Apart from its intrinsic merits, Ruddigore has much to recommend it for a mainstream opera company tackling Gilbert and Sullivan. Nearly 30 years after the demise of the original D’Oyly Carte Company brought an end to Gilbert’s canonical productions, the war between the guardians of the true faith and the barbarians at the gate has not fully abated: after all, no one except Richard Wagner left such a definitive guide to authentic opera production and, even in Bayreuth’s, the revolution came from within – and much earlier.
But Ruddigore has always been a little off-centre from the great Savoy tradition. Along with Princess Ida, it never had the sparkling success of every other opera from H.M.S. Pinafore to The Gondoliers. It’s almost unique in not having a crusty/pompous old gent of a certain age who tells us his life story before doing a funny little dance. Instead it has such oddities as a gloriously harmonised ghost chorus and aria, the definitive anti-patter song in the trio "My eyes are fully open" and a genuinely funny heroine.
Jo Davies’ terrific production sides neither with traditionalists nor subversives. Instead it is fresh, original, splendidly detailed and unfailingly witty. It helps, of course, to have a cast of outstanding singer/actors and a conductor as idiomatic as John Wilson. Traditionalists may find the mildly updated costumes (Gabrielle Dalton) disconcerting, but they mesh perfectly with the cod silent screen introduction and provide such joys as Rose Maybud looking every inch the Agatha Christie innocent and the late bad baronet, Sir Roderic, modelling for Douglas Haig. The old tradition of updating one verse of a patter song remains, very clever, too, and attached to a song newly restored to the opera. For, in at least one respect, this performance is more authentic than the D’Oyly Carte productions which over the years had whittled down Act 2 to a bare half hour of music.
Vocally the cast is universally impressive (Anne-Marie Owens’ Wagnerian mezzo a fine replacement for those fondly-remembered, very British contraltos) and all display impeccable comic timing. Amy Freston and Heather Shipp play the sub-text to hilarious effect, Freston’s Rose bursting with passion and joie de vivre beneath the veneer of correct etiquette, Shipp’s Mad Margaret switching alarmingly from sentimentality to dangerous lunacy. Grant Doyle and Richard Burkhard are excellent as the role-swapping brothers, Doyle an engaging young hero and the most tormented of bad barts, Burkhard playing every last cloak-twirling moment to the hilt while longing for nothing more than a comfortable chair and the evening paper. Hal Cazalet’s relentlessly energetic Dick Dauntless is ready to dance a hornpipe at the drop of a cliché, Steven Page, an oddly sympathetic Sir Roderic, delivers his great set piece beautifully, Richard Angas’ devoted old servant finds lip-smacking relish in the transformation into evil steward and Gillene Herbert’s pert Zorah leads an uninhibited troupe of bridesmaids.
In fact, the whole production’s a joy, from Richard Hudson’s period designs with footlights and front-cloth to the inspired use of the chorus, precise, individualised and seldom predictable.