Light Opera Works opens 30th season with a delightful “Yeomen of the Guard”

Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 5:03 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

W. H. Denny as Wilfred and Jessie Bond as Phoebe in the original 1888 Savoy Opera “Yeoman of the Guard” production.

For three decades, Light Opera Works has been bringing the music of Victor Herbert, Franz Lehar, Sigmund Romberg, Emmerich Kalman and others to Evanston, helping to keep the flame burning for a slowly disappearing musical genre.

Yet, like so many musical organizations, LOW has gone through its own evolution. In recent seasons, the company has increasingly focused on musical theater, quite successfully too, judging by last year’s celebrated My Fair Lady.

There’s no doubt that—apart from The Merry Widow—the operetta form, nestling between opera and musical theater, is a tough sell these days. That was clear by a house only about one-third full for Friday’s season-opening matinee, and that largely composed of seniors.

Even so, it’s rather lamentable that a company that was founded specifically to showcase the genre is now only doing one operetta a year with the rest of the 2010 season devoted to Broadway musicals (Carousel, I Do! I Do!, Hello, Dolly!). Nothing wrong with musicals, of course, but there are plenty of theaters doing that repertoire in the area and there is—or was—only one devoted to operetta.

That said, with an inspired cast, the lively production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard presented Friday at Cahn Auditorium opened Light Opera Works’ 30th anniversary season in supreme style.

The Byzantine scenario has all the topsy-turvy complications one would expect from G&S. Colonel Fairfax is under guard in the Tower of London, about to be executed on a trumped-up charge of sorcery. His old friend Sergeant Meryll, and Meryll’s daughter Phoebe, in love with Fairfax, concoct a plot to have her brother Leonard switch places with him to allow his escape. Meanwhile, a traveling jester, Jack Point, and singer Elsie Maynard come to town, Elsie is persuaded to marry the doomed Fairfax to thwart a sought inheritance by a malicious cousin, and the usual mixed identities and absurdities ensue.

The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore remain Gilbert & Sullivan’s most popular works, but in many ways, Yeomen of the Guard is the duo’s finest collaboration. The operetta has the usual comic songs, duets, lilting arias and rousing choruses, but Yeomen also possesses a symphonic weight and operatic dimension found nowhere else in the G&S canon. It’s also their only operetta with a tragic ending.

The large cast was exceptional, with the women especially inspired. The versatile Alicia Berneche was a terrific Elsie, acting sensitively and showing her high soprano to fine effect with gleaming top notes in Tis done! I am a bride.

In the other female lead, Sahara Glasener-Boles made an impressive company debut as Phoebe. Her eight years’ experience with Ohio Light Opera was manifest with her ease in this tricky role, singing and acting well, and bringing comic flair to her scenes with the jailer Wilfred.

Colm Fitzmaurice made an apt hero as Fairfax, deftly balancing the comedy and romance and displaying his flexible tenor in a lovely Free from his fetters grim.

The sole question mark was George Andrew Wolff in the central role of Jack Point. To be sure, Wolff possesses a vibrant lyric tenor and idiomatic Savoyard style, throwing off the patter songs and duets with a speed and agility worthy of John Reed in his prime.

More controversial was his characterization, with Wolff’s fey jester making his romantic attachment to Elsie seem rather improbable. Also while he sang very well indeed, too often he seemed to be trying too hard, as in the final scene with hammy, over-the-top sobbing in Jack’s sad reprise of his Act I song. This isn’t Canio, and the emotion should come through the singing, not the theatrics.

The rest of the cast was faultless. Stealing the show was Alex Honzen in a hilarious turn as “head jailer and assistant tormenter” Wilfred Shadbolt. Singing with superb clarity and making every punchline count, Honzen was a vividly characterful descendant of the Donald Adams/Owen Brannigan tradition.

Robert Brady nicely balanced the dignity and friendly authority of Sir Richard Cholmondeley. Yvonne Strumecki was wonderful in the battleaxe role of Dame Carruthers. Dennis Kelly made an aptly grizzled and paternal Sergeant Meryll, Michael Reckling a suitably youthful Leonard, and Megan E. Bell a fresh-voiced Kate.

All credit to conductor Roger L. Bingaman, a stalwart of the company who always seemed to find the tempo giusto for the varied elements of this score (a rather pokey I have a song to sing, O! in Act I apart). Bingaman brought bracing swagger and rhythmic point to the ensembles and gave the singers great flexibility in their arias; the a capella Act II quartet, Strange adventure, was gorgeous.

Tom Burch’s unit set was in the sturdy D’Oyly Carte tradition with Rudy Hogenmiller’s graceful and imaginative direction working creatively in a small space.

Light Opera Works’ Yeomen of the Guard runs through June 13.

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