Ruddigore - or the Witch's Curse - originally spelt Ruddygore and dubbed by W.S Gilbert himself as "Bloodygore", received mixed reviews by leading critics of the day. There can be little doubt that the piece suffered by comparison with the sustained brilliance of its immediate predecessor, The Mikado. Gilbert's dialogue for Ruddigore was dismissed by the New York Times critic as "amusing here and there" in the first act and as "slow and tedious" in the second.
Composer and librettist made adjustments and some cuts in the days following the 1887 premiere at London's Savoy Theatre before Ruddigore was taken off after a relatively short run of 288 performances. The piece was never revived during the lifetimes of its composer or author and did not return to the repertory of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company until December 1920, remaining in the Carte's touring repertory until the company's sad demise in 1982.
Opera North's production directed by Jo Davies and premiered last year under the baton of light music crusader John Wilson recreates the version of the musical score which both Gilbert and Sullivan finally settled upon. The company reckons that it is 120 years since this "definitive" version restoring Sullivan's orchestrations which had been tampered with prior to the 1920 revival, has been performed. Amongst re-instated musical numbers are the lovely duet for Rose Maybud and Richard Dauntless "The battle's roar is over", and "For happy the lily" (the "Basingstoke" patter finale) in the original 9/8 time.
Although the action has been updated from the period of the Napoleonic Wars to the aftermath of the First World War, the Victorian critics who slammed Gilbert's libretto would probably spin round in their graves to discover that it remains untouched more than 120 years later - save for the insertion of an additional verse in Sir Ruthven's song "All the crimes I find in The Times". The new text amusingly parodies the MPs' expenses scandal, tabloid journalism hacking, and the recent appearances of the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons in Celebrity Big Brother!
Every syllable of the libretto, whether spoken or sung, is made to sound as fresh and witty as if the ink had barely dried on the manuscripts. Davies infuses her production with boundless energy and movement to counter any sense of dragging or slackening off, during the singing of musical numbers or protracted sections of spoken dialogue. For example, during her charming song "If somebody there chanced to be" the demure Rose Maybud sung by the delightful Amy Freston is required to up-end her bed to retrieve the precious Book of Etiquette from where it has been concealed by Rose's aunt, Dame Hannah. The critics who considered Act II to be slow and tedious would be delighted by the synergy which Davies has created; the scene in which the ghosts of the baronets of Ruddigore inquire into the crimes that the current Bad Baronet has committed is one of hilarious pandemonium as the ghosts, with much noise and bustle, re-arrange the furniture on stage to clear the space for the "inquiry". Davies also extracts abundant energy and humour from the repeated interventions of the corps of professional bridesmaids led by Gillene Herbert's feisty Zorah with the sopranos and altos of the Opera North Chorus. The ladies are required to rush around with predatory yelps and handfuls of confetti, besieging every potential bride and groom.
Conductor John Wilson and every member of the original cast have returned to reprise their performances: Grant Doyle's warm and well nourished baritone is a revelation to those of us brought up on much lighter voices in the dual role of Robin Oakapple and Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. Doyle's delivery of the patter songs is just as razor sharp as the classic D'Oyly Carte principal comedians of yesteryear. Sir Despard Murgatroyd is sung by the wonderfully saturnine Richard Burkhard who with white face make -up, top hat and swirling cloak epitomises the villain of Victorian melodrama. His Act I entrance amidst the 1920s seaside paraphernalia of a Punch and Judy theatre is a masterstroke.
The nimble Hal Cazalet presents Richard Dauntless, the Man O' War's Man and foster-brother to Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd as a macho, tattooed lothario. Cazalet has a lovely lyric tenor, quite ravishing in The battle's roar is over" - effectively a love duet with Rose - and agile and flexible in his introductory number "I shipped, d'ye see, in a revenue sloop". This is vigorously choreographed by Kay Shepherd with some brightly dressed sailors turning cartwheels and Cazalet proving that he can dance a hornpipe with the best of them. The multi-tasking Amy Freston as Rose is in beautiful voice throughout, her phrasing is supple and the top notes immaculately placed. Richard Angas plays Robin's faithful retainer Old Adam Goodheart. The towering and sepulchral-toned Angas and Sir Ruthven open Act II in the heavy gothic atmosphere of the oak panelled baronial hall dominated by the ancestral picture gallery and a huge writing desk where they map-out the daily crime which Sir Ruthven is now cursed to commit. At one point, Angas staggers on wielding a huge axe and looking as though he's stepped from the pages of Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.
Heather Shipp creates a beautifully studied and spidery portrayal of Mad Margaret, not really mad but just a smidgeon unhinged and slightly unsettling. We first encounter Margaret wheeling her worldly possessions in a pram before singing her dramatic and poignant "mad" scene "Cheerily carols the lark" heralded by a beautiful flute solo. Anne-Marie Owens' plum pudding contralto voice is perfect for the "gorgon" role of the redoubtable Dame Hannah who becomes "Little Nannikins" in the touching duet "There grew a little flower and a great oak tree" with the fearsome ghost of Sir Roderic Murgatroyd sung by Steven Page who is dressed in army khaki as a First World War General. Page initially appears (and disappears) heavily robed and hooded like the Monk in Don Carlos and there's a clever illusion when he seems to vanish into thin air and the terrified Sir Ruthven is left holding the empty robes! Page's dark baritone and impeccable diction superbly intones "When the night wind howls" with the chorus of ghostly ancestors and cushioned by some of Sullivan's most vividly descriptive orchestral writing.
Sepia-tinted sets and costumes respectively created by Richard Hudson and Gabrielle Dalton with muted, atmospheric lighting designed by Anna Watson contribute to a production that is ravishing to behold. The silvery grey sea and pale blue sky for the Cornish coastal village in Act I imbue the scene with the quaint charm of a 1920s picture postcard resort. This, with the flying-in of oak pews and screens becomes the church for the extended finale to Act I. The picture gallery of Act II fills the full height of the proscenium and tapers to a point at the back of the stage inducing a feeling of claustrophobia as the ghostly ancestors of Ruddigore appear as if by magic behind the portraits amidst the obligatory lightning flashes and amplified rumbles of thunder.
Everything gels under the baton of John Wilson who clearly has the measure of Gilbert & Sullivan, like the great Sir Charles Mackerras before him. Wilson takes things at a brisk pace but is careful to shine light on detail and he meticulously delineates orchestral and vocal textures. I don't think that I have ever heard the Act I finale with so much inner detail, such as the intricately beautiful harmonies of the pseudo-madrigal "When the buds are blossoming" sung here with palpable joy by the entire company.
My only (small) criticism is that the lengthy overture needed pruning; this was set to "once upon a time" images and text recounting the legend of the Witch's Curse and projected onto the front-piece. Dame Hannah fully explains everything soon afterwards in her opening number "Sir Rupert Murgatroyd", sung with stentorian richness and firmness of tone by Anne-Marie Owens. A small carp which it seems almost churlish to mention because this terrific production of a hitherto under-rated Savoy opera oozes so much humour and visceral energy from an expert cast who now inhabit their roles. In fact it's ruddy marvellous!
Photographs (c): Robert Workman