We had noticed that the Madison Gilbert and Sullivan group, the Savoyards, was to be performing “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” this year, and got tickets on impulse. The rather unusual timing of the Sunday performance—4:00PM—worked well for us, since it meant we were able to drive to Madison in a leisurely fashion, have a late lunch, window shop, take in the show, have an ice cream, and still get home at a reasonable hour. I knew the basic plot of “Ruddigore” but had never seen it or heard much of the music so was quite interested. The Savoyards are a semi-amateur group, and typically assemble casts from a few professionals, university music students, and community members. In this case, the cast was very good indeed. The production was updated to the 1960’s (chiefly a matter of set and costume as the book was unchanged except for a very few local-reference jokes) with the first act set on London’s Carnaby Street, which actually worked rather well. (As usual, I had a few costume quibbles--). The show opened with a humorous mum-show over the overture, depicting the witch’s curse and the subsequent villainy and demise of various of the Baronets Ruddigore. Julia Foster in the role of Rose Maybud showed off a beautiful voice (she is in a Master’s program at Eastman, understandably) and a sprightly acting style, working her business with the holy book of etiquette very nicely. Baritone Dan Weinstein as Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd/Robin Oakapple was not quite Foster’s match in voice, but did an excellent acting job expressing the character’s multiple frustrations—his inability to court Rose, consternation when Richard Dauntless steals her, and when the doom of Ruddigore is thrust upon him. The principals were ably supported by the choruses of bridesmaids and baronets, and by Melissa Brooks-Greene as the scene stealing Mad Margaret, and Vincent Rideout, who ably exploited an uncanny resemblance to Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast” as Sir Despard Murgatroyd.
We had heard from a friend that last year’s Savoyards production of “The Gondoliers” was rather lifeless, but did not find that to be the case with “Ruddigore”. The production moved at a good clip and in a sprightly fashion, for which both the conductor, Michael Alexander, and the stage director, Brian R. Bizzell, can be thanked.
The performance took place in the University of Wisconsin’s “old” Music Hall, which is one of the campus’ older buildings, but has recently been re-remodeled. Originally a very basic lecture/recital hall, when the venue became the primary performance space for the University Opera, an orchestra “pit” was added by the simple expedient of cutting a pit-shaped hole in the floor in front of the proscenium and putting the orchestra in the basement! The conductor stands on a rather tall podium and is visible to both the musicians and the singers on stage. Unlikely as it may seem, this actually works very well. The newly refurbished interior of the hall has a very good sound, and orchestra and singers were well balanced.
We enjoyed the performance immensely, and were glad to have made the effort to get there. (The real effort came getting home, when we drove into a torrential downpour covering much of Waukesha and Milwaukee counties, which at times was tantamount to driving submerged. Oh, well, you have to pay for your fun--.) I can, however, see why “Ruddigore” is among the less performed G&S pieces. Although the music and lyrics are clever, it seems to lack memorable tunes, and the well-known solution to the Ruddigore curse just pops up at the end with very little preparation compared to the amount of time spent on the Ruthven/Richard/Rose triangle or the history of the bad baronets, so it seems a bit underdone. We will have to keep tabs on Savoyards performances in the future.