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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Movie Review: Topsy-Turvy

Jim Broadbent as W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy. © 1999 USA Films

Mike Leigh's affectionate, (mostly) factual and painstakingly detailed account of the partnership of William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan--and the near dissolution of their partnership before writing The Mikado--might be the greatest backstage opera movie in recent memory. And it's being released on March 29 as part of the Criterion Collecton.

The film is set in 1884. Gilbert & Sullivan were coming off Princess Ida, a box-office bomb. Sullivan, newly knighted, was itching to write "serious" music. Gilbert was working on a new story idea, involving a magic lozenge--which Sullivan wanted nothing to do with. At a creative impasse, Gilbert hit upon the idea of setting an English farce in far-away Japan. The result: The Mikado.

Mr. Leigh's film takes you inside the world of these two creative geniuses, thanks to tour de force performances by Jim Broadbent and Alan Corduner as the librettist and composer, respectively. Mr. Broadbent plays Gilbert as a curmudgeon--the funniest man in England who can amuse the masses but barely cracks a smile. He is an irascible jerk, cold and distant to his wife, and absolute hell on his actors.
Allan Corduner as Sir Arthur Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy. © 1999 USA Films
Mr. Corduner does not pull punches with the portrayal of Sir Arthur. The composer is a drug-addicted mess who goes whoring in Paris and can barely get out of bed to conduct the Ida premiere. But the depravities of both men are redeemed by their respective creative genius, and the sheer alchemy that results when they put their minds together on a project.

And what alchemy it is. The core of Topsy-Turvy is a cracking series of lovingly staged excerpts from The Mikado, The Sorceror and Princess Ida, showcasing the multi-talented cast of singig actors--who all did their own work. Timothy Spall is memorable as Richard Temple, the bass whose booming "Mikado" aria nearly meets Gilbert's snicker-snee. Martin Savage is sufficiently decayed as the opium-addicted George Grossmith who originated the role of Ko-Ko. The supporting cast includes brief (but brilliant turns from Andy Serkis, Dexter Fletcher and

The female leads are strong as well. Shirley Henderson, (Leonora Braham/Yum-Yum) Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond/Pitti-Sing) and Lesley Manville (Mrs. Gilbert) are all appealing. The elegant Eleanor David plays singer Fanny Ronalds: Sullivan's mistress. A scene where she and the composer duet on his song "The Lost Chord" at a recital provides the most sublime moment of the early going, while Ms. Henderson's verion of "The Sun Whose Rays" ends the film on a perfect, wistful note.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.