I have seen, in the past few years, quite a number of different productions of The Gondoliers. But never, never, never since I joined the human race have I seen one which fits the noble adjective Giuseppe applied to his ideal king.
The Gondoliers, as a show, has two major distinguishing features which the director must respect if the resulting show is to be unobjectionable. Its music is full of bright colours and happiness; and its characters are Italian. From these two factors flow the three major requirements I place on a production, and so far, none I have ever seen has ever had more than one of them present.
Believable characters and acting
In this I'm probably displaying my bias for acting over dancing, but even a dance-oriented director will agree that it detracts from a production if the level of characterisation in a show is not up to scratch.
Marco, Guiseppe, Tessa and Gianetta need to be believable as young eligible Venetians. There's only so much a costume and makeup can do - get the right ones to start with. Italians are never blonde or red headed. And they are passionate about practically everything - or else completely indifferent. They need to know how to act, way over the top most of the time. Also, they need to be balanced. Marco and Guiseppe need to be easy to mix up, and Tessa and Gianetta need to be equally beautiful so the boys can truly say "If you'd rather change, I've no preference whatever". Of course, this isn't to say that singing ability isn't important - all four of them have an aria or at least something approximating to one, and if an aria is done badly it can haunt the audience for life.
The rest of the gondoliers and contadine need to be almost as carefully chosen! After all, they open the show, even though their parts are smaller the audience will be caught up in the show or lost to it by the minor principals and the chorus. As above - dark, passionate, believable and balanced.
The Plaza-Toros similarly have to be believable as Spanish - and while the Spaniards are a Latin race the same as the Italians, there are certain important differences. It's also fairly vital to make sure they are Spanish, not Mexican. It's easy to hear Mexican people speak Spanish and assume Spain is like Mexico. It's not - not quite.
Don Alhambra can be played in different ways. It's correct to have him at least a bit scary as he has to put a damper on the cachuca and be confused for an undertaker. The idea of him being a regular out and out Lothario is an exaggeration of the two lines that are used to support the interpretation. Also, the stage business that accompanies that interpretation is lower than the kind of joke in the Grand Duke madrigal. G&S is worthy of better jokes than that - The Gondoliers doubly so.
That deals with the casting. Now to the lines themselves. The following sections of the libretto are brilliant jokes and characterisations which I have very seldom if ever heard rendered effectively:
"That's so like a band" - this is invariably pushed too hard. The duchess should simply throw it away as an exclamation of disgust, and the humour should come from the fact that she has no idea that other people have trouble with bands too. And if, like in our 2007 version, it is decided to have the orchestra respond to the line, make it SHORT and SHARP. A Ned Seagoon style raspberry through a speaking trumpet (rendered by ONE of the brass players with a heavy tremolo) will be fine. Anything else is gilding the lily.
"Beg" "Desire" "Demand" - this is actually quite difficult to do properly. After all, the main point of the sentence is AFTER the girls cut him off. Therefore they have to know what he's going to say and know already how they want him to modify it. The obvious solution is to stage it as a speech the Duke has delivered often frequently. For example, he should draw himself up to his full height, put on a posh voice, and perhaps speak in a slightly slower, more measured tone.
"I was wed in babyhood to the infant son of the King of Barataria!" "The son of the King of Barataria?" - now this is partially Gilbert's fault. Personally, if my beloved had just told me she belonged to another I'd be more inclined to ask "Wed in babyhood???" rather than accepting that and going straight on to the matter of who it was. But still, Luiz' reactions need to be thought out. His life has just come crashing down. Nobody can think through things at that speed. Let's have a bit of a pause for him to stand looking dejected, pace up and down, kick at imaginary stones on the stage, and then be struck with the brilliant idea of having Casilda not recognize the marriage. Incidentally, the cut dialogue about being too precise about the exact interval of time is brilliant and deserves to stay. But only if it's going to be rendered well.
"Persuasive influence of the torture chamber" - I firmly believe that in this line, as with the Mikado's song, Gilbert is sending up English hanging judges - the ones we read about in Rumpole who sentence a criminal to die and then order muffins for tea. Prescribing a ride on the buffers or jogging memory with torture should be an ordinary day's work for them - a simple means to a successful conclusion, giving the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done. Similarly in Act 2, when he says "She has all the illustrated papers" (or whatever that line is modernised to), he should fondly believe that a bit of reading matter to relieve the boredom is all a torture chamber needs to make us thoroughly comfortable.
"And now our lives are going to begin in real ernest" and the following scene - I am coming to the conclusion that actors must have nothing but unhappy marriages, because I have never seen any genuine newlywed bliss rendered on stage here! I want to see good natured teasing (especially when the lines call for it eg "you couldn't find anyone nice enough"), gazing rapturously into each other's eyes like this, sheer light heartedness to the point of reverting to childhood, and a disinclination to have their cosy foursome invaded. On that point, the slap on the shoulder and "Now my man" speech should be in the same vein - a love-induced sense of goodwill toward all (coupled with a philosophy of republican egalitarianism, of course) is all that makes Giuseppe refrain from performing a ceremony with the foot.
"We are jolly gondoliers" etc - I have heard this rendered as both a prepared speech (for which he stands on a chair) and as a normal part of conversation. Neither is ideal - it has to be a case of explaining his actions and continually developing his theme as he sees that he hasn't made it through the Don's thick skull yet. The next speech, "There are kings and kings" is similar - and that's why Marco can come to his aid half way through. These boys have grown up as brothers, and it's perfectly natural that they would help each other develop their philosophy of life. The ideas should come fairly thick and fast, but be spur-of-the-moment thoughts, not a carefully rehearsed list. And of course the other three should react to each suggestion - in an Italian manner.
"Tessa!" "Giuseppe!" "Marco!" "Gianetta!" - the stage directions in the libretto say they rush into each other's arms. And that's what I'd do too if I'd been away from my new wife for three months. It IS possible to stage that such that they aren't singing upstage, use a bit of imagination!
"And she said done" etc - it's not rocket science, it's just acting. THINK about the line and what it means, and GIVE that meaning to the audience. I know sopranos have resonance in their heads instead of brains, but surely you read books with sentences that long as part of becoming a Savoy Star?
"A Lord High Chancellor is a personage of great dignity, who should never, under any circumstances, place himself in the position of being told to tuck in his tuppenny, except by noblemen of his own rank. A Lord High Archbishop, for instance, might tell a Lord High Chancellor to tuck in his tuppenny, but certainly not a cook, gentlemen, certainly not a cook." - This is a completely ridiculous concept, but can be completely spoiled if it's delivered as a rehearsed speech. The good Don was expecting hearty agreement with the idea that a LHC shouldn't play leapfrog with his cook, and to be asked why (in a three-year-old manner) should take him aback. He's never had to think about this before, and is in the uncomfortable position of having to prove that two and two equals four. Hence "... except by a nobleman of his own rank" is an afterthought, added due to a sense of pedantry which compels Don A to tell the whole story, not just a simplification of it. Then he realises that these two poor monarchs have no idea which noblemen are of equal rank and explains himself further. It only takes a subtle change of emphasis and timing to turn a mediocre rendition into a brilliantly funny one.
"We really ought to tell her how we are situated." etc - more confusion. Think about the line and deliver the meaning (again). I guess there must have been a production somewhere which did this well, but I haven't seen it. In particular, there should be a bit of time for surprise to set in before "Our case exactly".
None of these require any special knowledge of WS Gilbert's private papers or the secret life of the Venetian Gondoliers. All it takes is to actually READ the libretto, have a bit of respect for Gilbert's words (don't try to be smarter than him - you're not, no matter who you are), and take some trouble to convey to the audience the real meaning and characterisation behind the words.
Real Italian pronunciation (especially the bit that's written in Italian!)
Italians don't say "Bon journo sin your eenay". And they certainly don't say "Gee a netter". The chances are that there is someone with real Italian opera training, either in the cast or on the directorial team. They will be able to help you. Failing that, Italian language self-taught courses are available for free in your local library, or maybe even in the comfort of your own home via the net. Take a bit of time and trouble - go through the lines and work them out phonetically, using your new-found knowledge. Then spend an entire evening's rehearsal drilling pronunciation with your chorus.
This is what has disappointed me the most in every production I've seen. Lighting has great potential to convey a mood to the audience - although it needs to be done cleverly so as not to give itself away.
I have often seen a good initial lighting state - a bright sunny day with blue sky and a few wisps of cirrus cloud. Perfect. But don't just leave it on that through the whole show! "Oh Rapture" needs the lights to be pulled down and a spot on each of them, to emphasise the idea that they see nothing but each other. It needs to come up again at the end of the song as the spots go out, but not to the full opening state. Some sadness, or at least complication, has entered the show. "There was a time" needs to be back to the dark state and spots - maybe even darker. Definitely a slow gradual fade - maybe even starting on the last few lines of dialogue ("Must it be so? Luiz - it must be so") which actually fit a descending light level quite well. Back up to that "What have you said, what have I done" state for the entrance of the Don, there are still bad things happening.
"But bless my heart" should be in a kind of pre-thunderstorm state. A few shafts of stark white light like lightning in a thunderstorm, to indicate Casilda's rapidly dropping marble count. High philosophy ("Life's a pudding full of plums") doesn't help her, she's slipping.
"Bridegroom and Bride" needs a new set of colours altogether - bring back that beautifully blue sky and yellow sunlight (it's an outdoor wedding) and let's have some nice romantic pink or purple for a subtle wash. If the tech guys can manage it, a bit of sunshine yellow in the spot on Tessa would be nice - wasn't it a pretty wedding, the sun came out just in time for my song and the official photos.
At the end of the song we lose the wedding pink/purple (SLOWLY so the audience don't notice it) and just have a happy sunshine wash - although a bit less so than the initial state. We've had a wedding and it's getting close to evening. For the adventurous, let's have a late evening state with a red sky and some up-lighting.
For the finale, get the SM and desk operator on their toes, there's going to be a heap of cues. "Kind sir you cannot have the heart" wants to be a fairly low state with a couple of spots. That's obvious (although it wasn't obvious to the designers of several productions I've seen). "Do not give way" needs a very slow build-up, starting with a bit of white ray-in-an-inky-sky and then getting to a fairly happy state for "Viva, we'll not be parted long".
Then the chorus comes in, with a burst of happy music. We can take it straight back to the initial state.
"Come let's away" is a tough one. It's not as happy as the preceding bit, but we don't want it straight down to "Farewell my love". The ray-in-an-inky-sky thing might work. The change wants to be in the background - leave the front of stage basically the same and put the four prinnies there. We can tell something sad is coming, but it's not here yet. Storm clouds on the horizon.
"Farewell my love" should be almost darkness, with a spot on each pair of course. (Lighting will now dictate staging - the pairs have to be sharing a spot each.) Enough light will spill to let the audience see the chorus are acting too (or a very dim dark blue wash will do the trick if spots don't spill enough), but all our attention is on the singers.
"Then away we go to an island fair" has to be the biggest and best state change in the show (or indeed in either of the shows performed before and after this one). It should start spot on the orchestra's build-up, and finish on "then aWAY". The state should be something like the Casilda's-losing-her-marbles state in the middle of the act, but with yellow light instead of white. A dark blue backdrop suggesting late evening, cross lighting and a bit of highlight on the scenery will meet the case.
As the singing finishes and the couples part, it should come back down to that almost-darkness state, VERY SLOWLY, with a spot or special highlighting Tessa and Gianetta as a gentle cross-fade. Then lose that highlight and fade to black as the curtain falls.
For the opening of Act 2, a fairly general indoors state will suffice. Nothing of any consequence happens for a while, apart from TAPOSE which just gets a slight dimming and a spot.
The entrance of the wives is of course a big build - everything that's good and beautiful in the world has suddenly appeared on stage, and to mark the joyous occasion every bird has started singing and every flower has bloomed. Since they're about to celebrate the commencement of their honeymoon, it might even be worth bringing back the "Bridegroom and Bride" wedding state.
None of the excitement should stop when Tessa and Gianetta sing about sailing and tossing. All of them are still in the initial ecstasy of meeting after parting.
The Cachuca can be staged various different ways - as a modern disco (which would work OK as long as you don't bring in those stupid white dolls and start throwing them in the air), as a ballet with six professional dancers doing all the work and the chorus standing around looking pretty (which is patently ridiculous - Italians, apart from toddlers and geriatrics, don't stand around when people are dancing), or as a fairly traditional banquet-and-dance. In the latter case the lights can stay pretty well as they are, the action on stage will do all the mood-setting necessary.
Similarly at the end of the dance when El Don comes in. Fewer bodies on stage will actually create an impression that there's less light. That will be enough of a state change to set the right mood. But during the dialogue the state can gradually (imperceptibly) drop down to a more believable and less here-we-are-at-the-risk-of-our-lives level, in time for "There lived a king".
"In a contemplative fashion" should be fairly low but not so low we can't see their faces. Remember they're going to have a lot of acting on their faces, don't let it go to waste. A general wash and a sombre cyc plus a bit of white up-lighting on the singers downstage should meet the case.
Obviously from there it's a big change to "With ducal pomp". Guessing that the costumes are going to be fairly shiny a high lighting state won't actually be necessary. It has to be fairly yellow like early afternoon sunlight, and fairly even to light everyone.
The exit of the chorus will take us nicely down to a normal level of light on stage for the dialogue and the next two songs. In fact, nothing really has to happen until "Here is a case unprecedented", which can be given the same gradual-loss-of-marbles state as "But bless my heart".
For the finale, the entire plot of the show has to be sorted out and there's some pomp and ceremony going on too. During the orchestral bridge from the end of "when half of myself has married two thirds of ye or you" we need more of the white shafts in the stormy sky, to indicate that the thunderstorm in Casilda's mind isn't just brewing in the background, it's coming closer by the minute and is about to bucket down rain.
After the chorus finish interrupting Inez and agree to let her speak, she needs a fairly bright spot. Our attention should be on her already, but not having a spot on her actually makes it more difficult than you'd think, and we can't risk any of the audience missing out.
On the instance she says "Luiz!" we should have a sudden easing of the thunderstorm - the sun has come out from behind the clouds. At the same time Inez's spot has to come up so we don't lose her.
Then when Casilda suddenly realises the implications of this and rushes into his arms, we have to change state completely - although not too overtly. The storm clouds are immediately banished to the eastern horizon. A sunset with a red sky on the cyc, warm yellow light from above and in front, and just enough up and side lighting to make sure there's no ugly shadows on the stage. A spot or special on Luiz and Casilda and of course her bright smile (which we've missed seeing since "Oh rapture").
Keep it there until "Once more gondolieri". It's possible to make a case for a few other state changes for "When others claimed thy dainty hand" and his coronation, but it's not the time to get the audience on the edge of their seats. It's the time for them to sit back and share the contentedness the characters are feeling. We have a trumpet solo (hopefully better than most I've heard), a cheer and then we're back with our four favourite characters. Gradually back to the happy Venetian state, with a bit of that wedding pink for the key change and "Ah-ah once more gondolieri - gondolieri - gondolieri, contented are we". With appropriate staging and a soupcon of dancing, the audience should be on their feet applauding by the time the curtain drops.
... and if I were director, that is the kind of director I would be.