In 1878 The Chimes of Normandy became the ‘hit’ musical show in London, running for over 700 performances, which was most unusual in those days. Its French composer, Robert Planquette, then twenty-five, was soon contracted to write a piece, especially for the West End stage, in English. This was to be Rip Van Winkle, based on the story of the same name by Washington Irving and the play by Dion Boucicault. It was billed as a ‘comic opera’ rather than an ‘operetta’, but is much more in the style of Edward German’s Merrie England than Gilbert and Sullivan. Planquette having on purpose composed music similar to that of successful British musical works of the time. It had a successful run of over 300 performances, but has rarely been seen since, so Gothic Opera’s current production gives twenty-first-century audiences a chance to see what excited audiences 140 years ago – and how much tastes have changed!
Musically the present production, using much of the ‘stalls’ area of Victorian Hoxton Hall, built as a music hall in 1863, but much more intimate than Wilton’s for those who know that venue, is very successful. The company aims to give opportunities for young professional singers and all twelve in Rip Van Winkle look to have a very bright future, if ability is anything to go by!
The title role was taken by Robert Garland who initially seemed to find the tessitura slightly too high for his voice, but quickly settled into a relaxed portrayal of the lazy husband who is put to sleep for twenty years.
Stephen Whitford exhibited a most attractive voice and strong personality as the moneylender Derek, with very clear diction and an animated face, full of energy, giving the comic opera forward impetus whenever he was onstage.
Perhaps owing to the rewritten dialogue (uncredited), heavily abridged from the original, the role of Katrina seemed to have little motivation but was well sung by Alice Usher, another performer who was always watchable, even when she was just reacting to situations.
It was a shame that Béatrice de Larragoïti’s enunciation in the role of Rip’s wife Gretchen was not as clear as it might have been, especially in the dialogue, but she exhibited a strong, firm soprano voice.
The subplot, such as it is, concerns the romantic entanglement of Hans (Valerie Wong in a breeches role) and Alice (Hannah Bennett), both of whom exhibited very pleasant singing voices – even if Hans seemed to spend most of the time away from his wife at sea!
Thomas Litchev-Hudson, Lars Fischer, Isabelle Atkinson, Phoebe Rayner, Alex Riddell and Jamie Formoy all demonstrated fine voices, acting ability and athleticism in various minor roles as well as providing a very strong chorus.
The orchestra of six under Robin Wallington gave the piece a great sense of style, using an arrangement of Planquette’s original by Leon Haxby. Situated on the floor of Hoxton Hall they never seemed obtrusive and were certainly not too loud as can easily happen when musicians start enjoying themselves!
The imaginative yet simple set, utilising the whole hall including the high stage, was designed by Elliott Squire, as were the costumes, and the superb lighting by Catja Hamilton emphasised the trees climbing up to the second gallery and was inspired! Like most successful stage design,` both were deceptively simple, looked effective and were easy to use by the company.
Direction was by Evangeline Cullingworth, their first comic opera/operetta production.
A most interesting evening with some gorgeous singing from highly talented young artistes!
Review by John Groves
This Halloween, join us for a now-forgotten operetta – coming back to London over 140 years after its premiere.
Rip Van Winkle is a forgotten English-language operetta by Robert Planquette based on two stories by Washington Irving – Rip van Winkle and the famous Sleepy Hollow. The piece premiered in at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1882, running for over 300 performances – but although popular at the time, it has not been seen in its English version since the nineteenth century. With a cast of exceptional singers, Gothic Opera will approach this charming piece with fresh eyes, reinvigorating it with a new chamber arrangement and newly-written dialogue.
Rip: Robert Garland
Gretchen: Béatrice de Larragoïti
Derrick: Stephen Whitford
Katrina: Alice Usher
Hans: Valerie Wong
Alice: Hannah Bennett
Lieutenant 1/ensemble: Isabelle Atkinson
Lieutenant 2/ensemble: Phoebe Rayner
Knickerbocker/ensemble: Lars Fischer
Hudson/ensemble: Thomas Litchev
Nick/ensemble: Alex Riddell
Ensemble: Jamie Formoy
Director: Evangeline Cullingworth
Conductor: Robin Wallington
Arranger: Leon Haxby
Set and Costume Designer: Elliott Squire
Lighting Designer: Catja Hamilton
Assistant Conductor/Répétiteur: Francesca Lauri
Assistant Designer/Costume Supervisor: Isabel Southey
Producer: Helene Mathiesen
Fri 27 Oct – Wed 01 Nov 2023