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Review: YEOMEN Shines at Winter Opera

St. Louis's Winter Opera brings us a splendid production of "Yeomen of the Guard." This work appeared toward the end of Gilbert and Sullivan's long and contentious partnership-the eleventh of their collaborations-and it is perhaps their nearest approach to real opera. The company at Winter Opera serves it delightfully well.

Set in Tudor times the story presents a stalwart soldier, Colonel Fairfax, wrongfully sentenced to death. He's held in the Tower of London and he is to be beheaded this very day. But he has friends and admirers nearby: Sergeant Meryll of the famous crimson-clad Yeomen (who guard the Tower) is an old comrade; and lovely Phoebe, his daughter, is totally infatuated with the handsome prisoner. But can they find a way to free Fairfax before the axe falls? Into this nexus of distress come a pair of strolling players-Jack Point, a jester, and his colleague and sweet-heart, Elsie. (These two provide the sub-title of the piece: "The Merryman and his Maid.")

The plot is even more complex than usual with Gilbert and Sullivan, but there is very little of the Monty Python silliness we find in their block-buster hits like "Pinafore," "Pirates," and "Mikado." Sullivan, at the time, expressed his pleasure at being able to work, for once, with a libretto without "all the topsy-turvy." The result is an evening more filled with sentiment-and less peppered with satire-than one might expect from the two. Yet both were later to rank "Yeomen" as their very favorite collaboration.

The music is quite beautiful. The overture is in sonata form, rather than the usual medley of songs from the show. There is considerable variety-from a melancholy strolling players' ballad to duets, quartets and glorious pieces for the chorus. Conductor Scott Schoonover gets the very best from his musicians and singers.

Clark Sturdevant plays Colonel Fairfax. Mr. Sturdevant has been for some seasons a familiar face in St. Louis opera. Here he sings a role that is quite perfectly suited to him. He's a young, fit handsome fellow with a beautiful clear tenor voice. It's hard to imagine a finer Colonel Fairfax.

Two other men stand out particularly in this production. James Harrington brings a rich and powerful bass voice and great authority to the role of Sergeant Meryll. His diction is exemplary and he's a compelling actor. And baritone Andy Pappas is superb as Jack, the jester. He's a short rotund man, but light-footed and nimble, and he is a most gifted comic. His voice rings clear and powerful and his diction is perfect.

Another gifted comic is Gary Moss, who plays Shadbolt, the jailer and "assistant tormentor." He's quite at ease in the low comedy of this dim-witted fellow who aspires to be a jester. His is also a lovely voice.

On the distaff side-(and lo, we do indeed have a distaff in an opening scene at a spinning wheel)-the cast is also strong. Amy Maude Helfer sings Phoebe. (She has sung the role twice before-with the wonderful New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.) This lady has a gorgeous voice, she's beautiful, and she has a lovely sense of how to handle Gilbert and Sullivan.

Eileen Vanessa Rodriguez makes a petite, appealing Elsie. Hers is a fine lovely voice, though it softens a bit on her lowest notes. Costumer JC Krajicek has given our Elsie a strikingly beautiful parti-colored-almost motley-peasant skirt, and Miss Rodriguez moves in it as gracefully as a sylph.

Strong performances are also given by Adrian Rosas as the Lieutenant of the Tower; by Sharmay Musacchio as Dame Carruthers, the housekeeper; by Zach Devin as Leonard, the Sergeant's son; and Elizabeth Bivens-Logan as Dame Carruthers' daughter, Kate.

The chorus of Yeomen and Chorus Master Nancy Mayo deserve special praise. There are several strong choral numbers-some with a cappella passages-and the voices are blended quite movingly.

Stage Director John Stephens manages this huge cast most ably.

Scene designer Kyra Bishop presents an open square surrounded by attractive stone and half-timbered buildings. (There is an oddly tower-like tower, though the Tower of London is, of course, not really a tower. But, what the heck, this is Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Lighting by Sean Savoie features a vast background sky with realistic wisps of cloud.

JC Krajicek dresses everyone gorgeously. The Yeomen are all in their iconic crimson uniforms-all well-made and detailed and well-fitted. The travelling players have a charming antique, almost Commedia feeling to their dress. The chorus of townspeople are appropriately period and varied.

The principal ladies are all in quite lovely gowns-some with Elizabethan ruffs at their necks. This, I think, is a little too fine for the daughter of a soldier or of a housekeeper.

If there is a weakness in "Yeomen of the Guard" it is in the plot. Clever Phoebe does her best to free our hero, yet in the end the other girl, Elsie, gets him. And poor Jack Point, who has won our hearts with his jesting, has lost his sweetheart and is left despondently alone. Should we just say, "such is life"? Or should we try to make Phoebe a bit less deserving of Fairfax-perhaps more comic? Perhaps less pretty? Perhaps a little irritating?

And Colonel Fairfax! At first we admire his blithe acceptance of his bad luck: he contemplates his beheading with equanimity. But at the end it is with that same unthinking nonchalance that he accepts his good luck when he finds himself married, almost accidentally, to a lovely girl; he cares nothing for, nor does he even seem to notice, the sorrow he's caused to Phoebe and Jack Point.

In any event Winter Opera has given us a fine production of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera that is not so frequently done. "Yeomen of the Guard" played at the Viragh Center at Chaminade on October 30 and November 1, 2015.

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