My audition for Ruddigore got off to a rather inauspicious start. Having left my own trumpet in Reading, and borrowed one from the instrument store, I swiftly discovered that the valve-oil that came with the rather battered trumpet I was using had something of a predilection for spending more time on my face and hands than on the actual instrument. Somehow, though, this – along with a rather awkward moment when the valves hadn’t realigned properly into the trumpet – was overlooked by our lovely Musical Director (MD), Alex, and so here we all are, just before opening night, preparing to help bring to life the production, by Exeter University Gilbert and Sullivan Society, of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-loved pieces. With that in mind, I thought I’d try to offer a glimpse of how the show’s been coming together from the perspective of the musicians.
In the Northcott Theatre, where we’ll be performing, the orchestra sit in the charmingly-named ‘pit’ – basically a recess below the stage – with the MD, who conducts the orchestra, being the only person who can see both us and the cast members as they tread the proverbial boards. Our job, then, is very much a supporting one: as a general rule, we set the conditions for the cast to perform at their best. We’re often the ‘bed’ for a lot of the musical numbers, something that this recording, from Cambridge G&S Society’s production of Ruddigore, demonstrates very well. The orchestra isn’t given any significant counter-melodies, and has the primary job of bringing alive the actor’s voice by echoing his key melodic phrases.
There are, of course, a couple of occasions where the orchestra gets more of a prominent role, the most exciting of which is perhaps the Overture. As in many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, the Overture to Ruddigore consists of a ‘potpourri’ of melodies from throughout the piece, which gives us a real opportunity to manage the audience’s expectations throughout the show. It opens with a spectacular sequence, reminiscent of the theme from the Danse macarbre, that seems almost to scream ‘shut up and listen!’ at the audience. A little later on in the Overture, the trumpets foreshadow a piece that isn’t actually heard until Act 2 – the Ancestors’ When the Night Wind Howls – before the traditional rousing finale gives the violins a virtuosic opportunity to pick up the ‘Matter trio’. By the time the Overture finishes, and the cast first enters, the stage should be set (literally) for a memorable performance.
As for the trumpets, our role in Ruddigore, as in many G&S works, is usually a supporting one. There are many numbers where the trumpets are absent entirely, as they tend to be a little too harsh to function effectively with anything other than melodies (although note, by way of any exception, He Yields!, where we have a rather technically-challenging pianissimo passage underneath atmospheric vocals from the male chorus). This presents something of a challenge when it comes to managing entries when we finally do play again: trumpets tend to sound slightly flat when cold, so it can be tough to (a) hit the right harmonic and (b) not over-compensate! There has actually been some proper academic work done on the difficulties inherent to trumpets in G&S: John Christopher Schuesselin’s doctoral thesis, ‘The Use of the Cornet in the Operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan’, puts it nicely in analysing an excerpt from Patience: that ‘the most difficult part of executing this excerpt successfully is sounding fresh after this long break.’ (p. 16)
All that aside, though, I wouldn’t change that for the world. The libretto for something like Ruddigore offers a glimpse into a world that’s at once ridiculous and sublime, but adding in the music – orchestral and vocal – is what makes it memorable. If you can come and see Ruddigore this week, I’d certainly recommend that you do, and do make sure to pay particular attention to the orchestration while you’re there. As for the cast … well, they’re brilliant, but bear in mind that they do sing choruses in public. That’s mad enough, I think.