Opera Scotland

Utopia Limited 2022Scottish Opera

Read more about the opera Utopia, Limited

A Great Rarity Successfully Revived

The received opinion of Utopia Limited (the formally correct comma was eventually removed) has always been that it represented a sad falling off in quality by comparison with its immediate predecessor, The Gondoliers.  This is simply inaccurate, though it may be accepted that the final collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan, The Grand Duke, of 1896, is indeed inferior.

Utopia only followed The Gondoliers in the sense that it was the next G&S piece.  The partners had a notorious falling out in 1890 and while delicate negotiations to reunite them continued on and off, Sullivan worked on his famous grand opera Ivanhoe, which enjoyed a long run in London at the specially-built Royal English Opera House (now the Palace Theatre, home for some time to come of Harry Potter).  This was followed in 1892 by Haddon Hall, a more romantic comedy than G&S were used to providing.  It had a text by the successful playwright Sydney Grundy.  Gilbert also collaborated on new work with other composers, though less successfully.

As a result of this, when the partnership resumed, Utopia, Limited became a more ambitious piece, with a large cast of solo roles and greater demands in terms of exotically tropical sets and costumes.  The targets of Gilbert's satire include most elements of  Victorian Britain's establishment - the army, navy, press, law, local government, city traders and the royal family.  Sullivan's music shows the influence of developments in continental operetta, including Planquette and Lecocq.  While it was initially quite successful, it was expensive to put on, so professional revivals were not undertaken during the 20th century because of the cost.

We were promised here a semi-staged production with the spoken text adjusted by the director to bring some of the satire up to date.  There are certainly some elements that seemed to need attention, including a spoof Christy Minstrels ensemble which must have been very funny in its day but might be unacceptable in its original form.  Perhaps the erotic dream sequence involving lady cricketers gives greater scope - was Sir John Betjeman familiar with this section when he invented Joan Hunter Dunne?   For the first act finale the city trader recounts the advantage of limited liability should your business fail - 'But the liquidators say - never mind, you needn't pay -  so you start another company tomorrow!'

Perhaps the beautiful unaccompanied chorus 'Eagle high' is particularly unfortunate, given that the large species of raptor are nowadays protected in the UK.  It contains one line 'Let the eagle, not the sparrow, be the object of your arrow'  (Hmm!).  Something edible might be more appropriate.  Could a  pigeon be slotted in? Or does that more mundane bird lack a necessary sense of grandeur ('Pigeon high....')?

An interesting editorial decision is the removal of the character of the Public Exploder, a government official who is an ever-present threat to the monarch.  Gilbert presumably saw no limits to the reach of his satire in an age when anarchist outrages were happening.  This character is called Tarara - no doubt a reference to the popular chorus 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay' which had just become a hugely popular addition to the repertoire of Lottie Collins, one of the original 'Gaiety girls.'  Any lines of importance, as in the first act finale - 'He'll go up to posterity if I inflict the blow....blown up with dynamite' - can be re-allocated to Scaphio or Phantis without harm. 

The London Visit

Over four months since the first two performances in the central belt, Utopia, Limited was given its third (and final) outing at the charming Hackney Empire - a beautiful auditorium no further from the West End than the old Sadler's Wells Theatre.  Again it appeared in tandem with the excellent full staging of The Gondoliers, and employing much of the decor.  Costumes were simple and elegant.  Audiences expecting a conventional 'concert' or 'semi-staged' presentation must have been delighted by what they saw and heard.  All the singers had the music by heart and acted out a fully convincing production.  It was altogether a great company effort for just three performances.

The theatre was packed, and the whole audience hugely enthusiastic. No doubt many will have also seen the companion piece, which received three performances before Utopia.  If not, they still had two on the Saturday to permit a catch up.  Under the guidance of Scottish Opera's experienced Head of Music Derek Clark, the evening fizzed right from the off, with his overture of melodies lifted from the work - Sullivan and his assistants omitted to provide one themselves.  The orchestra sounded beautiful throughout.

Having missed the Glasgow premiere but thoroughly enjoyed the Edinburgh evening, we were delighted to be able to catch this third presentation which was every bit as good as before.  As with the equally good presentation of The Gondoliers the previous evening, there was a solitary scheduled cast change, with one of the company's recent Emerging Artists, Charlie Drummond, taking over the lead role of Princess Zara.  She has a beautiful, creamy-toned soprano, is an expert at timing comic dialogue (as a student in Glasgow she made a memorable Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus) and had no problems fitting in to the staging.

Of the others, Ben McAteer had settled nicely into the role of King Paramount (just as powerful, if less grotesque, than his Inquisitor on other nights). Yvonne Howard was an elegant Lady Sophy.  The comic villains Scaphio and Phantis appeared as  beautifully timed double act by the hugely experienced G & S expert Richard Suart and the equally accomplished Arthur Bruce.

The imported 'Flowers of Progress' made a great ensemble - that great 'Cristy Minstrels' number was now faultlessly timed and was directed without a hint of any possible embarrassment, tmbourine bashing and all.  Tenor William Morgan had perfected his presentation of his comic song that opened the second act, and Mark Nathan dominated the first act finale with his super-confident city spiv (sorry, 'Company Promoter').

In all, if Utopia needed rescuing from oblivion, audience reaction seemed to suggest that this revelatory enterprise may have done the trick.

Scottish Opera has visited several London theatres over the years - Sadler's Wells in the seventies, the Doinion in the eighties, and Covent Garden in the nineties.  While these all worked well, following the success of The Magic Flute shortly before lockdown and now this superb G & S pairing, perhaps Hackney Empire can expect regular returns in future.

Performance Cast

Princess Nekaya Second Daughter of King Paramount

Catriona Hewitson

Princess Kalyba Youngest Daughter of King Paramount

Sioned Gwen Davies

Phylla a Utopian Maiden

Zoë Drummond

Scaphio a Judge of the Utopian Supreme Court

Richard Suart

Phantis a Judge of the Utopian Supreme Court

Arthur Bruce

Lady Sophy an English Gouvernante

Yvonne Howard

King Paramount the First King of Utopia

Ben McAteer

Princess Zara Eldest Daughter of King Paramount

Charlie Drummond

Captain FitzBattleaxe First Life Guards

William Morgan

Mr Goldbury a Company Promoter, later Comptroller of Utopian Household

Mark Nathan

Lord Dramaleigh a British Lord Chamberlain

Glen Cunningham

Sir Bailey Barre, QC, MP a Barrister and Politician

Osian Wyn Bowen

Captain Sir Edward Corcoran, KCB of the Royal Navy

Francis Church

Mr Blushington of the County Council

Richard Pinkstone

Performance DatesUtopia Limited 2022

Map List

Hackney Empire | London

1 Apr, 19.30

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