THE GONDOLIERS at Winter Opera St. Louis

Gina Galati’s Wonderful Winter Opera Company put on a delightful production of Gilbert and Sullivan The Gondoliers. It opened last night at the new Kirkwood Performing Arts Center to a full and warmly responsive audience.

The story takes place in 18th century Venice. Set designer Scott Loebl offers us a charming cityscape across the glittering Grand Canal and a grand throne room in the fictional island kingdom of Barataria. Nice job, as usual for Mr. Loebl.

The evening is filled with Gilbert’s supremely clever ridiculousness on the class system, romance, and politics (and here in particular, egalitarianism and corporate law). How wonderfully all of this applies to our own modern world.

All comic operas end in weddings, right? Well here we only have three marriages (not ten like in Pirates of Penzance). And the story no to finish with marriages, begin with them! Two weddings take place in Act I and a secret one (would you believe it?) took place twenty years ago! But it’s still definitely a comedy.

We open with the usual band of young G&S girls (here Italian peasant girls, or contain). They offer us a magnificent chorus, “Roses white and roses red”. All the girls are in love with two handsome gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe. They all agreed not to accept any other suitor until Marco and Giuseppe had chosen their wives, because they or they are the first choice of every girl. The boys agree to be blindfolded, then marry the girl they can catch. (I think they cheated; they marry the girls they liked.)

But then politics rears its ugly head. The King of Barataria has been murdered and the Crown Prince must be found. It was safely secreted as a baby. He’s either Giuseppe or Marco, but even his drunken adoptive father can’t tell which one.

The Grand Inquisitor enlists our two gondoliers as co-king until the Crown Prince’s true identity can be established.

Oh, by the way, this crown prince married as a baby to little Casilda, the child of a now impoverished Spanish nobility.

It’s our three weddings. So bigamy? Who will be king? (And the queen?) It is proposed that since we have two husbands and three wives, each wife gets 2/3 of a husband. Reasonable. But (with a touch of surprise) everything works.

Wonderful voices abound. They fill the room, their diction makes supertitles unnecessary (except in frequent chants). The level of excellence is so uniform it’s hard to pick favorites, but I must especially commend Tyler Putnam (Grand Inquisitor), Priscilla Salisbury (Casilda) and Angela Christine Smith (The Duchess).

Andrew Pardini and Alexander Scheurmann do a splendid job as two gondolier brothers, as do Holly Janz and Lauren Nash Silberstein as their wives. Gary Moss (a St. Louis favorite) makes the Duke a comedic gem, and Clark Sturdevant is excellent (as always) as Luiz (the real Crown Prince). Each supporting role is filled with solid talent: Alexandra Billhartz, Janelle Pierce, Emily Moore are peasant girls, Thomas Taylor, Joel Rogier and Jason Mallory are gondoliers, and Stephanie Mossinghoff is the old nurse who knows the critical secret. (Miss Billhartz, by the way, has the very face of a young G&S girl: delicate raised eyebrows that express perpetual delighted surprise.)

There is a very lively cachucha dance stage and a breathtakingly beautiful ballet sequence with dancers from Ballet 314. Here, Robert Poe, one of the company’s founders, shines with lively energy and infinite precision.

Veteran director John Stephens gracefully handles the large cast and maestro Dario Salvi draws true beauty from his orchestra. Attractive costumes are by Lauren Smith Bearden and lighting is by Neil Bearden.

The Gondoliers originally opened in 1889, and it was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last big hit. The partnership had been strained for some time, Arthur Sullivan eager to write more serious music than the rather rigid model of “Savoyard operas” he had created with Gilbert allowed. Sullivan was one of the most respected composers of his time (he was knighted in 1883) but he felt constrained and dominated by Gilbert. Gilbert had real artistic control over the productions: he created the concept, he directed the staging, he enforced discipline in the rehearsals. Gilbert was the eldest (by six years) and he liked to do what he wanted. He might get a little grumpy.

The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) was Gilbert’s bow to Sullivan’s serious musical cravings. There was more sentiment, none of Gilbert’s “backwards” nonsense, not even a proper happy ending—and a musical score that critics considered by far the best Sullivan had done; it has been called “a true English opera”.

But the following year, with Gondoliers, the team is back to their usual antics! And audiences and critics have received it well. Like us in Saint-Louis.

The beautiful Winter Opera production of The Gondoliers played on January 15 and 16.

About Marco C. Nichols

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