Behold Queen Victoria’s Favorite Anti-Royal Opera

Janos Gereben on February 6, 2018
The Plaza-Toro Ltd. family (Cary Rosko, Patricia Westley and F. Lawrence Ewing) make a grand entrance in the Lamplighters’ The Gondoliers | Credit: Lucas Buxman

Any number of Masterpiece episodes on PBS will be useless to explain this conondrum: What made Her Majesty pick The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria as her favorite Gilbert & Sullivan show? 

True, it’s the most gorgeously operatic of all G&S “operas” (as these musicals are called), but this is what Victoria heard  — or neglected  — from the stage:

“ ... we hold all men to be equal. As we abhor oppression, we abhor kings: as we detest vain-glory, we detest rank, we despise wealth ...”

At the Lamplighters’ current run of The Gondoliers, there is no chance of missing any of the lyrics Little Victoria overlooked: there is the company’s usual careful diction and the supertitles.

Politics aside, there can be no doubt about the excellence of the work or the generous and grand Lamplights production. What Victoria saw presented at Windsor Castle in a royal command performance was the product of Arthur Sullivan’s travels in Italy, the 1889 opera suffused with Donizetti melodies, Rossini madcap rhythms: music inspired by great Italians, yet never copying them.

Gondoliers and wives (Amy Foote, Michael Desnoyers, Whitney Steele, and Samuel Rabinowitz) celebrate the news that one pair will be king and queen | Credit: Lucas Buxman

When Amy Foote sings “Kind sire, you cannot have the heart,” you hear musical phrases worthy of Puccini. The Duke of Plaza-Toro (F. Lawrence Ewing), the Duchess (Cary Ann Rosko), daughter Casilda (Patricia Westley) and the deceptively meek-looking royal drummer (Patrick Hagen) introduce themselves in “From the sunny Spanish shore,” in what is a tarantella-on-steroids that will keep buzzing in the listeners’ heads long after the curtain falls.

The Grand Inquisitor (Charles Martin) lectures the gondoliers | Credit: Lucas Buxman

The Gondoliers even has some Italian lyrics, and in the past  — but no longer, alas  —   the precurtain announcement about cell phones, forbidden recording, and emergency exits was made in Italian, assuming correctly that it could be made in any language as long as those terms are enumerated understandably. Of course, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra cell phones ...” was ignored just as surely as the English version usually is, even when mixing in Dante’s majestic opening of The Divine Comedy.

The delightfully silly plot about Venetian gondoliers, a future king’s identity mixed up at birth, multiple love affairs, and a happy ending easily anticipated from the beginning are all carried on the wings of captivating music.

Music director Baker Peeples, stage director Phil Lowery, costume designer Miriam Lewis, and choreographer Jayne Zaban pull together fine soloists and a large chorus impressively. Skip Masterpiece and head to Gondoliers performances in Walnut Creek or Mountain View.