No limits for Utopia

Soprano Deborah Norman
Soprano Deborah Norman

THERE is something of an historic event taking place in Buxton this Friday evening and repeated on Saturday afternoon – a professional production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited.

It is historic in the fact that it will be only the third professional staging of the penultimate work in the G&S canon in the UK, the first being its D’Oyly Carte Opera premiere in October 1893 and the second in the company’s centenary year, 1975.

Rupert D’Oyly Carte considered a revival of the piece in 1925 but it didn’t get beyond the consideration stage after he thought about the cost involved, in particular the different costuming for a large cast in the work’s two acts.

Another factor highlighted by Andrew Nicklin, directing the production in Buxton, a few years ago prior to a Trent Opera staging of Utopia with, as on this occasion, Sheffield soprano Deborah Norman as Princess Zara, was that it effectively needs 15 principal singers in the cast.

It has fared slightly better in America with the odd professional production every so often but by and large it is amateur companies on both sides of the Atlantic which have kept Utopia in the public eye.

Despite the growing emergence of musical comedy at the time, it cannot be called a failure – in 1893, its initial run of 245 performances comparing favourably with those of such better-known G&S works as Trial By Jury (131), Sorcerer (178), Princess Ida (246) and Ruddigore (288).

George Bernard Shaw, no less, wrote: “I enjoyed the score of Utopia more than any of the previous Savoy operas” and most reviews were favourable until they got to Gilbert’s libretto.

“The main bone of contention was its length but few, generally, had a good word for it.

It was apparently pruned after the first performance, though not judiciously if the excision of a soprano aria, Youth is a Boon Avowed, is anything to go by.

It had been greeted with universal enthusiasm by the first night press – “one of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s best works”, wrote The Globe.

Gilbert takes a satirical swipe at all things English in the piece, not least limited liability companies and corporate public institutions with digs at such things as the British Empire, imperialism and even Royal Family scandal along the way.

To avoid patently obvious comparisons on native soil he set the work on a South Sea island, Utopia, ruled by the all-things-English King Paramount, whose two youngest daughters have been ‘finished’ by an English governess, Lady Sophy. Zara, his eldest daughter, meanwhile, returns to the island having been educated at an independent boarding school in England accompanied by six representatives of the country’s institutions, known as the Flowers of Progress, to completely Anglicise Utopia.

Although Gilbert buffs will argue otherwise, the libretto is still seen by many as rambling – let’s say it’s fussy! – and, the cost in mounting it aside, Utopia probably gets the limited performances it does on the strength of Sullivan’s score, although it has been criticised, churlishly given Gilbert’s plot content, for its use three times of the Rule, Britannia! motif.

There was early criticism of Gilbert reusing HMS Pinafore character Captain Corcoran, now promoted to KCB of the Royal Navy! With Sullivan repeating part of his captain-of-the-Pinafore music, it’s a humorous touch, actually.

Utopia’s best-known number is the unaccompanied chorus Eagle High, followed by the aria A Tenor All Singers Above and show-stopping male septet Society has Quite Forgotten (a Christy Minstrel routine and not PC treated as such nowadays), while Lady Sophy has a smashing waltz song.

Other than Debbie Norman, there is further Sheffield interest among the smaller roles in Buxton’s Utopia cast with Michael Tipler, who lives here, as the Utopian vice-chamberlain Calynx.

In slightly larger parts, two of the Flowers of Progress are Stephen Godward, who has strong performing connections in the city, as Captain Sir Edward Cocoran and Simon Theobald as Mr Blushington of the County Council.

The latter, like Andrew Nicklin, is probably best remembered from South Yorkshire Opera days, although he sang The Mikado with the City of Sheffield Teachers’ Choir at Abbeydale recently.

The ‘star’ names elsewhere include Donald Maxwell as Paramount, Jill Pert as Lady Sophy, Simon Butteriss and Ian Belsey as the ‘terrible twins’ Scaphio and Phantis, Richard Gauntlett as the Public Exploder (don’t ask!) Tarara, and two further ‘Flowers of Progress’, Bruce Graham as Mr Goldbury, a company promoter, and Oliver White as Captain Fitzbattleaxe of the First Life Guards.

Quite a cast, in other words.