“Rum-ti-tum with a bit of dancing – my Granny used to sing all that down at her local gym...” That’s how a recent friend described the entire collection of 13 ½ Gilbert and Sullivan operas to me the other day, when I expressed my enthusiasm for them. But there’s much more to this repertoire’s appeal than that! Granted, the network of (often accomplished) UK community theatre companies has reigned supreme over the canon’s lovable characters and friendly melodies in recent times. Operatic societies – regularly breeding grounds for new music lovers and young board-treaders – have lit the beacons for a style that might otherwise have become obscure. They’ve succeeded in securing both Gilbert and Sullivan a fond place in the hearts of many a Brit – not to mention deep roots in a lot of families’ traditions.
Originally, I’m from one of those G&S-brandishing families. Dad conducted our local group, Mum sang (using one of two stage poses: ‘hands-on-hips defiant’ or ‘hands-in-air shocked’), and the overwhelming image of a Great Uncle portraying a dancing dragoon is seared in my memory. At 16 I could sing you the whole canon, and perhaps unsurprisingly I loathed every note. I’d ghetto-blast Boulez from my bedroom just to block it all out, as you do when you’re a teen.
However, we’ve recently been witnessing something of a Gilbertian renaissance in our professional houses. Directors and conductors are remembering the original artistry behind the old entertainment. W. S. Gilbert’s masterful command of the English tongue and his acerbic, satirical wit is usually the first draw: one line of his beautifully crafted poetry can deride an entire government, while his hilarious plots and their bizarre topsy-turvy twists can engage with themes that are as relevant to today’s society as they were to the Victorians.
It was Sir Arthur who beckoned me back to these pieces though, and I now firmly believe – having reclaimed a deep love of this repertoire – that he is one of our country’s finest composers. There’s something very ‘right’ about a score by Sullivan. His neat solutions to melody and orchestration reveal a talent barely surpassed in operetta, while he consistently handles Gilbert’s text with a skill and dexterity that I dare say would make some heavier operatic composers blush.
And now, here is Jo Davies’ superb realisation of Ruddigore: a piece bubbling with wit and good humour, and a delicious score to boot. The rehearsal process has been joyous: a proper collaboration between direction and musical direction, where text informs the music and melody leads the text in equal measure. Through that journey we’ve seen how extraordinary this writing partnership was, and the cast, many of whom are new to the Ruddigore team, all appear to be as intoxicated by the fun of this score as I am.
I’m looking forward to getting the work – part operetta, part comedy – in front of an audience where it belongs, and I hope that they (including my dubious friend) enjoy it as much as I will.