Monday, 10 August 2009

Utopia Ltd (Oxford University)

I was most enthusiastic about tonight's show, as I've never seen Utopia before except once on video. It's not an easy show to put on, and has a reputation for drawing a small audience - although that seems to have little effect at the Festival, as the auditorium was mostly full, with only the gallery having much empty space.

The curtain rose during the overture, revealing a scatterment of Utopian maidens, all languid and motionless as could be expected from the hot sun and opiates. Actually, the lighting seemed to show a dawn - as the curtain went up, the stage was blue, and then orange light filled in. (I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but it seemed appropriate.)

The chorus generally had good balance between parts. Sullivan wrote some lovely alto lines, and it's great to hear them clearly. There were several points where the orchestra got out of sync with them (there, Gary, have fun), but beyond that, it was well done.

Oddly, Calynx's lines in the opening were handed over to Tarara (Jonathan Davies), and Tarara's entire swearing-in-Utopian sequence was cut. There were a few other casualties in the dialogue, including the whole semi-transparent being speech; in that instance, I can't say that we truly missed it, but on the other hand, Scaphio's (Jordan Bell) completely indeterminate ideal makes it impossible for Phantis (Sheridan Edward) to call him out for loving the opaque Zara. It could do with some kind of alternative, although that's really a job for Gilbert himself.

Speaking of the Wise Men, they must surely have been sweltering in those elaborate robes, under the hot Utopian sun. Everyone else had sensible clothing, and there they were with something better suited to the England that they hated! Although on this particular day, the hot sun seemed to be behind a cloud a lot of the time - the stage had quite a few dark patches - so perhaps it would have worked out alright.

Two distinctly modern touches added amusement to the first act. When the two princesses were showing themselves off in the marketplace, the Kodak used was a digital one - we saw the LCD as it was shown around the chorus; and then, totally stealing the show, Mr Goldbury (Robert Hazle) had a laptop and a projector, using a graphical presentation to enhance his Limited Liability proposition, to great and hilarious effect.

The marketplace performance by the two princesses Nekaya (Verity Thomas) and Kalyba (Halka Kucznyska) was enhanced, almost upstaged, by the "Bold Fac'd Ranger" (Matthew Hosty), who demonstrated great agility in his dancing around the stage. The Lady Sophy (Zosia Kuczynska) was constantly on duty, and from the number of times she had to nudge her charges to keep them in check, I think she was earning her pay!

King Paramount (Thomas West) took charge of his entrance scene, and then did an excellent transition to the subservient monarch when the Wise Men came in. It must be hard for the poor guy - to maintain the appearance, to his people, of being in charge, and yet to have to remember to doff his crown when in the presence of his superiors. Capt Fitzbattleaxe (Nick Pritchard), on the other hand, could be completely honest with everyone, making no secret of his affection for Zara (Anna Sideris), which alas could not be realised in the first act due to his breastplate, or perhaps breastwok, and of course the slight problem of Scaphio and Phantis. By the second act he had disposed of both problems with equal ease, and his love had strengthened, he claimed, to the point of disrupting his singing voice - not that that stopped him from singing a beautiful duet with her, which they both sang so sweetly. (I could have wished for it to be a little less "low" in volume, however, or alternatively for the orchestra to back down a little.)

There were a few things that disappointed me. "Society has quite forsaken" seemed rather static, with almost no movement from anyone except right at the end; and on the brief movement that the Flowers did, they lost touch with the conductor and had a pretty train-wreck for a while. Also, there were several places where someone desperately needed a spotlight, and it just didn't happen. Had the stage been sufficiently bright, it would have been alright, but at points like Zara's entrance, I was expecting the follow spot to come into play.

However, in spite of these, the show was definitely a success. Tarara evidently overcame his diffidence and natural timidity enough to set off a decent batch of TNT behind the king's throne (during the entrance of the chorus in rebellion), although his earlier crackers didn't seem to have much bang in them. Paramount and Zara were quite scared by the angry throng, so it was a good thing Zara remembered the last and most crucial bit of English lifestyle to bring in, before they both got belaboured bodily!

Both choruses were fairly consistently energetic, well balanced harmonically, and in sync, although there was in evidence the one person who got it wrong every time (I don't think it was the SAME person each time). The harmonies were equally in evidence during their cabaret, which featured some unaccompanied singing by the full company. Lovely. Definitely enjoyed tonight.

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