I don’t think I had sat through The Yeoman of the Guard since I was a small boy taken, as I often was, to the Theatre Royal, Hanley, to see the D’Oyly Carte Company on tour in the 1950s. Whereas I can still sing most of The Mikado, much of The Gondoliers and quite a lot of Iolanthe and Pinafore, I have never felt the same affection for The Yeoman (or Ruddigore, Princess Ida and all the other G&S also-rans). Nevertheless, I looked forward eagerly to the Prom’s semi-staged performance to reacquaint myself with it and perhaps reassess my opinion of it. It is, after all, hailed as a masterepiece by afficionados and was rated by Sullivan himself as his favourite of all his collaborations with Gilbert ‘because there is topsy-turveydom’, he said.
The Yeoman of the Guard is always descibed as ‘the nearest thing to Grand Opera that Gilbert & Sullivan ever wrote’. I’ve never been quite sure what that meant but now I know. First, it shares a laughably improbable plot with many Grand Operas such as Il Trovatore (almost incomprehensible), Don Carlos (baffling) and Der Freischütz (magic bullets, yeah right). Secondly, it has a splendid overture, arguably Sullivan’s best (he dashed it off in the auditorium during one of the final rehearsals), often played on its own as a concert item. Thirdly, the spoken dialogue is embarrassingly dated. I bow to no-one in my admiration of Gilbert the lyricist, but Gilbert the dramatist and writer of convincing, well-rounded characters now looks very second-rate.
Even following the libretto, I quickly lost track of what was going on. Why was Colonel Fairfax going to be beheaded? How do a pair of strolling players (Jack Point and Elsie Maynard) o end up entertaining Beefeaters? Half way through the first half, the eye-lids were drooping, jerked open by occasional bursts of mystifying laughter from the audience. If I hadn’t been watching it with our house guest (ex-Saddler’s Wells & ENO soprano) I’d have gone to bed. There was some lovely singing, particularly Lisa Milne as Elsie, Victoria Simmonds as Phoebe, Toby Stafford-Allen as Wilfred and Felicity Palmer as Dame Carruthers. Andrew Kennedy (Fairfax) has one of those quintessentially English tenor voices that suit oratorio so well, but he’s no actor and his wooden dialogue creaked under the strain. Jane Glover, with her strange marionette baton technique, held the whole thing together but she’s no John Wilson.
Even the best of G&S doesn’t work on TV and, apart from the shortcomings of the work itself, the whole experience was just short of twee and toe-curling. I shan’t be seeing The Yeoman again. It’s the Overture and vocal highlights for me.