The Opera Australia Gondoliers (1989)

Duke of Plaza-ToroRobert Gard
LuizMartin Croft
Don AlhambraDennis Olsen
MarcoDavid Hobson
GiuseppeRoger Lemke
AntonioNeil Kirkby
FrancescoDavid Collins-White
GiorgioDavid Hibbard
AnnibaleRobert Mitchell
Duchess of Plaza-Toro   Graeme Ewer
CasildaFiona Maconaghie
GianettaChristine Douglas
TessaSuzanne Johnston
FiamettaElizabeth Ellis
VittoriaPrudence Dunstone
GiuliaCaroline Clack
InezJennifer Bermingham

Opera Australia Chorus
Elizabethan Philharmonic Orchestra
Additional Lyrics: Melvyn Morrow
Director and Choreographer: Brian Macdonald
Revised Orchestrations: Berthold Carrière
Conductor: Dobbs Franks

DVD Cover
Image Entertainment DVD Cover

This video production is very closely based on the Stratford Festival production, down to the casting of a man as the Duchess of Plaza-Toro. That production has long been despised by most G&S fans for its gratuitous updating, and the Opera Australia manages to do worse.

To begin with, numerous songs are entirely rewritten. I am tolerant of rewrites when the original lyrics are no longer comprehensible. But, to completely discard Gilbert in song after song is a travesty, especially when the new author, Melvyn Morrow, makes mince-meat of Gilbert's well-crafted meters.

"Then one us will be a queen," "Rising early in the morning," "There lived a king," "Small titles and orders," and "On the day when I was wedded" are among the songs that Morrow has completely gutted — there are probably one or two others that my mind has blocked out. Frankly, the new lyrics were so difficult to follow that I just tuned them out after a while.

Then we have Berthold Carrière's revised orchestrations, which are occasionally harmless, but are usually tasteless and disrupt the beautifully contoured proportions of Sullivan's score. Particularly offensive is the insertion of "God Save the Queen" in "Regular royal queen."

Dramatically, the scenes involving only the gondoliers and contadine are't bad, although the chorus doesn't seem emotionally involved. But, the scenes involving Don Alhambra and the ducal party are atrocious. Graeme Ewer's Duchess is offensive, while Robert Gard's Duke is just humorless.

Worst of all is Dennis Olsen's Don Alhambra. Like Richard McMillan in the Stratford production, Olsen speaks in a Spanish accent. Unlike McMillan's, Olsen's accent is entirely unfunny, not even Spanish-sounding, and turns his dialogue to mush. I only barely understood him.

Director Brian Macdonald reels off a few useful scenic effects. The comparatively sparse scenery evokes Venice while leaving a large stage floor open for the action. But, most of what happens is just not worth watching.

The production has been issued on DVD, and correspondent TP Chai reports: "It is a pretty bad disc as far as DVD goes. The picture is grainy, and the sound is atrocious. It sounds very digitized or compressed. The Stratford ones are even 'better', if that's possible!"

Robert Morrison wrote:

I agree with your assessment of Olsen's performance as Don Alhambra, but in his defence I have to say that it was an unfortunate abberation in an otherwise blameless G & S career and was very much a case of 'casting against type', for which one can lay the blame with the stage Director, Brian Macdonald. Olsen was evidently required to conform to the Director's conception of the role, 'Spanish' accent and all, (carried over from Mcdonald's earlier staging of the opera for the Canadian Stratford Festival), and so he gritted his teeth and collected his pay cheques at the end of the week. Olsen is far more effective and humourous as the Duke of Plaza Torro, (a role that he has played on stage on a number of occasions, including an earlier 'traditional' production for the Opera Australia in 1977-78), as his recordings of the Duke's songs will bear witness. Of the 1989 production of The Gondoliers — I saw it once on TV and once was enough! Although it contained a number of imaginative touches, (such as the commedia dell'arte mime during the overture), it took far too many liberties for my taste — chief among them being the 'pantomime dame' Duchess of Plaza Toro, for which there seemed to be no logical reason except a gratuitous desire to be different for the sake of being different!

Interestingly in a programme biography, Olsen was quoted as saying: "...I'm afraid I'm more of a traditionalist than is fashionable these days. I do wish people would stop messing about with it quite so much because they're not trusting the pieces. The fact that they stand all sorts of treatments shows what good works they are, of course"; so perhaps his true feelings towards this Gondoliers production can be guessed at — although I'm sure that he is far too discreet to actually say so! (Perhaps significantly, while the Opera Australia productions of Patience and The Mikado have been revived on a number of occasions, this particular version of The Gondoliers has not been seen — in Melbourne at any rate — since 1989!)

Issue History
1989 Polygram VHS PAL 0792383
1989? ABC Video VHS PAL 12666
2000 Image Entertainment DVD [need number]