Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida – Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, Simon Butteriss & Catherine Wyn-Rogers; OAE conducted by John Wilson


Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert [sung in English]

Princess Ida – Sophie Bevan
Prince Hilarion – Benjamin Hulett
King Hildebrand – Robert Hayward
King Gama / Narrator – Simon Butteriss
Lady Blanche – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Lady Psyche – Bethany Horak-Hallett
Melissa – Marlena Devoe
Cyril – Ruairi Bowen
Florian – Charles Rice
Arac – Morgan Pearse
Guron – Robert Davies
Scynthius – Jonathan Brown
Sacharissa – Claire Ward

Chorus & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 7 June, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Gilbert & Sullivan fans generally regard Princess Ida (1884) as one of the duo’s finest achievements, a sequence within its inspired score in particular earning it the plaudit ‘a string of pearls’ from one commentator. In this musically fine, but truncated, performance it’s essentially the pearls we get without the string, as the dialogue is reduced to a summarised narration by Simon Butteriss and theatrically delivered, with a few jokes and comments upon contemporary affairs thrown in (“Princess Ida is no actress trying to dupe a prince but has brains of her own”).

That has a certain camp wit which helps to reinterpret Gilbert’s wry humour for the present time, given that this apparent satire on female education (the opera was written when all-female colleges were a new phenomenon) and a drama predicated upon a purely binary understanding of gender is problematic for current sensibilities. But as those with an informed knowledge of Gilbert’s work know, as in all the operas he doesn’t attack any particular identity per se, but rather entrenched, doctrinaire positions and personal foibles and incompetence in general, which lead to the topsy-turvy absurdities depicted, when characters doggedly pursue their fixations without the ability to laugh at themselves or see that ‘it really doesn’t matter’ (to quote the famous patter song from Ruddigore). In this case the concept of an all-female university of Castle Adamant has a good deal to say potently in relation to the ‘toxic masculinity’ of a patriarchal world in which the infant Ida was betrothed to Prince Hilarion twenty years previously, and the latter’s father now seeks to enforce the promise and declare war against her father, Gama – which his dim-witted sons are only too happy to prosecute, lacking in intelligence themselves as they readily admit.

Butteriss’s vivacious choreography in this semi-staging doesn’t let anybody off the hook therefore (least of all his own role, King Gama) so it’s a pity that the drama isn’t allowed to play out spontaneously with Gilbert’s own dialogue. The narration begins with the mock fairy-tale scene-setting that “years ago in happier times when there were only two genders” which neatly and ironically forewarns the audience about the different set of cultural and social assumptions they can expect, if they didn’t already know what G&S is about, or rather caricatured to be about; having been ironically framed, the dialogue could have remained. The problem is that packaging the work keeps it at one remove from the audience, making it more a sequence of musical ‘hits’ to be enjoyed rather than an integrated drama to be engaged with fully, especially as a lack of surtitles also prevents closer attention to the sung text.

Sophie Bevan seems a little under the weather, sounding a touch shrill and not quite in tune in Act Two. But after the interval she is fresher and more assured. Benjamin Hulett maintains a softer lyricism throughout, as Hilarion, aptly contrasted with the jauntier delivery of Charles Rice and Ruairi Bowen as his friends Florian and Cyril.

Where Butteriss avails himself of a certain niggardly humour, Robert Hayward is a severer, drier King Hildebrand, unsatisfied that Gama has failed to hand over Ida to marry Hilarion. Catherin Wyn-Rogers sings with a burnished, haughty vehemence as Lady Blanche, Ida’s deputy mistress at the university, and there are equally distinguished contributions from Marlena Devoe and Claire Ward as the students Melissa and Sacharissa who, for various reasons, are only too pleased to welcome into Castle Adamant the men who appear, and are revealed to be not the Darwinian ape-like creatures the girls are taught the male species is supposed to resemble. Morgan Pearse, Robert Davies, and Jonathan Brown present jocular accounts of Gama’s sons, lumbering simpletons rather than aggressive louts.

Straying into somewhat later repertoire than usual, the OAE Chorus & Orchestra provide a streamlined vigour and mellow range of colours in Sullivan’s music, which benefits from a larger ensemble than it gets in most productions, often either amateur or scaled down. John Wilson exploits that scope for a wider range of expression, from the vibrant, extrovert opening section of the Overture and similar numbers (such as the mock-heroic ‘This helmet, I suppose’ for Gama’s boys, borrowing a Handelian style for the purpose) to the more reflective or personal, as in the subsequent passage of the Overture or Ida’s sincere and heartfelt first number ‘Minerva! oh, hear me’. The performers’ energy and sensitivity to dramatic pace pays dividends in the multi-section Act Two conclusion, which flits between a variety of dramatic situations in a similar fashion as equivalent moments in Mozart. That sparkle carries this interpretation to a lively conclusion, whatever deficiencies there may be in the presentation of the narrative itself.

Further performance on June 8

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