2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of WS Gilbert one half of the Victorian-era composer-librettist duo Gilbert and Sullivan and after Opera North's production of Ruddigore, only my second outing to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, well, guess what? I've got a little list.
Gilbert's fanciful words and Sullivan's memorable melodies made for a perfect marriage and indeed a successful one. The pair made a huge contribution to the development of musical theatre at this time and also challenged their audiences with savvy comic operetta. These operettas used political and social satire and parody to create these comic masterpieces of the time but one would argue that the old fashioned Gilbert and Sullivan comedy is no longer relevant. On the contrary, what could better than Gilbert and Sullivan's hilarious British charm?
Charm is a good word to sum up the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, but who are they charming now? Well, certainly not the mass audiences of a yester-year. Despite the various successes of Gilbert and Sullivan, there doesn't seem to be a strong-enough following to sustain its constant performance otherwise perhaps I would have been to more than two Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Re-calling my previous visit to hear the English National Opera's revival of Jonathan Miller's The Mikado, which I enjoyed immensely, it included a modernisation of Gilbert's words where the Lord High Executioner's list was aptly updated exclaiming satire of a modern day political nature; a few subtle jokes about Speaker John Bercow and the Conservatives - the adaption was welcome and gives these ridiculous tales a modern presence as well as huge laughter and rapturous applause.
I think I've always seen Gilbert and Sullivan as a bit of parodied fun, perhaps one could say that they are well-crafted pantomimes: They are silly, outrageous and fun - Admittedly, I can't confess I'm a fan.
Though rather appropriately Prince Charles happens to be a huge fan: During his visit to the United States in May this year he paid tribute to US soldiers injured in the war in the Middle East, then, at a dinner reception that evening, Heather Small sang to a group of invited guests so, not to be out-staged before the Prince gave his speech he informed the audience that while at school he took part in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance and then proceeded to sing an excerpt from the operetta: "When I sally forth to seek my prey, I help myself in a royal way, I sink a few more ships, it's true, than a well-bred monarch ought to do".
On reflection Opera North's rather witty production of Ruddigore, which set me chuckling in an evening of charming British melodramatic parody, has given me my annual dose of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Are their operettas still relevant? I think if they are still entertaining the mass then yes and their operettas may have another lease of life yet.
Opera North's production of Ruddigore ran at the Barbican Theatre in London until the 26th November, Opera North return to the Barbican Theatre in 2012 with a production of Carousel. Charles Court Opera's small-scale production of The Mikado returns to The Kings Head Theatre in Islington in February 2012.
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