Theater fans asked to pick a favorite among Gilbert and Sullivan operas are unlikely to agree on the 1888 “Yeomen of the Guard, or, the Merryman and His Maid.”
Against such G&S hits as “The Pirates of Penzance,” “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “Yeomen” is relatively little-known and not often performed.
It also is a relatively dark work, without the comedy and all-around happy endings of its musical siblings. Surprisingly, leaders of San Francisco’s Lamplighters Music Theatre, among the most experienced G&S specialists outside England, are speaking up for “Yeomen” as their favorite.
Lamplighters is producing the work around the Bay this month — performances are this weekend in San Francisco — with company music director Baker Peeples and artistic director Barbara Heroux in charge.
Peeples parried the obvious question about a temporary prejudice before it could be asked.
“I love all the G&S operas, and usually find that my favorite is the one I’m working on at the moment,” he says. “But ‘Yeomen’ is the one that means the most to me. I have sung the role of Col. Fairfax in five productions, and conducted it once before. I always find the particular combination of romance, humor and pathos exhilarating; and [composer Arthur] Sullivan is absolutely at the top of his game in this opera.”
Heroux shares the conductor’s opinion.
“It is my absolute favorite of all the G&S shows, and I’ve done ’em all, as a chorus singer, lead or director, and in many cases all three,” she says. “It has wonderful characters — real people who do things that are sometimes smart, sometimes dumb, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic. We really come to care about these people and what happens to them. I love that kind of involvement, as an audience member and as a director.”
Yeomen are members of the ceremonial bodyguard of the British monarch. The opera is set in the Tower of London in Shakespearean times, although Lamplighters have moved it up almost a century, to the 1640s.
The plot is unchanged: Col. Fairfax, an admirable gentleman-soldier and scientist, is sentenced to be beheaded on a false charge of sorcery. To avoid leaving his estate to his cousin, who brought the accusation, Fairfax secretly marries a singer, who expects to become a rich window quickly. When Fairfax escapes, all is thrown into confusion, and the opera unfolds.
Describing the changed time period, Heroux says the political turmoil and beheading of Charles I work well in the story, which is full of plots and lies and intrigue — “a time when everybody was looking over their shoulder, afraid to speak openly, not knowing who might be listening or what side they might be on.
“It also lets us put the men in that really attractive Cyrano/Three Musketeers look,” she says.
IF YOU GO
Yeomen of the Guard
Presented by Lamplighters Music Theatre
Where: Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $19 to $47
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.lamplighters.org