Sunday, July 17, 2016

Yo, Yeoman

Poster from 1897, re-used for the program here.
The Yeomen of the Guard or The Merryman and His Maid, by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Bagley Wright Theater, through July30.

The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society is a local organization dedicated to the light opera works of Gilbert & Sullivan. They are enthusiasts and amateurs, and produce but one production a year, in the heart of the summer, usually overlapping with the Bite of Seattle (which was also this weekend - I overheard several in the audience complain about the traffic, but I found that a Food festival running at the same day was a perk, not a bug).

The society makes bank on the big three G&S Productions known to all with a passing knowledge of the oeuvre - Pinafore, Penzance, and Mikado. But they also feature works that are not as common or well known. Yeoman of the Guard floats to the top of the general knowledge list in general, particularly those who remember Peter, Paul, and Mary and their cover of "I have a song to sing-o" which appears here.

Very quickly, the production is excellent - the voices range from fair to fantastic, with a heavier number at the upper end of that register. Morgan Duterte as Elise Maynard, a strolling singer, is in particular strong, and Mark Rabe as her jester boyfriend is bright and sarcastic.

The opera itself is a bit odd, though, and it may just be modern sensibilities trying to be applied to older forms. Forgive me if I go on about this, but it leaves me puzzled. Here's the plot (Do spoilers apply to an opera from 1888? Fine, I've giving it all away here):

The initial setup is that brave, handsome Lord Fairfax is in the Tower of London, about to be beheaded on trumped-up charges, guarded by the yeomen. Most of the yeomen think its a darn shame Fairfax will lose his head, including Sergeant Meryll, whose daughter is sweet on Fairfax. Father and daughter conspire to free Fairfax by breaking him out but then passing him off as Meryll's son, Leonard, who had just been appointed to the guard but who no one has seen. Fairfax, though, to keep his money out of the hands of his evil cousin, arranged to get married before his death. A traveling jester and his girlfriend/singer are recruited into the scheme, and the singer, Elsie, is married, blindfolded, to a man who will be dead in an hour.

But Meryll's plot works. Phoebe gets the keys from the love-besotted head jailer/assistant tormentor, and Fairfax escapes, but had to maintain his role as a guardsman looking for himself and pretending to be Pheobe's brother.

Now here's where it goes off the rails a bit for me. The plot suddenly switches from Phoebe's romance with Fairfax to Elsie's. Elsie cannot marry her jester boyfriend, because she is already married to Fairfax, who failed to die. The jester and head jailer cook up a scheme where they claim to have shot Fairfax in the river, which frees up Elsie to marry the jester and removes the jailer's competition for Pheobe. But, Fairfax, having figured out that Elsie is his wife, proceeds to woo her under the jester's nose as Leonard. Elsie must refuse, of course, which endears her to the lord.

And the Meryll's plan starts to fall apart. Pheobe, jealous of Elsie, inadvertently reveals to the jailer that Fairfax still lives, and must agree to marry the jailer to keep his silence. The Sergeant is similarly trapped and forced into agreeing to marry the Tower's housekeeper, the formidable Dame Carruthers. Word comes that Fairfax is pardoned, and Fairfax comes to claim his bride, who is heartbroken because she now loves Leonard. She is delighted to see that Fairfax is her Leonard, and after a reprise of "I have a song to sing - o", takes her place with her husband, and the jester collapses in grief.

And what the hey? I feel like I'm missing something - not in the performance, not in the songs, not in the opera's internal logic (of which, we are informed, we should take the immortal advice " Repeat to yourself its just a show, you really should relax"), but in how it is framed as a story. We're set out with the idea that this is the story of Meryll's family springs the lord who Pheobe is sweet on. But by the end, the play is really about the jester and Elsie, who are parted as Elsie ascends to a new social station, while Meryll and Pheobe are trapped in engagements they do not want.

What happened here? Only Elsie gets a happy ending, but that's a bit wobbly given that her noble husband is more than a bit shallow and a cad - Happy to dally with Phoebe while still officially married to Elsie, and only brought back into the fold by Elsie's loyalty to him. And even then he plays her, wooing her as Leonard and causing her further heartbreak. And the original conspirators, who are not presented as horrible people, are lashed into their own unwanted marriages. The jester falls insensible. None seem to have done anything to deserve their fates.

All this may be in the nature of stage roles for singers. As far as I can tell (in G&S, at least), tenors tend to be the romantic leads, but their characters are rather cloth-headed, vain, and unempathic. Soprano parts also skew to the brainless end of the category. Mezzo's are usually the sidekick/best friend of the Soprano, until they become women of a certain age, where they become a formidable contraltos - marriage hungry and dominating. And the baritones get all the good characters and all the good laughs.

And this is a "serious" Gilbert & Sullivan - lacking the mocking of British customs and politics, much of the normal topsy-turvey legalisms, and, despite the arrival of the pardon at the end, does not feel like a god has been cranked out of a machine. And the music is extremely strong, a step above most. But the framework of the plot, even ignoring the internal logic, leaves me puzzled.

So, excellence performance, which makes me extremely happy to be in a part of the country that has such things. I think I just need to figure out how this comic opera thing is supposed to work.

More later,