The Sorcerer, though not the first Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, began the series that became the Savoy Operas. The plot is typically topsy-turvy. A village prepares to celebrate the wedding of the scions of two local aristocratic families, but Alexis Pointdextre, the bridegroom-to-be, taken with ideas of the power of love, arranges with sorcerer John Wellington Wells to distribute love potion to the villagers. It works, but pairs the wrong people! A happy ending is engineered, with less finesse than Gilbert later managed.
The Sorcerer lacks the consistency of the best of Gilbert and Sullivan, but is not short of numbers that are deservedly popular: the first of the great patter songs, “My name is John Wellington Wells”, Dr. Daly’s “pale young curate” lament and the rousing food-based finale to both Acts 1 and 2. Especially well done by Richard Gauntlett (John Wellington Wells) and Sylvia Clarke (Lady Sangazure), “Oh, I have wrought much evil with my spells” is one gem I had forgotten, the first flowering of the tradition of the comic baritone telling monstrous lies to escape the predatory contralto.
Opera della Luna’s version is consistently entertaining and highly imaginative, founded on director/music director/pianist Jeff Clarke’s irreverent sense of humour and comprehensive knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan. What it lacks is real quality control over Clarke’s profusion of ideas. The updating to the 1970s works well and Alexis’ self-indulgent idealism fits his new role as a post-Woodstock devotee of peace and love – it also gives rise to some splendid costumes, the work of Graham Wynne, as is the attractively bucolic marquee setting. What I find troublesome is the delight in excess, the introduction of a distorted “The Lost Chord” (by Sullivan) into both finales, for instance, or the tweaking of the script so that the unfortunate Act 2 mismatch pairs Dr. Daly with Alexis, not his bride Aline. Most oddly, Mrs. Partlett is played in gurningly Les Dawson-ish style by Susan Moore. When this production was first staged, the part was played by a woman – why the change?
When not asked to go too far over the top, the cast of nine acquit themselves very well, with decent standards of singing (sometimes a deal better) and a splendidly agile response, even among the senior members, to Jenny Arnold’s witty and vigorous choreography. Clear diction, essential in G&S, is not forthcoming in all cases, but Richard Gauntlett has no trouble with J.W. Wells’ patter. Others allying first-class diction to excellent performances include Oliver White, adding subtle details to the broad comedy as Alexis and fielding a fine tenor voice; Philip Cox (Dr. Daly) who knows the joys of understatement and gives his sad lament full value; and Claire Watkins, delightful as Constance, the love-lorn rustic torn between respectability and outbursts of innocently uncontrollable lust – and singing superbly.
Obviously many beauties of Sullivan’s orchestration disappear in the arrangement for sextet, though some of the lovelier writing for woodwind remains, but Jeff Clarke leads the on-stage “Ploverleigh Village Band” in lively accompaniment.