Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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October 9, 2016

Photographs courtesy of Ryan F. Lewandowski

There are so many opportunities to see opera and operetta along Colorado’s front range (and sometimes deep in the mountains and on the Western Slope), that it is always surprising, at least to me.  There are, of course, the opera programs connected to prominent universities in the region, but there are also small companies unconnected to the academic scene and apart from the two primary companies (Central City Opera and Opera Colorado) and the summer festival companies in places like Aspen and Crested Butte.  Many of these small companies take advantage of the young singers in the area who are graduates of the academic programs, or those who have migrated to this beautiful land of high mountains and open sky.  Among the small, independent companies is Empire Lyric Players, located in Denver. This company specializes in producing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, a pleasant and fun niche to be sure!  Amazingly, the all-volunteer ELP has been in operation since 1958 (going on 60 years!), bringing topsy-turvy-dom to local audiences.  

Based on the information in Charles Ralph’s Opera in Old Colorado web site, G&S operettas were probably the most produced musical stage works in Colorado history during the years that the web site covers (1864-1950).  Of the G&S works, it is obvious that The Mikado has been the most popular; in fact The Mikado has probably been the most produced opera or operetta in Colorado history.  We find the first reference to a Colorado production of The Mikado in October, 1885 (at the Tabor Grand Opera House), the same year as the operetta’s premiere in London.  Before that year was out, the folks in Titipu had appeared in Denver around a dozen times, produced by no less than four different opera companies (Thompson, Grau English, Carleton and Denver Musical Association)—and this in what was a burgeoning frontier town of around 100,000 souls.  Many other earlier G&S operettas had already been performed in Denver and surroundings, going back to 1876 (Trial by Jury, the first G&S collaboration, on view next weekend at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley): Patience, Iolanthe, Pirates of Penzance, The Sorcerer, HMS Pinafore—all had had a turn in Denver before The Mikado was premiered, several of them numerous times.  

ruddigore1But Ruddigore, this fall’s offering of Empire Lyric Players, was not among them.  Early audiences would have had to wait until 1929 to find the Colorado premiere of this G&S work, a year when the original G&S production company from London, D’Oyly Carte itself, came through town and presented six G&S operettas at the old Broadway Theater.  Perhaps it is not surprising that it took so long.  I myself have seen most of the G&S operettas, but before last Sunday (Oct. 9), not this one.  After all, Ruddigore’s history has been checkered from the very beginning.  It opened to mixed reviews and less than rapturous audience reaction in March, 1887.  Most critics were disappointed because it didn’t measure up to The Mikado, which had preceded it in the G&S line up two years earlier—and admittedly The Mikado was a hard act to follow.  The plot was pretty complicated too, with ten characters and chorus.  Some took Gilbert’s satire to task; its aim had been pretty clear in The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, or HMS Pinafore.  In Ruddigore it is a little bit more obscure: the main brunt of the satire is what we think of as Victorian melodrama—the hissing, mustache twirling villains, the innocent virginal heroines tied to railroad tracks, and the Dudley Do-Good heroes.  The trouble is, this kind of melodrama was already pretty old fashioned in England by the time Ruddigore premiered in 1887 (not in Colorado, however, where you can still see camp presentations of melodrama in the old mining towns in the summertime).  In Gilbert’s satire, the good hero, Robin Oakapple, is really the evil baronet Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, whose family curse forces him to commit an evil act every day.  The virtuous heroine, Rose Maybud, is so empty-headed that she moves easily from one lover to another and consults a book of etiquette for every move.  And the evil villain, Despard Murgatroyd, who is forced to do an evil act every day, follows those acts with doing good (abduct an orphan/establish an orphanage), and he ends up as a Sunday School teacher in the original version of the operetta.  Thus the hero turns into a villain, the villain turns into a Sunday School teacher and the heroine is remarkably fickle.  In other words, as usual, everything is topsy-turvy.


As in most G&S works, there is musical satire too.  If we get Verdi’s Il trovatore parodied in Pinafore, here we get the “gothic” operas which were so popular in the mid-nineteenth century brought under the scalpel.  Gilbert does this with a ghost subplot wherein the ghosts of the Murgatroyd  ancestors come alive and step down from their portraits in a spooky ensemble, “The Ghosts’ High Noon.”  Maybe Faust is the best-known opera today to contain a heavy gothic element (the pact with the devil, the Walpurgis Night act), but in Gilbert’s day a slew of them were well known.  Serious operas of the era which included ghosts, evil pacts with the devil and curses were very popular from Weber’s Der Freischutz on.  Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable boasted a ballet of dead nuns who had broken their vows of chastity; Marschner’s Der Vampyr had a good/evil hero named Ruthven, the specific role model for Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd/Robin Oakapple in Ruddigore.  Balfe’s Satanella, a popular English ballad opera, might be a model too, with its good Count Rupert and a female Demon, a family curse and an innocent maiden (and good tunes).  All of this sort of thing is parodied by Gilbert and in Sullivan’s creepy music for the ghost scene.


The earliest audiences for Ruddigore found the satire and parody a bit passé, but the thing that seems to have caused the most consternation was the original title, Ruddy Gore.  Many local publications in England and even the New York Times were offended.  Many thought that “Ruddy” really was a safe way of saying “Bloody” (“Bloody Gore”), and “bloody” was an English curse word that was an absolute taboo in those days; quite a few were outraged, and said so.  G&S were forced to change the name, or at least the spelling, to Ruddigore.  As was usual, they made several changes to the libretto and the music, making cuts and adding an aria, and Sullivan rewrote the finale.  Then Ruddigore had a fairly successful first run in London, but it was never revived during Gilbert and Sullivan’s lives, in fact it was not revived until 1920 in London, and as we have seen, it did not make it to Colorado until nine years later.  By then it had become a regular part, if not a frequent one, in D’Oyly Carte’s repertory.


ruddigore4Empire Lyric Players did a most amusing job of making it all come alive in the old sanctuary of the historic Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver.  Young and talented Jeff Jablonski (who is also ELPs President) played the good, shy Robin forced to assume his role as the evil Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, with real aplomb.  Jeff is a tenor by nature and Robin/Ruthven is a baritone, but he still managed all but the lowest notes quite successfully.  His brother Richard Dauntless, a sailor, was the funny David Hodel; he does a mean Hornpipe dance, one of the score’s highlights.  (There are also a madrigal and a gavotte in the eclectic and tuneful score).  Frederika Gilbert was the ditsy Rose, who has to consult her book of etiquette at every step of the way.  She has a real operatic voice.  One of the most amusing (and best vocally) of the players was Ami Hall as Mad Margaret, another satiric take on a regular denizen of the melodrama. Kristen Smith was a pretty and pert Zorah, the chief of the Professional Bridesmaids, who winds up with Richard.  But everybody was enjoyable (if not equally adept in the acting or singing categories), as was the excellent seven piece orchestra, led by Ron Pflug, who accompanied the goings-on.  There were Victorian costumes by Joan Martin, deft stage direction by Zach Brown and simple sets by Dan Pagliasotti.

Enunciation of Gilbert’s text was always clear (a real necessity in this repertory), singing was good, fine work for a group of “volunteers” who get together to have fun and who allow those of us in the audience to share in the fun.  After all, where else can you get a chorus of professional bridesmaids but in Gilbert and Sullivan?  There are more performances this weekend (14, 15, 16 October), and the group promises a Christmas show combining those two stalwarts of Victorian England, Dicken’s Christmas Carol and G&S songs, at the PACE Schoolhouse in Parker on Dec. 16, 17, and 18.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network