Were it not for the outrageous success of Jonathan Miller's monochrome Mikado 20 years ago, I doubt that I'd be writing about The Gondoliers today. Martin Duncan's Chichester Festival production, on stage at The Coliseum for an eye-popping run of 20 performances, is English National Opera's second attempt to recapture the zing of Miller's much-revived production, and though it is a marginal improvement on the lamentable staging of The Pirates of Penzance, its first night fell as flat as the drumstick that dropped - with a secco plonk - to the bottom of designer Ashley Martin-Davis's miniature Grand Canal.
Martin-Davis's Venice is a pop-up pastel guide book, with doll-sized versions of the Rialto and Accademia Bridges. It's charming to look at, if tricky to navigate, and while conductor Richard Balcombe whizzed through the tarantella that Sullivan sadly omitted to reprise, I felt optimistic that this might be the production to convert me to Gilbert and Sullivan's dolce far niente. Then on came the chorus of contadine, more Joyce Grenfell than Sophia Loren in their 1950s dresses, on came the gondoliers, with horizontal stripes stretched thin as bar-codes across their diaphragms, up started some of the feeblest bit-part acting since The Generation Game Christmas Specials, and, I am sorry to say, some of the weakest lines.
A lot of rot is talked about the artistic merits of Gilbert and Sullivan, much of it in the programme for The Gondoliers. But the walking steam-baths of Barataria are no disguise for the flaccidity of this once-subversive commercial frippery. Peppered with Italian and Spanish accents like an ambitious pub menu, Sullivan's score is attractive enough. But if ENO takes him seriously, why not stage Ivanhoe? A similar lack of commitment is shown to Gilbert. In an age of cash-for-honours crises, princely tax-dodges and 15-second celebrity, his peer-baiting script is ripe for updating. Instead, it is presented uncut, with little irony to off-set the egg-custard sentimentality of "Take a pair of sparkling eyes" and "When a merry maiden marries".
Though Donald Maxwell and Geoffrey Dolton deliver assured spoken and sung performances as the lubricious Don Alhambra del Bolero and the manic Duke of Plaza-Toro, the rest of the principals speak awkwardly and archly, embarrassed by Gilbert's prim puns and only coming to life in their solos. Stephanie Marshall, an exquisite singing actress, is a frumpy Tessa, while Rebecca Bottone, Robert Murray and Ann Murray are wasted as Casilda, Luiz, and the Duchess, and adrift in the madrigalian ensembles. Add the talents of David Curry (Marco), Toby Stafford-Allen (Giuseppe), and Sarah Tynan (Gianetta) to this list and there are many, far better works that ENO could have put on instead.
After The Gondoliers, the Royal Academy of Music's production of Rameau's tragédie lyrique, Dardanus, sped by. Ambitious is too slight a word for this project, played on period instruments by a tiny band of eight violins - Rameau would have had three times their number - and including the obligatory tempête and sommeil set-pieces, some vigorous ballets, a sea-monster, an allegorical Prologue, and some of the greatest airs Rameau wrote for the tenor voice. Rhythmically sophisticated, harmonically daring, decorously codified yet emotionally direct, it has yet to be staged by any of this country's professional companies.
Robert Chevara's neat, clear, stylish production was deftly managed, with creamy calico 18th-century costumes in the Prologue for Vénus (Claire Watkins) and L'Amour (Louise Deans), and scarlet arrows to hint at the bloodshed ahead. Save for the Wayne's World wigs, the main body of the opera was equally attractive, with delicious dancing from pupils of the London Contemporary Dance School, and litres of stage blood spat out with evident glee by the chorus.
The vitality of this scene, however, was as nothing compared to the dynamism of the musical performance, directed from the keyboard at white heat by Laurence Cummings. Sizzling tambourins and bouncing rigadouns gave way to langorous préludes, while the Act V chaconne was as light and sweet as a réligieuse. Among the leads, Julia Sporsen's grave, supple Iphise, George von Bergen's polished Teucer, and Emma Jayakumar's elegantly phrased Phrygian Woman were outstanding in their stylistic fluency, while Allan Clayton's lyrical, powerful Dardanus - most affecting in Lieux funestes - was, I suspect, the inspiration behind this extraordinary project.
* 'The Gondoliers' (0870 145 0200), to 31 March 2007Reuse content