo caption.

Updated on Friday, April 6, 2018 6:25 PM CDT: fixes typo in story

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