John Brook is impressed by a topical production of a musical classic
Review: Iolanthe, York Opera
Venue: York Theatre Royal, November 7, 2012
The prospect of amateur performances of Gilbert & Sullivan operas can often be less than attractive with thoughts turning to well-intentioned but rather embarrassing school and village hall productions.
York Opera, however, have an excellent track record in bringing these operas to life. Their latest production of Iolanthe couldn’t be better timed: the constitutional issue of the House of Lords is as relevant today as it was in 1882 when Iolanthe opened at D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Theatre and with our current coalition government, jokes about Liberals and Conservatives seem equally fresh.
In their programme notes, musical and stage directors Alasdair Jamieson and Pauline Marshall say that although they aim for a “traditional” approach to G&S production, they’re not averse to using topical references where appropriate. So the recent Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” affair must’ve been manna from heaven to them and a reference to plebs in the Queen of the Fairies’ proclamation at the end of Act 1 drew appreciative laughter from the first-night audience.
References and satire aside though, at the end of the day Iolanthe is a jolly romp featuring fairies, lords, some witty lines, and excellent music with lots of great tunes.
The staging of this production is certainly quite traditional and none the worse for that. The sets, designed and built by members of the company, are fairly simple but effective and the lighting is imaginative especially in the night scenes in Act 2.
Costumes are excellent, with the peers looking suitably regal in Act 1. The chorus of fairies displayed a colourful and eye-catching range of costumes in line with the directors’ idea of presenting them as a collection of childhood favourites including fairy godmothers, tooth fairies, flowers and the four seasons.
The singing is generally of a high standard although at times some of the soloists needed more power. John Soper is an excellent Lord Chancellor: a nice combination of impish humour and pomposity. His Nightmare Song in Act 2 was especially well done. Ian Thomson-Smith is a suitably imperious Earl of Mountararat and his operatic baritone voice came over well in his Act 2 song When Britain Really Ruled The Waves.
Jasmine Caine as Phyllis has a lovely pure-toned soprano voice and Rebecca Smith sang with authority as the Queen of the Fairies, as well as looking radiant in her gold costume. Steve Griffiths’ Private Willis had just the right amount of irony in his song When All Night Long A Chap Remains. The chorus also sang well.
In the ensemble pieces the choreography is well done given the constraints of the stage but it could have been more together. This might’ve been a case of first-night nerves though. Other stage “business” is entertaining: the characters of Strephon and Phyllis (Arcadian shepherds) are accompanied by two pantomime-style sheep and the on-stage antics of these, played by Anna and Olivia Robinson, frequently came close to upstaging the principals.
They also got the biggest laugh of the night, although I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing where!
Sullivan’s marvellous score was well played by the orchestra conducted by Alasdair Jamieson and if at times some of the livelier pieces lacked energy, it was made up for with some lovely playing in the romantic numbers. The gorgeous dark colours in the accompaniment to the Nightmare Song were deliciously brought out.
This Iolanthe is colourful, fun and above all, entertaining. York is very fortunate to have such a committed opera company offering productions of a very high standard year on year and they deserve our support.
- Iolanthe is on at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, November 10, at 7.30pm (2.30pm Sat matinee)
- For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal website