Next week on March 5, an especially festive holiday is celebrated throughout many parts of the world, especially the Catholic world: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Fasching in Bavaria, Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and of course Carnevale in Venice.
Parades, dances, and especially masks are the norm, with trinkets, confetti, and flowers in abundance. It is therefore timely that the current Victorian Lyric Opera Company production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers,” directed with great imagination by Catherine Huntress-Reeve, places the action not only in Venice (per the original libretto), but additionally sets it during the time of Carnevale (not part of the original script). Yet the Carnevale-season reinterpretation works extraordinarily well to address several issues with the original script, discussed below, as well as to enhance the light and humorous nature of the show.
“The Gondoliers” has a plot involving many characters and driven by comic confusion. Married to the infant son of the king of the distant island of Barataria during her own early childhood, aristocrat Casilda and her now-impoverished parents seek this now presumably well-situated husband/sovereign. The Baratarian king in question, however, does not know he is a king – nor does anybody else around him. In fact, the royal destiny appears to fall upon either Marco or Giuseppi, two gondoliers in Venice. An additional complication: each of these men has just married a woman of Venice, and so the King of Barataria – even if found – may not fulfill his natal pledge to marry the vexed and perplexed Casilda. To add to the Carnival madness, Casilda has an additional problem; not only has she spent her life betrothed to someone whom she has never met, but she is also in love with a handsome young man named Luiz!
Claudia Finsaas is an excellent Casilda, as her voice soars with pathos as she realizes she must give up her true love Luiz in order to fulfill her family’s pledge to Barataria: “There was a time — A time forever gone —One heart, one life, one soul, One aim, one goal —ah, woe is me!” She manages to make this sound moving and yet over the top at the same time, as it is intended in Gilbert and Sullivan.
Keely Borland is a standout voice as well as Gianetta, Marco’s bride, featured in selections such as “And Now, to Choose Our Brides” and “In a Contemplative Fashion.” Blair Eig as Don Alhambra del Alabardero has excellent line delivery and superb comic timing. We are surprised and delighted to see and hear the talented Rishabh Bajekal as Marco, performing “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” with G&S gravitas, for we had last seen the multi-talented Mr. Bajekal performing the lead role in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock musical, in Alexandria, Virginia.
Lastly, the full chorus here is one of the brightest parts of the production, as are the quintet in “I Stole the Prince” with their clipped diction as well as the quartet in the patter song “In Enterprise of Martial Kind.” The orchestra playing the score is superb, as the music must sound light, serious, and operatic all at once. That is achieved with gusto under the baton of conductor Joseph Sorge.
As hinted above, the plot is a confusing one, and the original script may contain some logical inconsistencies. By setting the play just before Lent, Carnevale comes to the rescue to solve some of these problems! As explained on a lobby card at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre performance venue: “Setting the opera at the end of Carnevale . . . answers the question – if these Gondoliers have waited so long to choose brides . . . why do they then marry the young women instantly? Because the season of Lent begins the day after Shrove Tuesday, and there is no marrying or giving marriage during Lent. So if these two couples enjoying the frivolity and license of Carnevale wish to get married, it must be right now!”
Another interesting production choice is the setting of the exotic location of Bartaria, which we see in Act II. If we judge by the sets, this fictional setting lies in the tropics (Philippine? South Seas? Caribbean?), with palms trees and beaches and a large wicker double throne for the kings – since no-one knows whether Marco or Giuseppi is the ruler.
This reviewer has long enjoyed listening to American musicals performed in other languages, so it was a delight to hear what Gilbert and Sullivan might sound like in Italian, as the chorus sings in hearty tones in several exclamations: “Gondolieri carissimi! – “Dear gondoliers!” While on the subject of musicals and operas, many musical fans who do not necessarily like opera enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan because their English-language “comic operas” are both fun and accessible, using music, witty lyrics, and dialogue in ways similar to the musical theatre of our own era.
We in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States have relatively little exposure to the Carnival tradition. This reviewer encourages readers to experience the festival vicariously while enjoying the Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s splendid and witty production of “The Gondoliers,” running through March 3 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville, Maryland. As the Venetians would say “Buon viaggio!”