The Gondoliers/Utopia Ltd

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

IT WAS not, of course, originally designed to be this way, but the fates have decreed that Scottish Opera should restart live operations in its home venue, and the 2021/22 season, with some sparkling Gilbert & Sullivan, created in partnership with the D’Oyly Carte company and the State Opera of South Australia. Light, populist fare certainly, but the sort of cheering stuff we all are in need of.

Even if you are one to quibble about its status as “opera”, this staging of The Gondoliers is certainly grand enough, with its sumptuous Canaletto backdrop from designer Dick Bird and fantastic – and sometimes ridiculous – costuming, all of hand-stitched in-house. The orchestra, under Head of Music Derek Clark, is in superb form, with new recruits making their main house debuts, and there is a full chorus, drilled to perfection by choreographer Isabel Baquero.

Stuart Maunder’s production is the work of a man in love with this repertoire, and he has won performances from cast members young and old to match. As the boatmen, Mark Nathan and William Morgan are a terrific duo, Ben McAteer is a panto-tastic Grand Inquisitor, veteran G&S hand Richard Suart nails The Duke of Plaza-Toro to perfection, and Catriona Hewitson is vocally outstanding as his daughter Casilda.

But there are no weak links in this cast and the production’s triumph is as an ensemble piece, where no-one puts a foot wrong. Perhaps Suart’s updating of the Duke’s political musings to reference the current incumbent of Downing Street feels a little shoe-horned-in (although admittedly greeted by audience guffaws), but that is a minor quibble.

The peculiar cleverness of G&S is that it is simultaneously pertinent and quaintly dated, and that is even more true of this package’s companion piece, using the same cast on a simplified version of the same set, in what is rather more than a concert performance but less than a fully-stage one. Utopia Ltd was a late addition to the partnership’s catalogue, and contains many parallel themes to The Gondoliers, but it resonates so well with the issues of our own times – a century and a quarter later – that it is uncanny.

It would be worth the revival for that alone, but there is no skimping in the score either, with some very fine, if less familiar, Sullivan music. Perhaps if Gilbert had scripted it to the length of some of the duo’s earliest hits, Utopia Ltd would be revived more often. As it is here, the briefer rehearsal time afforded it shows in the ensemble singing and chorus-work, but the chance to enjoy the piece at all is very welcome.