This February, McGill’s oldest theatre company celebrates its 55th season with one of its most charming stage spectacles to date.
Stunning scenic elements, clever staging, fine voices, and a lush-sounding orchestra depict and define the McGill Savoy Society‘s Ruddigore (or, alternatively, The Witch’s Curse: An Entirely Original Supernatural Opera!), which first raised it curtains last Friday, February 8th at the university campus’ picturesque Moyse Hall.
In the thrill and fever of opening weekend, Co-Producer Marc Ducusin and Stage Co-Directors Coralie Heiler and Stefania Bertrand spoke to Montreal Theatre Hub’s Camila Fitzgibbon about the company’s latest artistic endeavour, which closes this Saturday the 16th after a speedy six-show run. Read our in-depth, hybrid interview/review piece below.
Brainchild of the famed English duo of librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, Ruddigore is an operatic parody of stock melodrama and Victorian morbidity — the villain who carries off the beautiful village maiden; the hero in disguise; love triangles; and ghosts coming to haunting life to enforce a witch’s curse. In this topsy-turvy tale of dualities in human nature, however, moral absolutes are turned upside down: good becomes bad, bad becomes good, and heroes take the easy way out.
Part social satire, part horror story, its great joy lies as much in its ability to immobilize with fear as in its potential to paralyze with laughter – and this novel rendering finds its balance in both.
Having first produced Ruddigore in 1969 and most recently in 2011, The McGill Savoy Society here presents the piece for a subsequent time in its impressive menu of main stage offerings in what proves to be a delectable serving of pastoral choruses, mock-Wagnerian orchestrations, and frenzied patter songs that enhance Gilbert and Sullivan’s wry send-up of gothic melodrama.
“Supernatural” is indeed the look and feel – and one Savoy does well.
“It’s a perfect follow-up to last year’s Iolanthe,” begins Marc Ducusin, who, here in co-production with Irina Ghitulescu, leads a creative team that boasts stage directors Coralie Heiler and Stefania Bertrand and musical directors Stefano Saykaly and Nicholas Gallant.
Lending palpable professional touches to the fetching spectacle are lighting designer Francis Lefort, sound designer Dimitri Condax, and set designer Zoe Roux, who was recently named ‘Outstanding Emerging Artist in Production’ at the 2018 Montreal English Theatre Awards. After costuming Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance, Nicole Heiler returns to outfit Ruddigore’s Regency-era bridesmaids and ghostly noblemen. The design elements are an audiovisual feast, and in service of the directorial vision.
Ducusin continues: “in our previous show, Coralie and Roger (Andrews) played around with the supernatural power that the fairies could exert over unsuspecting mortals; here, Coralie and Stefania integrate the depiction of magic even more extensively throughout Ruddigore’s ghost scenes.”
Heiler, who most recently assistant-directed the McGill Savoy Society’s 2018 production of Iolanthe with the late Andrews, stepped forward to take the reins this year in realizing that “the challenge of an unusual show like Ruddigore was too good to pass up.”
Bertrand, who grew up listening to opera and was in Lakeshore Light Opera’s Pirates of Penzance before leaving to study at the Randolph College for Performing Arts in Toronto, credits her “great love for gothic literature, history, and classical repertoire” as precedents for her interest and ultimate involvement in the creation.
Together, they tackle the challenges of staging a “dark horse” of the classical canon in renewed appeal to modern-day audiences..
First premiering in London in 1887 after the tremendous success of The Mikado, Ruddigore was originally considered a flop under the lofty expectations established by its predecessor. As a result, the composition has been heavily edited through generations, with numerous versions now circulating in existence.
“Putting this work together thus meant browsing various sources and scores to select what would be the most interesting,” reveal the co-directors.
Despite arguably being one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most darkly humorous and thematically cohesive works, the very mention of the operetta genre, much like its serious counterpart opera, still threatened the show’s ability to intrigue 21st century spectators.
“Classical music is appreciated by a specific group of individuals and not necessarily by the general public,” the duo of directors proceed to explain. “In today’s society, most will gravitate towards popular music due to its catchy melodies and simple verses. Yet, operettas did give birth to musical theatre, which many do not know.”
Savoy has been praised for making the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire accessible to Montreal theatregoers for over five decades years now, and Ruddigore is no exception. While the creative vision for the revival graciously preserves the historical and cultural integrity of the original opus, expect a vital, effervescent reimagining.
“Our new version, like our previous two shows, is in many respects a more traditional rendering of the operetta, but one that the directors and performers make fresh with their energy and attitude,” ascertains Ducusin.
Having two female figures spearhead the production is also an auspicious move as increasing social importance has been placed on the need for women in positions of power and creative control in all fields – including theatre.
Bertrand and Heiler reflect on the collaboration. “Working with a female co-director has been wonderful. We are aware of the pressures that are associated with directing and being women. We understand the stresses the other experiences through our artistic choices. We are questioned and challenged daily. It is nice to have someone by your side who will not only empathize, but who will fight for you as well. It is good to have someone in your corner; to have a partner.”
On the most rewarding aspects of working on this project, the co-directors agree: “seeing our actors willing to accept new challenges; nailing those high notes; mastering a new dance move; discovering new facets of their characters and themselves.”
Ruddigore is a showcase for young and emerging talent on the scene, and among the performances witnessed (certain lead roles are double cast) are those of Angela Marino (as Rose Maybud), Matthew Erskine (Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd/Robin Oakapple), Jonathan Howes (Sir Despard Murgatroyd), Allyson Goff (Mad Margaret), Aaron Meredith (Richard Dauntless), Sara Wunsch (Dame Hannah), Arthur Anderson (Sir Roderic Murgatroyd), and Richard Orlando (Old Adam/Gideon Crawle). An ensemble of seven bridesmaids and five gentry complete the lively troupe to deliver a lyrical two-act event of heightened dialogue, song, and dance.
“The professionalism each person brings and their willingness to challenge themselves,” is what the creative forces ultimately attribute the success of the show to. Savoy is a breeding ground for skill, and its displays of quality performances and high technical production value for an amateur troupe are what keep loyal patrons returning season after season.
Hoping to now draw its broadest audience yet, the team emphasizes the universal themes and messages of Ruddigore.
It can be difficult to gather the show’s relevancy in this day and age, but, “like many classical pieces, it ultimately transcends time due to its human nature”, the team echoes. “It tells the story of people who struggle with who they are and what they are meant to do. It’s the eternal fight of duty versus one’s own desires. It is also about love, be it friendship or romantic, and its challenges. These are all issues that many audiences can relate to and can associate with. There is truly a little something for everyone.”
Expect a spine-chilling and gut-busting experience in this delightful theatrical affair, playing for only 3 more performances this weekend.
Ruddigore is affectionally dedicated to the memory of Roger Andrews.
Performances: February 8, 9, 15, 16, 2019
Venue: Moyse Hall, McGill Arts Building (853 Sherbrooke St. West)
Admission: $12 – $25 (Student, senior, QDF and group discounts available)
Box Office: www.mcgillsavoy.ca