The Victorian penchant for the Gothic and the macabre is well known. It was seen in everything from architecture to popular novels – the blighted ruin created as a folly in aristocratic gardens, the grand guignol madness of the stage heroine, the séance as an after-dinner entertainment. Paranormal researchers looked for evidence of ghosts and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that most logical of sleuths, Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies.
It was inevitable then, given this ubiquity, that Gilbert and Sullivan would have a pop at it, as they had already done with so many English institutions and foibles. Ruddigore (originally titled Ruddygore) is set in the quintessentially English village of Rederring, a place that unusually employed a team of professional bridesmaids. However, when we meet them they are mourning their lack of a wedding – no one has married for six months and they spend every day on duty from ten to four with nothing to do. Their hopes are pinned on Rose Maybud, the most eligible girl in town. Unfortunately, she is driven less by her heart than her book of etiquette that steers her away from passion and the hopelessly timid advances of her swain, Robin.
But wait – Robin is not the innocent farmer that he seems. He is, in fact, Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the baronet of Ruddigore and the victim of an ancestral curse to be utterly wicked on a daily basis. To escape the curse, he has feigned death and his brother Sir Despard terrorises the village instead. Into this confusion steps Richard (Dick) Dauntless, handsome sailor and foster brother to Robin – and, of course, he recognises him immediately. What could possibly go wrong?
This being the topsy-turvy world of W S Gilbert, just about everything. A rollercoaster ensues of ever-changing romantic liaisons, a jilted woman running mad, a parade of ghosts stepping out from their family portraits, abductions of maidens and the strangely calming effects of the repetition of the word “Basingstoke”. There are some truly hilarious moments in John Savournin’s (Artistic Director of the Charles Court Opera, back at OHP for a third year) production and he draws out the joy of Gilbert’s humour while casting a satirical eye over the many human follies on display.
The notoriously tongue-twisting libretto is a piece of cake for this excellent cast who take advantage whenever possible to ham up the ludicrous plot to the rafters – a particularly rich seam for the marvellous John Savournin as the dastardly Sir Despard to mine. Matthew Kellett is in fine voice as Robin (and a natural comic) and Lilo Evans is a sweet voiced Rose and plays her pedantry with a totally straight bat. David Webb is a dashing Dauntless and, as Mad Margaret, Heather Lowe goes from wild woman to the most tweedy of Miss Moneypennys. Heather Shipp warmed up her Dame Hannah with honeyed tones and Stephen Gadd was a fine ghostly Sir Roderic. In fact, everyone is in fine voice – but there are moments in the spoken dialogue that words are lost. Maybe they should feature in the surtitles too?
It’s a great looking production with designer Madeleine Boyd giving full rein to her imagination in some of the costumes (I particularly the Barbie-pink bridesmaids). The choreography by Merry Holden was particularly strong, adding to the zest and humour and the City of London Sinfonia played David Eaton’s reduced score with gusto. A night of unadulterated fun.
Ruddigore runs at Opera Holland Park until 12 August. For more information, and for bookings, please visit www.operahollandpark.com.
Photos by Craig Fuller