When choosing a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to be performed at the Proms in a year firmly branded as "London 2012", The Yeomen of the Guard had obvious appeal, being set in one of the capital's most famous landmarks, and giving the opportunity, even in semi-staged form, to deck the hall with Beefeater uniforms. And indeed, if you include excerpts, this Sullivan operetta has had 62 outings at the Proms, more than any other Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
Yet The Yeomen of the Guard is a strange animal. By the time it was written in 1888, Sullivan was heartily fed up with his partnership with Gilbert, feeling cornered into writing trivial works not worthy of his talent and very much wanting to tackle a proper Grand Opera. The effect is something of a hybrid: there's plenty enough of the light-hearted fun numbers and musical pastiche that make up the usual G&S style, but grafted onto these are a series of themes which are altogether musically deeper. I was particularly struck by the prelude to Act II, which was played as eloquently as anything from a romantic opera by composers of far more serious reputation. And the ending of The Yeomen of the Guard is distinctly ambiguous: rather than the usual "happily ever after", we have three weddings between couples who are anything but conventionally infatuated with each other. Meryll and Phoebe both marrying to ensure the silence of their respective spouses on the subject of their part in Fairfax's escape from the Tower, while Fairfax himself, for typically convoluted reasons, has been married blindfolded to the first woman that could be found.
Presenting any operetta in semi-staged form in the Royal Albert Hall is a formidable task. Not, as you might imagine, because of the staging, which worked just fine (director Martin Duncan opted for Victorian costumes which were perfectly good enough to delineate who was who and add a sense of narrative). Rather, the problem is one of acoustics. Performers were amplified when speaking but not when singing, and it's asking a lot of a singer to produce a Gilbert patter song at speed at a volume which will fill the hall. In fact, it's downright impossible to fill the whole hall: when singers had their backs to us or had another performer blocking their line of sight, they were totally inaudible. I would guess that anyone sitting in the choir seats hardly heard a sung note all night (if you were there, I'd be interested to hear from you).
Conductor Jane Glover was clearly aware of the problems and kept an extremely tight rein on the BBC Concert Orchestra. In the purely orchestral or chorus passages, she let them have their heads and produce a joyous volume of sound. When soloists were singing (i.e. most of the time), the level was held back with great precision to ensure that the orchestra never drowned them out. Generally, the orchestra were on good form: there were some fine bits of individual instrumental playing, and Glover has a no-nonsense conducting style which gave you the sense of everything in the orchestra being in perfect working order. But none of this could prevent the whole thing from feeling rather restrained.
As a singing actor, the stand-out performer was Heather Shipp (brought in as a replacement for Victoria Simmonds), who brought the most edge and verve to her character of Phoebe. Mark Stone also impressed as the unfortunate jester Jack Point, getting through both folksong pastiche, patter songs and song-and-dance routines with gusto. Andrew Kennedy gave us a pleasant tenor voice as Fairfax, with Felicity Palmer splendid as the cheerful "housekeeper of the Tower" Dame Carruthers, a character thoroughly surreal in a particularly Gilbertian manner.
But for all the efforts of a fine conductor and good orchestra, chorus and cast, I question the wisdom of staging a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, written for a theatre that seated 1,292, unamplified in a hall that seats over 5,500. However good the singers may be, it's an environment in which they're going to struggle dreadfully to achieve the immediacy and rapid-fire vibrancy that the genre requires. And while there was a fair amount of fun and there were some moments of musical excellence last night, they weren't enough to mask my disappointment at a performance that never really achieved lift-off.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP