With an average turnaround of about three months – meaning rehearsals, organizing stage props, chorus and orchestra practice and a hundred other details – one should feel nothing less than privileged to be at a North West Opera production in Donegal.
An all-volunteer, highly-enthusiastic group of people, they create superb and absorbing – in a word, fantastic – escape from humdrum reality with exceptional verve and panache.
Consider my own experience yesterday.
Back from international journalism assignments in Switzerland and Portugal, I and my companion found ourselves driving slowly, extremely slowly – at first behind a tractor just out of the bog near Cnoc Fola brimful of turf and then another loaded with hay, past Gortahork and Falcarragh and through the Bridge of Tears in the shadow of Muckish Mountain enroute to An Grianan to the group’s latest show (Hurry, last performance tonight).
Donegal’s bleak, moonlit hillside landscapes and broad windswept fields bordered by rock walls that we passed could not have been more contrasting than the bright, exuberant, multicolored world North West Opera offered us – the world of ‘The Gondoliers,’ the Italian-based setting for the William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan production we were headed to.
Let’s be honest, the raw, wild Donegal terrain, while enchanting in its own way, is a teensy-weensy bit different to the ornate Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal and the coveted Rialto Bridge of medieval Venice, the ‘Floating City’ of Europe.
Kudos to everyone at the opera group who, through hard work and determination, created such a transformative experience, including warm and friendly, Manchester-born Lisa Hone whom I met pre-show in the theater lobby as she energetically swept around the bar-bistro area distributing the evening’s program.
As for the opera itself, it’s delight lies in a combo of elements – the comical dialogue and quirky circumstances developed by its twin talented authors, Gilbert and Sullivan, extravagant costumes (compliments of wardrobe director, Judi Friis) and the sheer talent performers exuded in their on-stage group and individual roles.
Show highlights – of which there are many – include:
- A boat disembarkation scene when the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, their daughter, Casilda, and their drummer, Luiz, arrive from Spain. The combination of their natural acting talent (hefty bouts of seasickness are not easy to simulate), fine singing and an amusing group dance routine by Ann Jennings (also the show’s artistic director), Billy Patterson, Diana McLaughlin and Robert Kelly are mischievously enchanting.
- The intricately choreographed dance movement when almost the entire cast fill the stage and dance together to kick-start a honeymoon celebration;
- The natural comical interplay – in both song and dialogue – between the rather bumbling, but lovable, Duke (did he really trip over a step or was that a deliberate in-character strategy?) and his direct-talking wife, the Duchess.
- The measured matter-of-fact pragmatism and dry-wit of Don Alhambra Bolero, the Spanish Grand Inquisitor, played by Donal Kavanagh;
- The unlikely, but likeable, twin gondoliers-cum-kings, Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri, played by Arthur Swan and James McLaughlin respectively;
- The faultless voice of Diana McLaughlin playing Casilda;
- Best line – (even funnier when in context) – “My good sir, one can’t marry a vulgar fraction!”
- The lavish, sea-of-color encore with more than 35 performers singing in unison;
- Top-notch chorus, with dancing and singing talent in abundance (nice to see such a diversity, in terms of ages and ethnicity);
- Inventive orchestra conducted by Ryan Quinn.
Of course, being an anti-monarchist and pro-Republican (though not the pretend, pseudo-Irish variety), the less-than-subtle lancing by Gilbert and Sullivan of the superficial, sanctimonious bubble termed ‘class distinction’ and ‘nobility,’ sits well with me.
Full praise to director, Deigh Reid, for his finely-honed musical and comedic abilities.
Such is its rich blend of entertainment, it’s no wonder ‘The Gondoliers,’ which debuted in 1889, was one of the longest running shows ever at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End, one in a series of what became famously known as the ‘Savoy operas.’