A joyous The Gondoliers from Scottish Opera at Hackney Empire

The overarching feeling of Scottish Opera’s The Gondoliers at London’s Hackney Empire is joyful exuberance.

It sounds a fanfare for the pleasure of live performance returning after the long darkness of this dreadful pandemic; a splendidly staged, marvellously sung and genuinely funny evening of Gilbert & Sullivan.

The opera has particular interest to aficionados, the music of the opening scene for example, and the opera’s place in the failing relationship between composer and librettist. However, for the audience members who were entertained in the splendidly apt ornate auditorium of the Hackney Empire, it was the performance that mattered and brought a much-needed lift to the collective spirits.

Mark Nathan and William Morgan

Having toured in Scotland, the Stuart Maunder production is a delight, full of wit and oozing charm, with none of the penchant of some contemporary directors for messing around with works that are so often best left to speak for themselves.  

The Venetian designs from Dick Bird balance are pretty and functional for this silly tale of babies swapped at birth, lovers separated and reunited, catastrophe and nonsense, all played out with characteristically brilliant Gilbert & Sullivan romping storytelling and music.

We have modern takes on the satire and invective so expect the current government to take quite a lashing – audiences love that.

As the two amorous and energetic gondoliers William Morgan as Marco and Mark Nathan as Giuseppe are an effervescent pair, matched with their seemingly randomly selected brides, sweet yet feisty Gianetta and Tessa sung by Charlie Drummond and Sioned Gwen Davies.

Dan Shelvey, Catriona Hewitson, Yvonne Howard and Richard Suart

The humour is in large part derived from the impoverished Duke of Plaza-Toro, a polished performance from Richard Suart, and Yvonne Howard singing an appealing bossy Duchess, literally wheeling herself (and being wheeled around) in a vastly wide period dress. Completing the down on their heels crew is the Duke’s daughter Casilda cheeky yet elegantly sung by Catriona Hewitson and the servant Luiz who is sung beautifully by an imposing Dan Shelvey. While the daughter has been married as a child to whichever of the Gondoliers turns out to be the heir to crown of Barataria, she and the servant are (of course) secretly in love.

Act Two rattles along at a spectacular pace as the gondoliers try to both share the kingship of Barataria until their nanny/ foster mother can be found to reveal who is the rightful heir, and introduce their republican politics. The jolly pair share a half each of two costumes, so when they stand together they form a whole.

The attempt at everyone being equal is naturally a failure with very jolly results. It takes the wickedly funny and mischievously camp Don Alhambra from Ben McAteer to give the opera’s verdict on the philosophy of everyone being the same: when everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody.

There is more hilarity when Cheryl Forbes appears on a rack being tortured to reveal the identity of the heir to the throne, with arms growing ridiculously longer and longer, accompanied by bloody curdling screams.

Isabel Baquero gives the principals and the impressive chorus, vocally and dramatically, much to do with dance a plenty, lots of nifty footwork as the riotous assembly gathers to a satisfying and cheer raising finale.

Derek Clark conducts this lavish collaboration with D’Oyly Carte and State Opera South Australia with enthusiastic zeal.

Hackney Empire until April 2. https://hackneyempire.co.uk/whats-on/gondoliers/

On April 1 Scottish Opera gives a semi-staged concert of Gilbert & Sullivan’s penultimate opera Utopia, performed by the cast of The Gondoliers.

Images: James Glossop

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