Northwestern serves up enjoyable G&S rarity with “Ruddigore”

Fri May 22, 2015 at 2:14 pm

By Gerald Fisher

xx yy and zz in Northwestern Opera Theater's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Ruddigore." Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Jeanne Ireland, Dimitri German and Gabriel Wernick in Northwestern Opera Theater’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The lesser-known but top quality Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Ruddigore received a sparklingly inventive performance Thursday night at Cahn Auditorium by the young artists of the Northwestern University Opera Theater.

The Bienen School of Music must be teeming with talent these days to be able to field two completely different casts for the four performances this weekend of this mordant pleasure. Thursday night’s cast showed both facility and verve in their roles and the lengthy production moved forward briskly.

The story of the comic opera is wickedly contrived and involves satirical takes on the conventions of Gothic melodramas of the time (1887). A witch’s ancient curse sets the stage for the proceedings as the succeeding Murgatroyd baronets are condemned to commit one crime per day or suffer a painful death.

The nonsense proliferates in the love stories involving the mercurial innocent Rose Maybud, Robin Oakapple (Ruthven Murgatroyd in disguise), his newly-returned foster-brother Richard Dauntless, the maiden Aunt Dame Hannah, and Mad Margaret, in love with the seemingly evil baronet Despard.

While lacking the show-stoppers of familiar Gilbert and Sullivan standards, Ruddigore is full of melody and variety, vocal delights from a chorus of Professional Bridesmaids and duets, trios and patter songs performed with unfailing good humor. And not to spoil the fun, the scooters were a nice touch in an anything-goes production.

As Robin/Ruthven, Gabriel Wernick took the lead with humor and solid vocal quality. His duets with Rose Maybud were sweet and as Rose, Alyssa Giannetti’s light voice and indeterminate behavior were just right for this featherbrained character.

Nathan Ward, as Dauntless, demonstrated star quality in his charming characterization and daring dance moves.

Dmitri German was appropriately dark as Sir Desgard, the bad baronet, and Ted Allen Pickell, the earlier Sir Roderic, showed a strong bass-baritone and portrayal to match.

As Dame Hannah, Kaitlin Zardetto-Smith was prim and cold with a rich mezzo voice and as Mad Margaret, Jeanne Ireland was wildly diffuse although vocally secure.

The main weakness of this work is the complexity of the plot and the confusing relationships among the characters. Michael M. Ehrman’s stage direction papered over these problems and gave the performers room to shine individually and together.

The biggest staging challenge of any production of Ruddigore is how to handle the Murgatroyd ancestors coming to life and stepping out of their picture frames. Musically and dramatically this is a defining moment. The orchestra handled the drama strongly and the pictures, facing the audience, were pulled straight up and out of sight to reveal their live manifestations which were subtly lit from within. Simple but elegant.

The musical direction by Robert G. Hasty was sensitive to the vocalists and kept the proceedings moving through the boisterous audience reaction to some of the insanity onstage. The Cahn is a traditional proscenium hall with a pit for the orchestra and the dialogue projected well. The orchestra was on its toes throughout the well over two-hour performance.

Ruddigore will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. A second cast will perform Friday night and at the Saturday matinee.

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