Music / They have a song to sing, O A tower of musical strengths

Yeomen of the Guard Welsh National Opera
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After taking more than 30 years (since copyright) to get round to Gilbert and Sullivan, Welsh National Opera was not about to waste its substance on one of the more flippant or musically tenuous pieces. The Yeomen of the Guard is very much an oper a company's choice of Christmas show - a kind of festive Rigoletto for the silly season. But mercifully the producer Tim Hopkins resists the temptation to go farther and treat the piece as Zeitoper in the usual directorial mode. There are no attacks on t he prison system, no sun-spectacled tourists in Union Jack shorts, no jack-booted Dame Carruthers. A ghosted flag of St George across Peter J Davison's Tower of London set is the sole gratuitous potshot at empty patriotism (or is it a veiled plea for dev olution?).

In any case the work is mainly played, and very well played, for its strengths as romance. Recognising the element of dance and pantomime in the music and dramaturgy, Hopkins uses the whole stage semi-choreographically, often to brilliant effect in set-pieces like "Strange adventure" or "When a wooer goes a-wooing". I've rarely seen an opera on this stage move so well.

Davison's Tower set and Nicky Gillibrand's costumes tease the beefeater convention just enough, and the over-playing of individual roles - Phoebe as a glint-eyed vamp ("maiden love", indeed) Leonard Meryll as a ham walk-on - is inherently Gilbertian rather than irony at the work's expense. In fact, this is altogether a lively, stylish, musicianly affair, a combination still not that common in G & S.

The D'Oyly Carte influence can be accepted these days for what it's worth - part of the history of the genre. Several of the WNO cast are old D'Oyly Carte stalwarts: notably the avuncular Donald Adams as Sergeant Meryll, and above all Richard Suart - well-known to Welsh audiences for recent work with Music Theatre Wales - as a marvellously alert, lucid, not too tear-jerking Jack Point.

But Sullivan at his best also responds to sheer bel cantissimo at a level not always traditionally associated with the Savoy. Alwyn Mellor, a deliciously sweet-voiced Elsie, and Neil Archer, a vocally uninhibited and virile Fairfax, bring to Yeomen a musical precision they might once have reserved for Rossini. Pamela Helen Stephen, one of nature's Cherubinos, overplays Phoebe to perfection - that is, without peril to her vocal control. Felicity Palmer is a rare Dame Carruthers senza tremolo, Donald Maxwell a perfect shambling Shadbolt.

Gareth Jones, another former Savoyard, conducts with instinctive "feel". Some ensemble problems - due perhaps to the very mobile staging - need attention. But otherwise this is G & S at its best, with only the warts the authors put there.

New Theatre, Cardiff (0222 394844) daily until Saturday

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