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OPERA: Utopia, Limited

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

If added value is what you were after this week with Scottish Opera, it was there in spades with Wednesday’s minimally-staged performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, inserted as a one-off addition to the current Glasgow run of The Gondoliers (reviewed separately in VoxCarnyx).  

It’s a work usually confined to historical reference books – even then it can be hard to find – given that it never quite grabbed the attention of opera companies generally more tempted by mainstream G&S favourites. Scottish Opera wanted to make a case for its worth, and did so with considerable conviction by editing its notorious prolixity down to an acceptable two-and-a-half hours and utilising the lively cast that was already in town for The Gondoliers.

Economical creativity even saw Dick Bird’s picture-book set for the mythical Barataria scenes in The Gondoliers reutilised as the permanent backdrop for the equally mythical island of Utopia. Yet there was nothing remotely static about his performance, Stuart Maunder’s shrewdly imaginative direction giving his cast plenty scope for expression without embracing a full theatrical presentation.

As such, the focus on the music was intensified. Sullivan clearly took the opportunity in this late collaboration with Gilbert to expand his stylistic fingerprint. Yes, lighter-weight tra-la-las are aplenty, but so too are moments where the composer effuses with a depth and glow that is almost, if not quite, Wagnerian. The juxtaposition is, paradoxically, both strength and weakness, as are the whimsical snatches of popular reference – a recurring Rule Britannia motif, for instance – that colour the score.

But accepting Utopia, Limited for what it is – a satire on the pompous protectionism of the British Empire and hypocrisy of its political establishment, which rings an ironic bell today – there was  much to be enjoyed in this slick, refined version. 

The cast gelled magnificently, no doubt inspired by their current collegiate familiarity as the Scottish Opera Gondoliers team. Ben McAteer, now the main man, presented King Paramount of the mythical Pacific outpost that so desires “Anglification” as an endearingly hapless survivor. Elie Laugharne glowed brilliantly as his daughter Princess Zara, alongside the complementary charm of sisters Nekaya (Catriona Hewitson) and Kalyba (Sioned Gwen Davies). 

Yvonne Howard embraced the glowing sophistication of Lady Sophy with knowing composure. Arthur Bruce and Richard Suart were a dream double act as Utopian wise men Phantis and Scaphio, Suart’s snarling nonchalance neatly countered by Bruce’s winning, agile impatience.

Among the British advisory delegation, the so-called “Flowers of Progress”, the we-know-it-all mantle was gloatingly assumed, Mark Nathan as Mr Goldbury and William Morgan as Captain Battleaxe key among its numerous personnel. 

A solid chorus and a Scottish Opera Orchestra much enjoying the frequent opulence of Sullivan’s music under the baton of Derek Clark were equally at ease in this judiciously edited performance of an opera that may have undoubted flaws, but which, in time-honoured G&S spirit, sets out chiefly to entertain.

Ken Walton

Scottish Opera’s Utopia, Limited is repeated at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 5 Nov. Full information at www.scottishopera.org.uk