Review: 'The Gondoliers' by Western CT State University Opera

Nancy Sasso Janis

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.” - W.S. Gilbert in 'The Gondoliers' 

Danbury, CT - WCSU Opera presented a visually beautiful and musically impressive production of ‘The Gondoliers,’ with a book by W.S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan, otherwise known as Gilbert and Sullivan. The university students were under the able direction of Dr. Margaret Astrup, who also did the choreography, and they were able to present their performances this past weekend on the stage of the MainStage Theatre at the Visual and Performing Arts Center on the WCSU Westside campus.

Since I had to look it up, I will share that ‘The Gondoliers’ or ‘The King of Barataria’ (1889) is a Savoy opera, a style of comic opera developed in late 19th century England, with Gilbert and Sullivan as the original and most successful writers. The name comes from the Savoy Theatre, which was built to house these works, and this style of opera has now become synonymous with Gilbert and Sullivan. Interestingly enough, these operas were seminal influences on the creation of the modern musical.

Modern musicals are certainly not easy (cue “Art isn’t easy”) but after enjoying the matinee of this production I came to realize that opera is hard! For two and half hours, the students sang lots of music, acted out scenes with lots of lines, danced a bit, and then sang some more. The large orchestra in the pit, under the direction of Dr. Fernando Jimenez, managed to keep up. There were lots of fussy costumes and wigs to manage and a gondola and a maypole thrown in for good measure. There were a lot of moving parts and even more notes (and some Italian) to memorize, and this large and well-rehearsed cast pulled it all off deftly.

Before the performance began, I read the tiny type in the five paragraph synopsis and then realized that it was only for act one; there was a much longer one on the next page for act two. Basically, a young bride of the heir to the throne of a fictional kingdom arrives in Venice with her parents to join her husband. There is a problem with identifying who he is due to a mixup at birth, so two young gondoliers (who have both recently married local girls) must jointly rule until a nurse can be forced to determine the rightful king. And of course, the queen-to-be is in love with another man. Truth be told, I had very little trouble following along and found the two acts a delightful romp through the story.

Gilbert and Sullivan used the stage for political commentary and to poke fun at the class system and the monarchy. What I really enjoyed were the customary insertions of very topical references into the spoken lines and lyrics. The first ones I noticed were spoken by the character Annibale, a Venetian gondolier (played by Christian C.J Janis) who is not overly impressed with the monarchs. During a discussion about doubling their allowance because there are two of them, the young man mentioned “fake news” in quotes, and references to tweets, Fox News, and intel briefings followed. There were also disparaging remarks about musicians thrown down into the pit.  So much fun.

At the matinee, junior Leanna O’Brien was wonderfully comic in the role of the Duchess, the mother of the young bride. She shared the role with senior Kaitlyn Carruthers, who appeared at the later performances. Third year vocal performance major Edwin Rodriguez (Kaspar in ‘Amahl the and Night Visitors’) was her husband the Duke and made the role a memorable one. I saw WAMS grad Olivia Conforti sing the role of their daughter Casilda and the beautiful operatic soprano of this fourth year music ed major was a joy to hear. She shared the role with WCSU senior Arianna Carlo.

Matthew Johnson in his last production at WCSU was very cute as their drummer Luiz. Daniel Satter (Balthazar in ‘Amahl’) was both stern and cheeky as a minister Don Alhambra.

There was a story to go with the casting of the young men sharing the throne, literally. At the last minute, sophomore Samuel Cournoyer stepped up into the leading role of Giuseppe, with only a week’s worth of rehearsal left, and he did an amazing job with covering the role. Freshman Adam Giard stepped into Samuel’s role of Antonio. Sergio Mandujano played Marco at all performances. The local girls wed in the first act to the pair of gondoliers were played by senior Katherine Marsh as Gianetta (who shared with Taylor Doyle) and second year vocal performance major Amy Cerbie as Tessa (shared with mezzo-soprano Nicole Salamon.)

Other singers included Natalie Andrews/Christine Manalo as Fiametta, Eden Wright/Gabriela Jimenez as Vittoria, Samantha Bank/Kayla Hansen as Giulia, Michael Newman of Naugatuck as Francesco, junior Daniel Rehberg as Giorgio, Emilia Vega/Katie Kelly as Inez and my very talented freshman son as Annibale. The gondoliers were played by men in white tights, namely William Liam Alldredge of Naugatuck, Adam Giard, Tyler Goff, Christian Janis, Zach Nelson, Michael Newman, Dan Rehberg, Peter Ryan and Larry Weatherspoon. Congratulations to all the young ladies who appeared as contadine, Italian peasant women.

The sunny set was designed by Maiko Chii with lighting designed by Scott Cally. I loved the Italian costumes designed by Matthew Dettmer; however, I thought the first houndstooth dress for Casilda swallowed her up, while her second act change was infinitely better.

I am always so impressed with productions at Western, and this opera was no exception. I look forward to their future productions.