The preview of the new production of "The Gondoliers" given on January 29th 1968 was a great success. The evening seemed to have an atmosphere - of the kind usually to be found in a gathering of old friends who are clearly enjoying themselves, and this was evident in the reception given at the end of the performance.
A great many people wrote letters to thank Miss D'Oyly Carte and the management and to express their views about the new production. Those views ranged all the way from Miss K. F. Pheasant's "A triumph and I enjoyed every moment of it" to Miss Bronwen Talbot's "Nothing short of a flop". The spirit of the evening was well caught by Miss C.D. Canning, who wrote "What a memorable evening, it was such a happy one".
The January 29th audience for the most part knew the opera well and was more likely than most to be resistant to innovations so it was no surprise that comments such as "Dragged down to the level of a musical comedy" (S. Abrahams) and "More than a shock to find it had gone nearly all late Victorian" (Baron de Worms), although R.J. Pembery wrote "I belong, basically, to the traditional no-change school but this new setting was delightful and the costumes certainly matched the music more effectively than the old. There were, of course, some additions and cuts which one regretted, but generally this was a wonderful performance."
Former members of the Company seemed to he particularly enthusiastic. Mrs. Darrell Fancourt, for instance, wrote "Brilliant, colourful, and lively; I have never enjoyed The Gondoliers so much in all the forty years I was attached to the Company". Derek Oldham, writing only a few weeks before his death, said "The joyous new production ... must have brought much pride and satisfaction to you all. I thought the whole production a delight." From the late william Cox-Ife the verdict was "Brilliant as was Gilbert's own production when considered in the contemporary theatre of the day, the freshness and flexibility of your new production, which still gives us Gilbert's characters as he envisaged them, was a delight."
"Delight" was a word that frequently recurred, and praise was also lavished on the vivacity of the production. Miss M.G. Dresser found "the whole production to be extremely invigorating and the Company obviously enjoyed doing something a little different." Mrs. E.A. Franklin liked "the chorus movements in the first Act particularly, with the numerous inventive small touches - the American tourists, and the cafe just out of sight, with its little outside table and hovering waiter - charmingly added to the liveliness of a production in which that quality was outstanding." Derek G. Hyde thought "the performance had a professional polish and style that was good to see" and dubbed "the production, in interpretation and execution, first-class . . . the best thing that the D'Oyly Carte has done since I first became acquainted." Not so G. D. Henthorn, who got value for his fourpence if not for his twenty-five shillings and summed up a long list of complaints with "nothing less than seizing an existing production (with its roots where they belong) and altering it detail by detail for the sake of being different (or adventurous, new, exciting, controversial, meaningful, or what have you)". S. Abrahams found The Gondoliers "intolerable in its new production", and Miss S. Tomkinson thought "the second Act gave the appearance of a would-be third Act carnival on board H.M.S. Pinafore." Miss Audrey Langford, on the other hand, found "the whole production, sets, dancing, and particularly the gorgeous costumes, were splendid."
The costumes and sets were especially praised. "And what lovely costumes!" (W. Cox-Ife); "The costumes are really beautiful" (Miss K. F. Pheasant); "I would like to congratulate those responsible for the costumes" (John Armour); "The scenery and costumes were superb" (Miss M. G. Dresser); "The sets and costumes were a joy to behold. Quite rightly, there was a gasp of pleasure when the curtain arose, and the impromptu applause showed the impact they made on the audience." (Miss P. R. Morris); "The colour schemes and the dresses particularly those of the ladies, and the white uniforms of the Kings of Barataria were a joy to behold" (Mrs. F. A. Franklin); but to J.H.F. Cooke "the two Kings looked too overdressed for words. Where are the old costumes? How relieved they seemed when allowed to take those awful hats off." Mr. Cooke, indeed, had much other food for misery: "Scenically, what a disappointment; Gondolieri: what a scruffy lot they looked in their creased, badly-cut drill trousers; Contadine: they looked like a glorified lot of Covent Garden flower girls ex My Fair Lady - button boots and all."
The most general condemnation was of the Duke's spaghetti. "Surely this sort of thing should be left for pantomime, as the laughter drowned Kenneth Sandford's singing." (Miss J. A. Molyneaux); "The worst thing I have ever seen in a D'Oyly Carte production . . . John Reed rummaging in a bowl of spaghetti whilst Don Alhambra is singing 'I stole the Prince' " (John Armour); "An unfortunate distraction" (J.H.F. Cooke); "The eating of spaghetti completely spoiled 'I stole the Prince' " (R.J. Pembery).
There were more cons than pros for Casilda's lisp. "whoever thought of making Casilda short-tongued should have another thought of directing and then get out of the Theatre altogether" (Miss Bronwen Talbot); "Casilda's lisp (while effective) and her clothes (especially Act II) smacked more of Jane Austen" (J.H.F. Cooke); "Casilda now behaves like a stupid schoolgirl complete with a most annoying speech defect" (S. Abrahams); "The feeble, and irritating, impediment in Casilda's speech" (Miss F. Binstead). But Miss S. Tomkinson "found Casilda's new-born lisp agreeable" and for Mrs. E.A. Franklin "the new presentation of Casilda was irresistible".
Mrs. Franklin "found the new conception of the Grand Inquisitor interesting, entertaining, and clever, but it left a small question-mark in my mind," whereas for the Baron de Worms he "looks like an old-time French cure and seems to lose all his dignity what with drinking and dancing" and for S. Abrahams he "looks like a cross between a country curate and a pantomime Dame". John Armour, however, is sure that "he will mature into a much-loved member of the family of characters when we get to know him a little better."
The choreography was generally praised, but not by Mr. Abrahams, for whom "the new sets are visually attractive but appear to leave little room in which dance routines can be performed. The cachucha is now a complete mess for this reason." Derek G. Hyde, however, wrote "The settings and choreography were good, the latter being the best I have ever seen on the Savoy stage," and Mrs. Franklin thought that "for the first time for years the cachucha was danced with the verve and gaiety that belong to it."
Perhaps we can leave the last word with R.J. Pembery, who thought the cigar-smoking incident very odd in a theatre carrying 'No Smoking' notices.
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