I once heard The Yeomen of the Guard described as Gilbert and Sullivan’s nearest approach to Grand Opera. I have ever since wondered why. On the one hand there is less coloratura than in The Pirates of Penzance, the plot is less irrational and fantastic than Ruddigore or Iolanthe, and the music is not more substantial than in other Savoy Operas. On the other hand, it might appear that The Yeomen of the Guard is less satirical of contemporary Victorian life, and certainly a quasi-tragic ending distinguishes it from most operettas. Perhaps the answer is that many of the Savoy Operas poke fun at current ideas, foibles, movements or institutions: Iolanthe at the House of Lords, Patience at the Aesthetic Movement, Ruddigore at the Melodrama, The Mikado at the Japanese craze, Princess Ida at the Emancipation of Women, The Pirates of Penzance at the police force, and Utopia Limited (amongst other things) at the royal Drawing Room (which was to be staged so as to begin as a reminiscence of a Christy Nigger-minstrel show). But The Yeomen pokes fun not so much at institutions as at other operas. Parsifal had appeared at Bayreuth in 1882, and, with its pompous processions of Knights in their Grail Castle, is possibly hinted at by Gilbert’s Beefeaters (though this would have been as private a joke at the time as the jibe at Balfe’s Keolanthe, an indiscreet Nile-sprite, contained in Iolanthe). Rigoletto and Faust were firm favourites: the discomfiture of the jester and the vision of a maiden at her spinning wheel find their counterparts in The Yeomen. The embryo trial-of-chastity scene (between Fairfax and Elsie) has always been a dramatist’s stock-in-trade ever since Beaumont and Fletcher, as have Dame Carruthers, the predatory matron, and Phoebe, the coquettish maiden. Perhaps the wiles of women here receive more caustic comment from Gilbert than usual. Suffice it to say The Yeomen seems to have a spirit quite distinct from the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Still, this spirit must be caught from the moment the curtain goes up.
On Tuesday last at the Arts Theatre, the Cambridge Amateur Operatic Society only got into their stride in due course, and then it was a very good stride. Perhaps the disorganization of flu amongst the cast had undermined their confidence on the first night, and during their fortnight’s run matters will improve. The scenery certainly cannot be any more lugubrious; and as this (and Phoebe) is our first glimpse of the stage, it is a serious disadvantage. A second disadvantage is the D’Oyley Carte policy of trying rigidly to preserve a traditional production, which fails to give the flavour of a period piece, and fails to stimulate a contemporary audience. Bernard Shaw wrote of Bayreuth in 1889—only six years after Wagner’s death, “. . . the evil of deliberately making the Bayreuth Festival Playhouse a temple of dead traditions, instead of an arena for live impulses, has begun already.” The similar treatment of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire may well persuade sensible people to discountenance the current petition to extend the protection so far afforded by copyright.
But though Phoebe (Beryl Wickham) and Wilfrid (Antony Bristow) failed initially to establish their character of coquette and oaf (and win our interest), the show fairly soon had all our attention and sympathy, and these two actors were among the most sparkling and characteristic.
Sir Richard (Roy Wilkinson), Sergeant Meryll (William Armitstead), Leonard Meryll (Peter Fecher), and Dame Carruthers (Freda Cook) were very satisfactory indeed—looked, acted and sang their parts well; though Leonard needed a suspicion of make-up to cure his pallor, and I could have wished for more of the booming-voiced battleship from the Dame, who was charming rather than quelling. But perhaps it is as well that Cambridge is not able to supply us with elderly viragos. Kate (Peggy Auton) was a dainty niece, with a nice voice, but she tended to lead the quartet sharp in “Strange adventure! Maiden wedded.”
The part of Colonel Fairfax was taken on at the last minute by Percy Beales (owing to Donald McLeod’s illness), and was played most adroitly on the whole. His delivery of dialogue was somewhat deliberate for a dashing hero, and the timbre of his voice—a pleasant light quality—was not of the stentorian and swash-buckling type one attributes to a Tudor hero. However, it is said that the great cricketer, Grace, had, in contrast to his burly bearded frame, more of a bat-like squeak than a voice; and contemporary British operas have certainly encouraged a vogue for the light-tenor species, especially when written by a composer celebrated as much in opera as in symposium. So, considering the circumstances Percy Beales was extremely praiseworthy and we were lucky to have him.
Elsie Maynard (Josephine Newman) was charmingly played and most excellently sung. It is typical of Gilbert that he should arrange to give the songs eliciting Sullivan’s more sophisticated vein to the most rude and uncultured personages in the story. It is ever thus.
For the most exacting role of the work, Jack Point (Roy Braybrooke), I must confess to superlative admiration. His diction was impeccable, his voice not unpleasing, his personality delightful and his acting whether in joy or sorrow utterly sympathetic and convincing. First-rate!
The chorus and orchestra were in good form, as was Eric Wedd the conductor (save when he was holding Jack Point back in his patter-song “Oh! a private buffoon is a light-hearted loon”), the Beefeaters’ costumes gave just the right splash of colour, and, once the show was under way, everything went spinningly along. The musical highlights, apart from the Act finales and the opening of Act II, were the two duets involving Point and Wilfrid, “Like a ghost his vigil keeping” and “Hereupon we’re both agreed,” Elsie’s solo, and above all the superbly done quartet “When a wooer goes a-wooing.” The company is indeed to be congratulated on a most entertaining evening.