The Yeomen of the Guard, English National Opera review – half a good shot at an unusual G&S misalliance

At times, the restless routines for the chorus and the three busy tap dancers feel like a half-hearted attempt to rival the more successful antics of Cal McCrystal’s Excellent. Iolanthe and especially sharp HMS apron at ENO. But it’s hard to get the right tone(s) for Yomen, G&S’s closest attempt at a “serious” opera. Frankly, I think that those Savoyard operettas that hit the pathos only selectively – Iolanthe, The Penzance Pirates and The Gondoliers above all – work better; we always want the reversal.

Part is there in the rescue plot here, whereby Fairfax’s escape from the Tower of London disguised as the son of Sergeant Meryll – who none of the Yeomen have seen, odd in the update when photos of his bravery could have circulated – is complicated by his pre-execution marriage to a woman he has never seen: traveling gambler Elsie Maynard, filling in for his sick mother on a tour of the not-so-funny Jack Point (Richard McCabe and Alexandra Oomans shown below). There are plenty of delightful performers to keep the ball rolling (as Hopkins also does, perhaps pushing a little too hard where the operatic elements need expansion). Designed for dialogue but not for vocals, they have to work hard on the too wide open spaces of Anthony Ward’s uncertain sets. Both leading ladies have bags of energy, and ENO Harewood artist Alexandra Oomens picks up a second winner as Elsie after her Apron Josephine. Both ladies have unusually large set pieces by Sullivan’s standards, and Oomens goes all the way in her Act One soliloquy about blindfolded marriage for money.

Heather Lowe, who has had to deal with distracting affairs from the start, leaves us in no doubt about Phoebe Meryll’s liveliness – no wonder Fairfax was drawn to her before her “bride” turned her attention – and made a good teams up with unwanted suitor Wilfred Shadbolt, head jailer and “assistant executioner” (the resonant John Molloy, who might as well run the mile with the Irish accent going back and forth. The two shown below right with Susan Bickley and Neal Davies). Scene from ENO YeomenCasting accomplished actor Richard McCabe as the tragicomic Jack Point was a much better move than the unsuccessful star bait of Les Dennis in ENO’s Apron. He’s not a singer either, but overcomes the tricky fact that the jokes in this wag aren’t funny with dramatic precision. Like many recent and sadly defunct comics, Jack is a sad man underneath, so the impact of Elsie’s inevitable rejection doesn’t seem too contrived (and the ending is heartbreaking, although someone from the first-night audience had laughed when Point was sobbing – there is always one).

The culmination of Sullivan’s Olde English style, the two-chord ballad of Merryman and his Maid, is enhanced by McCabe’s accordion skills. And league with Shadbolt in act two is really funny, the second (and best) of his two solos spiced up with a Brexit reference that won applause. McCabe lives up (to me) to the indelible memory of his insanely jealous Ford in the National Threatre production of The Merry Women of Windsor. Anyone thinking of a new Osborne production The artist to their man. Scene from ENO YeomenAnthony Gregory’s first fine solo as Fairfax is eclipsed by bustling business; the second (the ineffable “Free from his fetters grim”) makes its lyrical mark, and it is strong in abundant ensembles. The usually thin Susan Bickley seems out of her comfort zone as Dame Carruthers, in this “tower deputy governor” version of Steven Page’s Lieutenant Cholmondeley; a sharp chest voice is a must, and we don’t understand that. She acts well interacting with Neal Davies’ Sergeant Meryll even though it was a big mistake, in my books, to replace the “Rapture, rapture/Ghastly, ghastly!” duo, certainly unfeasible these days, with an adaptation of the Patter Trio of Rouddigore, transformed into a final quartet

The chorus savor their elaborate sets – another trump card of Sullivan’s ambition – though it’s odd that for once Gilbert doesn’t seem to know how to put words to the beautiful melody of “The Night Has Spread Her Veil Again “. I hope audiences will see through the snags of the production and libretto and hear the countless bliss of the color of the orchestra – the breathless string phrases of the first trio, for example, or the little clarinet chorus of ” A man who would woo a fair maid”, taken up at the end by Elsie – whom Sullivan adorns with all his amorous invention. And do not miss excellent performances.

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