Sometimes, there's just no option but to put your hand up and admit to having a glaringingly wide gap in your cultural knowledge. I have many such holes in my repertoire; I have never, for example, seen The Sound of Music all the way through (a record which Mr Liz is doing his best to ensure I maintain), and I managed to get through the whole of the nineties without once being exposed to a single episode of Cold Feet, Northern Exposure or Frasier.
Nor had I ever - until last night - had anything whatsoever to do with Gilbert and Sullivan. I had some general ideas, of course, involving vague notions of two avuncular English gentlemen, beloved of old ladies and amateur operatic associations the length and breadth of Britain, and in my head confusingly combined with an image of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in waistcoats and top hats.
So when the always-reliable Opera North announced they were bringing Ruddigore - one of G & S's least known operettas - back to The Lowry in Salford after a triumphant run in 2010, it seemed churlish not to take the chance to go and have a look. Even Mr Liz was enthusiastic at the prospect, no doubt due in no small part to the question Opera North are posing with this year's production - "Are the old jokes still the best?" As Mr Liz grew up in the age of Benny Hill and Les Dawson, and appears himself not to possess a single joke more recent than 1978, this was always going to be right up his street.
Nor did it disappoint. Ruddigore - or The Witch's Curse - is billed as "a comic opera in two acts", and was first performed in 1887, the era of some of Mr Liz's very best jokes. It wasn't a complete success at the time, as the audiences who had been so thrilled by the novelty of G & S's previous work, The Mikado, now found themselves watching a comic slice of social satire, parodying the melodramas so beloved of the Victorians, complete with ghosts, a mad woman, and a properly old-school, be-caped villain. Naturally, such sophisticated, complex humour is perfect for someone who is SO high-brow they have a video of a bear dancing round a tree saved on their laptop to watch whenever a quick pick-me-up is needed.
*has a quick watch of bear dancing round tree. Laughs, a LOT*
The opera follows the complicated love life of Rose Maybud, the darling of the town, who checks her every move in her book of etiquette and is secretly in love with Robin Oakapple, a humble local farmer. They sing a lovely duet together and everything looks most promising - except for one, minor, inconvenience. Robin is not Robin at all, but is actually Ruthven Murgatroyd - yes, I too would change my name - the Baron of Ruddigore who seemingly died ten years ago. Turns out Robin has lain low for all this time not merely to avoid having a name like Ruthven Murgatroyd, but instead to avoid the curse of Ruddigore, whereby the current Baronet is forced by his ancestors to commit a daily crime.
Rose is on the brink of marrying Robin when his younger brother Despard, the current Baronet, bursts in to the church after a tip-off from a jilted sailor who Rose has passed over in favour of lovely farmer Oakwood. But wait! Despard is removing his villain's top hat and cape, and passing them over to the rightful Baronet, a simple farmer no longer. And all this is just the first act - definitely time for a glass of wine and a regroup.
The second act is even better. Opera North are always ambitious with their staging, and the scene where all the dead Baronets come to life and emerge from their portraits is worth the ticket price all on its own. As they glow into being and return to the physical world, it becomes clear that it's going to take a pretty ludicrous plotline to save Robin/Ruthven from the slow, painful death that accompanies the breaking of the curse; I shan't spoil it for you...and frankly it's so barking it would take too long to explain.
Overall, I can summarise thus:
1. Opera North are brilliant, consistently proving that opera doesn't have to be stuffy and boring.
2. I too would like to be followed around by a chorus in the guise of a troop of "professional bridesmaids", always on the hopeful lookout for a spot of romance that might lead to matrimony, and ever ready with a jaunty song, skip and handful of confetti to throw if a marriage looks likely. I will pay for this if necessary.
3. There are some seriously good voices in this cast - we particularly liked Grant Doyle as goodie/baddie Robin/Ruthven, and Steven Page as the ten-years-dead Sir Roderic Murgatroyd.
4. Conductor Timothy Henty is young, and talented, and brilliant - he has a genuine enthusiasm for this opera that is infectious, and NO-ONE can resist a conductor who is visibly enjoying himself throughout the performance.
5. We did NOT like the character of Mad Margaret, Despard's old love, driven crazy by his treatment of her. Yes, I know it's satire, but we thought the part completely over-acted and all a bit uncomfortable. Everybody else seemed to love her though.
6. We enjoyed the music, despite having been warned that G & S are a bit like Marmite (presumably in terms of being something you love or hate, as opposed to them being excellent on toast as a late-night snack). Mr Liz was delighted that the songs were memorable enough for me to serenade him all the way home with a selection of show tunes.
7. Gilbert and Sullivan are indeed beloved by old people, of whom there were approximately nine million in the toilet queue at any given time.
8. And finally? Yes, the old jokes are still the best. I'll take a twirly-moustached villain with a cane and a bunch of dead men running round dancing with skeletons over high-brow entertainment ANY day of the week.
There's another chance to see Ruddigore at The Lowry this Thursday - see the Opera North or Lowry websites for details, and then go and practise your best mwah-ha-ha laugh - you'll need it.