New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society's The Trumpet Bray

Vol. XXV No. 7

The Grand Duke was privileged to receive 3 reviews from NEG&SS.

THE GRAND DUKE AT MIT - Review #1? One hundred years to the day (May 3, 1901) after MIT students presented the American premiere of DUKE, the MIT G&S Players repeated their triumph. As staged by David Jedlinsky, in his G&S directing debut, with some exceptional talent on stage and featuring a coherent orchestral score, vocal score and band parts developed by Mike Storie and Alan Lund of the Seattle G&S Society, this company has shown that DUKE deserves to be part of the standard repertoire of any G&S company worthy of the name.

While the production owed much to the Seattle creation, it generally eschewed the 1930s Duck Soup approach, being set in 1901. The production kept the Seattle division into three acts, with the Second Act opening with the entrance of the Chamberlains, and I will make my comments based on that division. The set for all three acts was a standard "German" village with a red brick wall stage right (which on occasion opened to reveal Julia's dressing room), a functional arch surmounted by an elaborate clock (of which more later), and doors to the Notary's shop and a two-story Inn, from the upper windows of which characters would observe the goings-on in the town square. The Inn also had lettered upon it the rules for the Statutory Duel, providing for the Notary's inspiration in suggesting it. There were some excellent and relevant costumes, including some Greek Gods in the third act (is a THESPIS in the offing?), but overall I was reminded of the recent discussion [on SavoyNet] about amateur theatre if you are wearing your own clothes on stage.

At the Saturday Matinee which I saw, the orchestra was thin on strings and lacked a trumpet, the bassoon and oboe, leading to some problems with singers' entrances when they clearly expected to hear cues which weren't there. There were some obvious disconnects between pit and stage but overall the band under Jennifer Hazel managed quite well.

Andrew Sweet as Ludwig was exceptional, with a great sense of comic timing, a very decent singing voice and superb diction. His third act song At the Outset I Mention was presented in full and at breakneck speed but every word was clear (even if the audience didn't get it.) Dawn Perlner as Lisa had a nice singing voice and played the role as one who has a building coming down around her without quite understanding what was going on. Gregory Baker was the typical love-sick Ernest who more than met his match in the incredible Julia Jellicoe of Ana Albir, who really stole the show - excellent accent both speaking and singing and a stage presence which many performers with much more experience would kill for.

David Michael Daly was a splendid Notary with a clear and resonant voice, who enjoyed being the deus ex machina behind all the actions. Jonathan Weinstein made an excellent Grand Duke Rudolph - clear diction, a fine singing voice and emotive characterization, but he does need to remember to sing and speak to the audience, not the stage floor. Ishani Radha Das was a far too attractive and elegant Baroness, but didn't convey enough of the battleaxe or counterfoil to Rudolph.

In one of the few real miscalculations on the part of the Director, the drunkenness of the Brindisi was far too overdone, although the Baroness did it well. There were also some problems with 'traffic control' with a large cast, but considering that this was Mr. Jedlinsky's debut as a director, it was understandable ("For beginners, it's admirable.") The only major weakness was the choreography. Many of the cast seemed uncomfortable with dancing and had apparently never done a waltz before. Trying to have some 40 people doing the same thing at the same time is difficult enough with experienced performers. One is better off highlighting smaller groups for short turns.

This was an imaginative production, not merely a derivative one. For the Act I finale, the clock struck the hour, various figures animated and the clock (as music box) played the introduction to Strange the Views. (This is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after all.) The Chamberlains were dressed as "Court Cards" so it was not entirely surprising, while they were assembling in the introduction to Act II, to see Alice-in-Wonderland, with a flamingo under her arm, scuttle across the stage. In Act III, during So Ends My Dream Julia moved into her dressing room, removed her hat, and while singing about "Tomorrow" pulled on an Annie wig for a few seconds. After Ludwig and Rudolph had put cards up their sleeves, the Notary first pulled out a deck of a different size and color to their consternation (he switched back.) The Monte Carlos and their entourage were dressed in Red and Black, with the Costumier in Green (all the colors of the roulette table.)

Kept in the dialog was the Seattle modification about the drains dating "back to the last visit of Mary, Queen of Scots" (which is purely a Buxton joke.) The original of "dating back to the time of Charlemagne" might have made more sense to a general audience.

What struck me most in this production, is that the plot to dethrone the Grand Duke is really of secondary importance because it is resolved so early in the action. The theme is that of cynicism about marriage and relationships - one which reverts to Gilbert's play Engaged, in which the general theme relating to marriage is "Business is business." As such, if one looks below the surface, it is not a comfortable work with sympathetic characters, but the message is overlaid with a Viennese Operetta with Sullivan writing a very different kind of score than his previous works, one which serves, as Sullivan often does, to mask or mellow Gilbert's real intentions. And if one thinks that Gilbert was being anything but prophetic about marriage - just think about prenuptial agreements (then and now.)


THE GRAND DUKE AT MIT - Review #2?The American premiere of G&S' s last opera took place May 3, 1901, at MIT (then across the river in Back Bay). A hundred years to the day, the MIT G&S Players put on an anniversary production that did them and the opera proud.

It was the first complete performance of the opera I've ever witnessed; there were only a few lines altered or cut and two tiny musical passages excised. Given the time and financial constraints of a student organization, the results were remarkably successful. Andrew Sweet was a word-perfect, crisply-enunciating Ludwig, surely one of the most demanding parts in all the operas. The other difficult and crucial role, Julia, was played delightfully by Ana Albir who, although a native of Colombia, managed a subtly nuanced German accent for the part. They were the stars of an all-around strong cast, which included Ishani Radha Das's over-the-top Baroness (sexy rather than frumpy), David Michael Daly's Notary a la Zero Mostel, Gregory Baker's properly hapless Ernest, and. the Monte Carlos (Michael Spitznagel and Elicia Anderson) with French accents. Dawn Perlner was a charming Lisa, and for once the Grand Duke himself was played as the young man he is clearly meant to be (he is related to the Princess as Hilarion is to Ida).

I do think it was a mistake to divide Act I with an intermission; the long evening only seemed longer, and the forward pulse was lost. The opening night orchestra had its rough patches, and the dialogue, though delivered without lapses, was not quick enough on the uptake. If the company had had another week to get up to speed and to finish up the costumes (!) (perhaps they had done so by the 4th), they could deliver a first-rate account of this much neglected work.

I was grateful for the completeness; we will have the rare chance to assess the opera again in the fall when the VLO produces it under Jim Ellis's direction. Jim has made very well considered cuts and a few rewritings, all informed by his carefully imagined vision of the opera. Both his method and the "urtext" approach of MIT are laudable; but, as the recent Harvard. UTOPIA proved to me, big cuts can be very disfiguring to Gilbert's structures. The production at Agassiz seemed incoherent (no dance song for Scaphio and Phantis, no entrance song for the King, no Quartet, only four Flowers of Progress, no Beautiful English Girl, and a bizarre tacked-on final chorus) -- so producers should be wary of tinkering too much, even with the lesser known operas. It's nice to think that UTOPIA and GRAND DUKE are now where IDA and RUDDIGORE were thirty years ago in the repertory.


THE GRAND DUKE AT MIT - Review #3?We don't write reviews - but We were so impressed by Dave Jedlinsky's directorial debut that we can't refrain from putting in Our oar.

We attended the Saturday evening performance, and were struck first by the handsome and well-made set. Dave's experience on the tech side of theater is visible: his technical chiefs obviously worked with him to create an attractive vision of his concept, instead of being the prima donnas so many Techies can be - wishing the audience to go home humming the lighting cues or analyzing the makeup plot. As a result the sets, costumes, make-up, lighting, props and so on were not merely attractive in their own right, but also successfully advanced the overall shape of the production.

And what a production it was! Dave made the structure of the show clear, wisely buttressing its awkward spots while spotlighting its strengths. For instance - that string of expository quintets in Act I, attractive as the pieces are individually, can drag. Adding a musical clock to introduce Strange the views was a charming illustration of improving an awkward moment by emphasizing it. (On a technical note: Larry Stone, the company's excellent set construction chief, confided in Us that the musical clock we all enjoyed so much was designed and built by the director himself, using Barbie and Ken dolls as the figurines!)

We're happy to report that the costumes for the Saturday night performance were complete and splendid - flattering, attractive, appropriate and well-made. (Well, the theatrical troupe did not have a complete set of togas for the last act - but let that pass.) Yes, the orchestra was a bit thin in places - in fact, the second seat first-violin left half-way through, too sick to continue, leaving MITGASP's excellent long-time concertmistress Johanna Bobrow alone on the part. But the other instruments were there, or at least covered - for instance, one clarinet (MITG&SP Charter Member Yanko Sheiretov) filled in the oboe part, and no entrances where missed. Conductor Jennifer Hazel obviously had the respect of her orchestra, which performed smoothly under adverse circumstances. (Oh - and let's not forget to praise vocal director Kate Thornton, who successfully taught the chorus some of the most complicated, as well as unfamiliar, music in the canon.)

We can't keep silent about one bit of characterization that has generated some conflicting responses: We thought the Baroness's obvious hauteur and elegance, and barely disguised scorn for that mean little wretch Rudolph (whose loose and long-sleeved costume made him appear quite appropriately waif-like, especially during his finely-rendered Sick Song), worked very well. Her drunkenness in the brindisi (which We thoroughly enjoyed) served as another proof that the lady was not really suited to Rudolph - that if she had achieved her goal of becoming Grand Duchess, she would have rushed to squander his fortune on two-shilling gloves and the like. Given this characterization, the standard re-matches at the end worked very satisfactorily: secretly hedonistic Baroness matched with overtly hedonistic Prince; money-craving Grand Duke married to a goose who brings her own golden egg.

Let Us conclude by adding Our voice to the chorus of praise for freshman Ana Albir, whose Ilka von Palmay-accented Julia was a varied and finished performance reminiscent of then-freshman Dan Kamalic's John Wellington Wells several years ago. Dan is now studying at NEC (and will spend the summer singing, among other things, Point in a Brevard Opera Workshop production of YEOMEN) - We're looking forward to seeing where Ana's talents will take her!

-- Marion Leeds Carroll, The Trumpet Bray Newsletter Editor