a first night review…
I was delighted to be asked to review the White Horse Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, Iolanthe, at Lavington School this week. Delighted, but slightly nervous. Opera, or operetta, apart from a brief flirtation with The Yeoman of the Guard in my youth, isn’t my cup of tea. But I’m up for a challenge, and it really was about time I popped my White Horse Opera cherry.
I looked it up online and what I read tickled me. Fairies and the House of Lords. Bit of magic and a bit of satire. Interesting.
First performed in London in 1882, Iolanthe, also known as ‘The Peer And The Peri’, took a mischievous jab at the high society of the time in this bizarre tale of a Fairy who has been banished for wedding a mortal, Strephon her son, a half-man, half-fairy sort of bloke, Phyllis, the mortal object of his (and everyone else’s) affections, various vociferous Fairies; a conflicted Lord Chancellor; and assorted beery leery Peers.
Phyllis reciprocates Strephon’s love, but the Lord Chancellor, even though he is her legal guardian, also has his eye on her, and forbids Strephon from marrying her. When Phyllis catches Strephon talking to Iolanthe about the situation and mistakes the ever youthful Fairy for a lover, she rejects him and says that she will marry a Peer. The Fairy Queen and her crew, unimpressed with the Lord Chancellor and the Peers, put Strephon into Parliament and give him the power to pass any bill he likes…
It’s all a bit tricky really, what with the law about Fairies marrying mortals being punishable by death, the Lord Chancellor’s paradoxical legal dilemma, the state of the political nation, forbidden desires, cosmic compromises, and everyone falling in love with everyone else. One could get quite deep about it, even (it’s his bottom half that’s mortal, by the way, in case you were wondering), what with all those rampant Fairies and randy Lords, Pagans and the Establishment, intellectual conflicts, ancient energies in tension, and stuff…
Or one could just enjoy a jolly good romp. So to speak.
Well directed by Graham Billing, with superb musical direction by Roland Melia, the show was visually and aurally gripping from the outset. The orchestra was tight and melodious throughout. The acoustics were great (how mellow was that cello!). The scenery, consisting of a screen backdrop of a flowing stream and a static image of the Houses of Parliament, was simple but effective. The fairy dresses and butterfly wings were pretty, the Peers looked authentic, and the choreography was energetic. It was, with the exception of a couple of minor hesitations, pretty slick for a first night.
A few voices stuck out a mile; Phyllis’s (Lisa House) beautiful soaring soprano, Lord Mountarat’s (Matt Dauncey) confident baritone, Iolanthe’s (Paula Boyagis) sweet mezzo-soprano, and Private Willis’s (Charles Leeming) sonorous bass. Phyllis and Strephon’s (Jon Paget) duet ‘None Shall Part Us From Each Other’, and the Peers’ robust entry with ‘Loudly Let The Trumpet Bray’, got the old goosebumps going good and proper, and I couldn’t fault the whole cast harmonies.
As far as the acting went, good performances all round, but special mention to Matt Dauncey and Jon Paget again, Chrissie Higgs as the feisty Leila and Jessica Phillips as Celia, and Sue Goodman as the scary and imposing Queen of the Fairies. Oh, and all of the Peers, who were truly amusing, delivered some delicious little cameos, played every moment with gusto, and ripped the Michael out of the aristocracy beautifully.
I’d like to have seen little more evidence of eternal youth and a tad more spring in the step of the Fairy ranks at times. And a couple of voices took a while to warm up, or sounded better in some songs than others. Stephen Grimshaw as the Lord Chancellor and Dennis Carter as Lord Tolloller impressed more in the second act, with Grimshaw nailing the complicated patter song ‘Love, Unrequited, Robs Me Of My Rest’, and Carter seeming more comfortable as time went on.
Picky, really, but had to be said. Small spots of imperfection in an otherwise impeccable show that will doubtless be ironed out by Saturday.
I loved this show. I spent much of the evening tapping my foot and smiling. It was lively and engaging from the moment the orchestra struck their first chord. You know a show’s been good when you haven’t taken your eyes off the stage or thought about domestic trivia for the entire length of it. The ensemble pieces were well executed and fun to watch, the comic timing was spot on all round, and the sound was full and satisfying.
I enjoyed the surprise of the current political references, and the relevance of the story to the present day. The visual spectacle. The rollicking ride. The glorious flighty flirtiness of it all. And the stuff about the law and the lore. What’s in a word, eh? The lives of men and fairies, according to Gilbert and Sullivan.
(Interesting Iolanthe fact; fairy lights first appeared in the form of the battery operated star shaped lights worn in the hair of Iolanthe’s fairies in the first year of its run).
Iolanthe is an odd, thought-provoking opera about sex and politics that comes heavily disguised as a sparkly frivolous thing. I reckon the production team and experienced cast of the White Horse Opera did it more than justice. It exceeded my expectations, and I enjoyed popping my opera cherry very much. How lucky are we to have quality opera like this out in the wilds of Wiltshire?
Therefore, even though I did say once that I never wanted to see Ian Diddams in a onesie and the Muppets were a tad incongruous, I’m giving Iolanthe…
Eight out of ten.
© Gail Foster 13th October 2017