Savoy Ghosts, according to the programme and the schedule, is a celebration of all the operas that opened in the Savoy Theatre (not always for the first time; the Gilbert and Sullivans that first opened in the Opera Comique but were subsequently revived in the Savoy are included) up until around about the death of Sir Arthur Sullivan. The framing involves a fireman picking through the detritus after the fire that largely destroyed the theatre. That much we knew prior to this afternoon.
It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. To be honest, I went into this expecting it to be horrible. Really terrible. After all, it's a beautiful theatre, burned to the ground... a tragedy beyond words. But actually it was all done with very simple set, a few pieces that got moved around to different arrangements for the different songs, and nothing looked burnt out at all. The framing basically just got out the way to let the music take centre stage, and when you listen to the music they're singing, that's absolutely the right way to do it.
Music and costumes, I should say; because nearly every song involved a new costume. With just six performers, of whom normally two or three were singing any particular number, the costume changes had to be fairly snappy. Over a hundred years of the theatre's experiences compressed down to a single afternoon's entertainment; the songs were all from operas that opened there during the end of the 19th century, but the styles picked up elements from more modern techniques. It gave the appearance that the theatre was remembering, not just the staged performances, but the rehearsals and the comic skits as well.
The programme lists all of the musical numbers, including scene change pieces, saving the trouble of trying to remember them all afterward! As the explanatory box notes, every major work performed in the Savoy is represented, though a few of the most extremely obscure are represented unsung as, for instance, the entr'acte. The sung numbers interleave famous songs such as the Pirate King's introduction song and Three Little Maids with lesser-known Gilbert and Sullivan numbers like "Although of native maids the cream" from Utopia, and even-more-obscure pieces like Saida's magnificent "Ride on!" from The Beauty Stone - performed by a Wagnerian soprano lead, I think! The show closed with "Come away!" from Emerald Isle, leaving a haunting tone that perfectly captured the feeling of a burned-down theatre. (Was the fireman drawn away by the ghosts, never to be seen again?) When you think of "ghosts" and "Gilbert and Sullivan", you probably first think of Ruddigore, but a far FAR more powerful opening was achieved by playing the overture to Iolanthe quietly, with a whispered "Iolanthe" from one of the cloaked cast, every time the theme came up - including the elongated clarinet solo - and when the overture broke into "He loves", the singing began, and continued through the song rather than the overture.
Some of the songs were tweaked a bit; a couple were spoken rather than sung, and a few were sung by other voices than those originally written for them - but it worked. "River, river, little river" from Pirates works quite well as a lady's boating song. "Time was when Love and I were well acquainted" called on the original Patience plot theme of rival curates, becoming a duet of one-upping each other. "For thirty-five years" gained a bit of the Toccata & Fugue in D minor as its introduction. The more obscure pieces, however, were (by and large) left untouched. Members of the audience have probably heard the Pirate King song a dozen times or more, and can easily see a traditional staging of it, but one cannot simply pop around to the Opera House to see Rose of Persia, and there are some in this lineup that even die-hard Savoy Opera fans are unlikely to have seen - Jane Annie, The Lucky Star, Mirette, The Vicar of Bray - and anyone who's not one of those G&S nutcases has probably never even heard of them. So we got a taste of obscurity (that's like getting a taste of fame, only less so).
The show was played to a two-person orchestra: the musical director (Suzanne Barnes) on the piano, and also at one point taking up a flute, and Pam Smith on percussion. As mentioned above, though, the piano was an electronic, and smoothly switched over to being a pipe organ when this was deemed appropriate. An on-stage violin for "How fair, how modest" was the only other instrument utilized, unless you count some sound effects produced in the wings during the striptease version of "This helmet, I suppose"! And there were enough madrigals that the instruments (though not the musical director, who conducted) got something of a rest; when the voices are as good as these, accompaniment is at times superfluous.
I'd normally put together a run-down of the lead performers by character, but that doesn't really work here, so I'll start with the director and fireman and move on in random order from there. Simon Moss opens the show as an experienced fireman, looking around, then doubles as some of the ghosts, but keeps coming back to being a fireman. A believable character. His memories of school productions merge with his memories of the Savoy and with the Savoy's memories of the Savoy, to produce what we see here. Becky Feamley sang "Ride On" from The Beauty Stone, and with a number like that, would either be tremendously awesome or facepalmingly bad. As it turned out, the former. :) The other two Beauty Stone singers were Caroline Price and James Blofield, singing the "I would see a maid" duet, merged neatly with a similar song from Haddon Hall. It sounded lovely, though I would have liked to hear more of her words. But one can't have everything, and having those pieces dusted off is never a bad thing in my book. James dueted with Ralph Barnes as a pair of soldiers, setting up a rather neat Chekhov's Gun for the next number, in the form of a carved wooden soldier that gets broken in two and discarded by being thrown across the stage; the next song is from Princess Ida - "The world is but a broken toy". Brilliant! And last, but - cliches aside - most certainly not least, Catriona Pollard. Twice during the afternoon I scribbled down her name with two ticks. A beautiful voice, especially in the duet "Heights of Glantaun" from Emerald Isle, which is definitely a highlight of the show.
There's very little talking, and since music counts as action in something of this nature, I think we've come as close as we ever will to seeing an XKCD311-compliant performance at the G&S Festival. For those who came, it was a great afternoon's entertainment. For those who couldn't make it, all is not lost; the DVD should be available by tomorrow. I heartily recommend it; and based on what else I've seen of Glitter & Twisted (namely, Ruddy George from two years ago), I shall be watching with interest for future productions.