'Gondoliers' sets sail

The Baltimore Sun

Light entertainment and a heavy heat/humidity quotient somehow go together perfectly. In one of Baltimore's more charming summer traditions, the Young Victorian Theatre Company makes that point each year with the help of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The work chosen for the troupe's 38th season is as welcome for its relative novelty as for the general quality and flair of the presentation.

The Gondoliers marked the final triumph of the extraordinary Gilbert and Sullivan franchise. Shortly after the premiere in 1889, an absurd, protracted quarrel over the expense of new carpeting at the duo's home base, London's Savoy Theatre, took a hefty toll on creative juices. Although a shaky truce eventually yielded two more G & S operettas, neither of those left a lasting mark.

If there had to be one last artistic pinnacle for these guys, The Gondoliers provides it in abundance. Above all, there's the unfailingly brilliant score. Sullivan's engaging melodies, deft turns of harmony, infectious rhythms and prismatic orchestration produce many a fully operatic moment.

It may be argued that Gilbert's plot, with its share of recycled devices, doesn't entirely measure up. But there's still more than enough mileage to be extracted from this tale of two Venetian gondolieri who, directly upon marrying their sweethearts, get caught up in a bizarre situation that involves the heir to the throne of Barataria. Some rather gentle satirical points about monarchy and republicanism are made along the way.

Although The Gondoliers never established a firm footing on these shores, it fully deserves attention, a point reaffirmed by the dynamic staging Young Vic unveiled Saturday night at the Bryn Mawr School.

In the roles of the gondolier pair, Nicholas Houhoulis (Marco) and Jimi James (Giuseppe) offered vibrant, mostly secure singing and abundant theatrical flourish. Their temporarily interrupted wives were vividly portrayed by Joy Greene (Gianetta) and Catrin Rowenna Davies (Tessa), the latter with a warmer, firmer tone.

Steven Goodman romped through the role of the silly Duke of Plaza Toro; so did Madeleine Gray as the equally silly Duchess. Brendan Cooke clearly relished the hammier aspects of the Grand Inquisitor. Natalie Conte (Casilda) and Farrar Strum (Luiz) contributed mostly smooth, stylish vocalism. The chorus sang sturdily. Jeffrey Nolt's choreography was deftly negotiated by all involved.

Conductor J. Ernest Green caught the poetic side of the score as effectively as the bubbly side, and, with few exceptions, held things together neatly. And this sounded to me like the best Young Vic orchestra yet.

James Harp directed with a mostly light touch and an appreciation for momentum (the speed was helped by assorted cuts). He might have ensured a more cohesive use of accents, though; the mix of American, British and Spanish wasn't exactly harmonious. But most of the contemporary references inserted into the dialogue, including "Natty-Bo" and a fist-bump, proved harmless and sometimes funny.

The set, from Delaware Opera, was more attractive at suggesting Venice in the first act than Barataria in the second, but the costumes added elegance throughout.

Performances of "The Gondoliers" continue Thursday through Sunday at the Bryn Mawr School in Roland Park. For more information, call 410-323-3077 or go to yvtc.org.

Handel at Wolf Trap

Wolf Trap Opera has established a remarkable track record for presenting unusually talented young artists in imaginative stagings of a wide variety of repertoire. The latest venture, Handel's Alcina, adds considerably to that record.

The production, with an intriguingly atmospheric set by Erhard Rom and vivid, era-bending costumes by Mattie Ullrich, conjures up a distinctive vision of the island where the sorceress Alcina holds her discarded lovers in a captive trance, and where she will meet her unexpected downfall.

Like any Handel opera, this one is constructed primarily out of solo arias, but director Eric Einhorn's eye for detail and character insight ensures that each one becomes an integral emotional part of the narrative. The result is a seamless, gripping flow.

The well-matched cast includes Rebekah Camm in a commanding performance of the title role. The soprano's tone can be a little edgy, but the technique is sure, the phrasing deeply communicative. She's a riveting actress, too. So is Ava Pine, as Alcina's ditsy, flirtatious sister, Morgana; her bright, agile voice, admirable breath control and wonderful expression complete the striking presence.

Elizabeth DeShong brings a ripe mezzo and poetic phrase-molding to the role of Ruggiero. Steven Sanders, as Oronte, is another potent and stylish vocal force. Memorable characterizations and a good deal of musical finesse are offered by Leena Chopra (Overto) and Maria Markina (Bradamante). The chorus is superb. Conductor Eric Melear shapes the score with a winning combination of propulsion and lyricism, drawing eloquent playing from the orchestra.

"Alcina" will be performed at 8 tonight at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. Call 877-965-3872 or go to wolftrap.org.



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