Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Encore! performs Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers" in Jerusalem

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” or “The King of Barataria” was the eleventh annual G.&S. performance of Encore! Educational Theatre Company in association with the Jerusalem Gilbert & Sullivan Company. Robert Binder was stage director, Paul Salter musical director, Judy Brown did the choreography and Roxane Goodkin-Levy was stage designer. This writer attended the performance December 29th 2012 at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit Shmuel, Jerusalem.

Encore!   was established in Jerusalem in 2006 and has staged many of the classics of musical theatre as well as lesser-known works and new pieces. It aims to expose audiences to English language theatre repertoire and, in particular, to encourage young people to become the theatre-going public of the future. It has also cooperated in summer workshops to train children and teenagers in aspects of stagecraft.

“The Gondoliers” or “The King of Barataria” was Gilbert and Sullivan’s twelfth opera – and last great success. Composed in 1888, it opened December 7th 1889 at the Savoy Theatre, London and ran for 554 performances. On the morning after the premiere of “The Gondoliers”, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan as follows: “I must thank you for the magnificent work you have put into the piece. It gives me the chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light”.   In this opera, Gilbert focuses on issues of snobbery and class distinction, taking an aim at romance and egalitarianism, setting the plot conveniently far enough away from England for him to pass criticism on the British upper classes and on the monarchy itself. None of these issues are solved, but they are dealt with wit and the intricacies typical of Gilbert’s of librettos. It is Gilbert & Sullivan’s sunniest, catchiest score (belying the fact that the tenuous G&S partnership was now on the point of crumbling) offering much scope for musical color and melodic invention and it calls for more dancing than their other operas.

Entering the Hirsch Theatre to take our seats, one became aware of how vibrant and active Jerusalem’s English-speaking community is. With conductor Paul Salter’s entry, the orchestra, seated in front of the stage, struck up with the lively “Gondoliers” overture. With the raising of the curtain, we view the expansive opening scene set outdoors, the stage crowded with actors and actresses of all ages – from young children to people in their seventies – all  clothed in colors evoking the brightness and atmosphere of the sun-drenched city of 18th century Venice, the backdrop’s blue skies and sea completing the association. As to the totally far-fetched story, suffice it to say that it involves two gondoliers, one of whom is supposed to be a prince in disguise. Together they rule Barataria, putting to practice republican ideals…with madcap results. As always in G,&S. plots, the twists of the comedy of disguises are ironed out just in time to send the audience home unperplexed - it had been perplexed – and smiling.

Robert Binder’s stage direction was lively, fast-moving and smoothly carried out by participants. What I missed were a few more quips and topical humorous references to heighten the hilarity and produce a few unexpected belly laughs. Roxane Goodkin-Levy’s stage design was effective, her sets of Venice and Barataria nicely contrasted: the Barataria backdrop for Act 2 was decidedly exotic and surreal, its colors and shapes oddly dreamlike. Costumes were pleasing, if not outstanding, and they showed the G.&S. social classes as clearly delineated. Of the props, both boats were most effective, the latter with a little boy from the cast posed as the figurehead on the bow.  As to the choreography, in group scenes as well as  Sullivan’s gavottes, tarantellas and fandangos, Judy Brown had her players well in step, no easy task for such a large cast, most of them amateurs; dances included a colorful maypole dance and a duet  with trained dancers Yochai Greenfield (Ottavio)) and Shira Potter (Esperanza).

As usual, Paul Salter’s musical direction was outstanding. G.&S. operas depend on good orchestral support and bouncy overtures and, with “Gondoliers” being one of G.&S.’s more sophisticated scores, the 15-piece “New Savoy Orchestra” gave fine musical support to singers and a pleasing mix of instrumental color with  good ebb and flow throughout. Chorus singers were confident; they were carefully trained and coordinated and their energy never lagged. “Gondoliers” is very much an ensemble piece and the smaller ensembles here were satisfying, their performance polished, sporting fine intonation and presenting some rapid word play (although, apart from perhaps “In a Contemplative Fashion”, “Gondoliers” has no real patter song.)  All cast members took care to use British accents. The cast included nine major players: Rafael Apfel and Daniel Forst gave a whimsical portrayal of the Palmieri brothers, Maya Cohen a coquetish Tessa, Hanan Leberman played Luiz (the duke's attendant), Claire Greenfield was the Duchess of Plaza-Toro and Maria Liyubman her demure daughter. All performed pleasingly and with competence. To mention only a few, Aviella Trapido played Gianetta with vocal ease and rich, warm color, together with natural stage presence. Well cast, bass Jay Shir, in the role of Don Alhambra del Bolero (the Grand Inquisitor), played the extra-British official, his tongue-in-cheek, unsmiling portrayal of the pompous character cool, officious and totally supercilious in speech and body language. His singing was resonant and carefully paced. Making his first stage appearance, Michael Sacofsky, in the role of the Duke of Plaza-Toro, pulled out all the plugs, bringing the house down with his humor and total dedication to the character he was playing, despite the fact that he was actually singing below his natural tenor range.
Following months of hard work with a cast of 45, not forgetting the many, many other people assisting in all aspects of the production, Encore!  has once again proved that English language musical theatre, involving devoted professionals and amateurs working together, is alive and kicking in Jerusalem and that audiences are interested to enjoy G.&S.’s operas together. Kudos to Robert Binder and Paul Salter.

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