English National Opera – Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe; directed by Cal McCrystal; conducted by Timothy Henty

Gilbert & Sullivan
Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri – Comic Opera in two Acts; libretto by W. S. Gilbert with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan [with English surtitles]

Lord Chancellor – Andrew Shore
Lord Mountararat – Ben McAteer
Lord Tolloller – Ben Johnson
Private Willis – Barnaby Rea
Phyllis – Ellie Laugharne
The Queen of the Fairies – Yvonne Howard
Iolanthe – Samantha Price
Strephon – Marcus Farnsworth
Celia – Llio Evans
Leila – Joanne Appleby
Fleta – Flick Fernandino
Page boy – Richard Leeming

Captain Shaw – Clive Mantle [add-on role]

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Timothy Henty

Cal McCrystal – Director
Paul Brown – Designer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting
Lizzi Gee – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 13 February, 2018
Venue: The Coliseum, London

English National Opera – Gilbert & Sullivan’s IolanthePhotograph: Clive BardaProfessional productions of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe are relatively infrequent. The temptation to update and make the butt of the political jokes more topical must have been immense, and that element is wisely left untouched here. The staging is particularly arresting visually. The designs of the late Paul Brown, set under a gleaming gilded proscenium arch of a Victorian theatre are colourful and opulent and manage the transitions from fairy-ring to pastoral Arcadia and later from without the Palace of Westminster to various settings within it very effectively. The arrival of the peers is certainly an unexpected visual coup! Overall, there is more than a sense of recreating the glorious history of the Savoy Operas. Brown’s costumes designs are a riot of colour, particularly for the chorus of fairies, and indeed there is a very energetic choreographic demand by Lizzi Gee, dispatched with considerable aplomb.

There is much to enjoy from the pit too – with Timothy Henty relishing his chance to show Sullivan’s masterful orchestration using a new edition. The scoring is clearer and brighter, and freshly minted as played by the ENO Orchestra. The catchy tunes have the required swagger, and the more restrained moments catch exactly the right pathos, without becoming schmaltzy; the moments where the music points the humour are deftly accentuated.

English National Opera – Gilbert & Sullivan’s IolanthePhotograph: Clive BardaAs a specialist in buffo roles Andrew Shore is an excellent Lord Chancellor. His brilliant diction, sense of timing and genial stage presence coupled with his ability to make the absurd seem plausible is on show. On this first night he was also good at getting the audience to sing-along in ‘When I went to the Bar’ – not sure what Gilbert would have thought of that, but anyway! Marcus Farnsworth is an effective and amusingly gauche Strephon, more dominant in his shepherd career than his parliamentary one. Barnaby Rea is an imposing Private Willis, musing on the political divides of the populace with both dramatic and vocal resonance. As the hereditary peers Ben Johnson and Ben McAteer are nicely differentiated; the latter comes close to stealing the show with ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’.

The Queen of the Fairies is the most interesting of the female roles, and Yvonne Howard certainly makes the most of it, deploying some wonderfully cavernous low chest voice to comedic effect, and also singing with great beauty. Ellie Laugharne brings a bright and silvery vocalism to Phyllis, and Samantha Price is an amusingly ditsy Iolanthe, singing with great warmth, although her words could have been more distinct.

English National Opera – Gilbert & Sullivan’s IolanthePhotograph: Clive BardaAll good so far, BUT … but the staging is very busy, and there is re-writing and additions to the dialogue. Does Gilbert’s innuendo really need enhancing in such a nudge-nudge wink-wink way? Does a tap dance really have a place in G&S? If you answer “yes”, then should the vocalists be asked to do it whilst singing and thereby obliterate any chance of your hearing their words? It felt as if Cal McCrystal was saying that it doesn’t matter as you’ve got the surtitles!

Do we really need Captain Shaw as an extra character, acting as compere holding our hand at the start of each Act and pre-empting the musical jokes? Sure, the fire-fighting gag was funny – but only once! Similarly, the knockabout antics of the page – less would have been so much more; likewise, the visual gags involving the birds, animals and their handlers. Gilbertian satire is better presented with focus, artlessness and charm.

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