Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Iolanthe

W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan
Carl Rosa Opera Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2007)

Production photo - the Fairy Queen

This ambitious season marks the first time since the Carl Rosa Company so admirably took on the mantle of the D’Oyly Carte that they have put themselves on the line by packing three different productions into a one-week run. It’s a daunting thought, as all of them make heavy demands on the inevitable repertoire company-style cast of principals who can be recognised from one opera to the next, cunningly re-presented in different costumes and wigs and complete with yet another fresh account of Sullivan’s musical style-changes and Gilbert’s dazzling torrents of words. And yes, inevitably there were moments when a line went awry (sorry – I’m the kind of G&S bore who does know all the words to all the songs) or when a moment’s hesitation suggested that a performer had momentarily lost the name of the character they were addressing. Minor imperfections of this kind would probably go unnoticed were it not for the demands these works make at the best of times, never mind in a group of three each hot on the heels of the other. Gilbert’s plots are machines, often heartless and chilly were you to strip away the humour (which of course you would never do) and apparently requiring a machine-like precision of production in the way they should be reeled out, sharpened and polished, to a dazzled audience.

And in the real world, that simply isn’t going to happen. One of the good things about the Carl Rosa Company’s assumption of what was once the hotly protective guardianship held by the D’Oyly Carte Company must be that the productions are no longer written in stone. Tradition is fine, but it can (and did) lead to some mechanical offerings where not just innovation but even interpretation was reined in beyond all necessity. What we saw this week demonstrated above all that these operettas require neither radical updating nor rigid adherence to precedent in order to reveal themselves as living works still fruitfully rooted in historical context. Maybe in a Post-Modern world we can now actually applaud Sullivan’s capacity to tune into whichever pre-existing musical modes best carry the drama and give a voice to the character. We can certainly appreciate without footnotes (though one or two are always welcome) the sharpness of Gilbert’s dialogue and situations. Humour of character remains timeless and even his specifically contemporary satirical points are still funny because we clearly recognise them for what they are, even though the political and social issues of late Victorian Britain may be decades in the past.

So this was G&S with a human face. There was none of the star casting of recent years, and instead we ( or at least, those of us who went to all three) had the pleasure of noting one evening’s Elsie as another’s Patience, or of wondering how that nice stout Mountararat was going to make out as Archibald Grosvenor – and to listen in to audience conversation during the interval, this aspect really did mean something. These performers (incidentally my examples were Charlotte Page and Bruce Graham) may not be household names, but within a week of theatregoing they had taken on identities for an already loyal and anticipatory audience. It’s lovely to see that sort of engagement in action.

Iolanthe

This was the prettiest of the productions – OK I’m being girlie, but don’t you think that this was a selling point in 1882, when a horde of not just mellifluous but also gauzy and really quite sexy fantasy females tripped across the stage of the Savoy? It was also the first time the theatre had been entirely illuminated with electric light, and the fairies had not just to sing, dance, act and look lovely ( the usual requirements for a G&S chorus, of course) but also to carry aloft glowing wands and disport themselves in a fairyland of innovative lighting effects. Today’s Health and Safety mind-set might reel back appalled, but back then the presence in the audience of London Fire Brigade chief Captain Shaw presumably set minds at rest ( and earned him a reference in one of the lyrics).

In homage to the electrical novelty, there were delicate touches of what we’re surely allowed to call fairy-lights among costumes that drew on every Victorian fairy painter from Walter Crane to the extravagantly weird John Anster Fitzgerald. These were eclectic fairies – a much better idea than having them look like the corps de ballet from Giselle. Inevitably, in the day to day world, very few of them (realistically, none at all) were lissom maidens of seventeen, so making then fairies of personality made a virtue of differences in age, height and body shape.

One does wonder how the original audience was expected to take on board Gilbert’s repeated dramatic preferences for very young, nubile choruses all of whom were meant to marry at the end of the story. Yes, of course it’s a theatrical convention, and he’s both using it and sending it up, but did the Victorians measure the inevitable distance between the very young loves they were told they were seeing and the experienced performers on stage, or did the footlights simply act as a barrier to questioning the illusion? It can’t aid anyone’s attempt at verisimilitude to know that as well as being a beautiful Arcadian shepherd who is a fairy down to the waist and who will suddenly and successfully enter politics and take over Parliament, he’s supposed to be a mere 25. Luckily Giles Davies took Strephon in his stride with just the right edge of self-awareness – it never does to undermine the internal logic of Gilbert’s plots and characters, but there’s a way of being knowing without eroding the innocent fun.

And there is a lot of innocent fun – a child can happily see Iolanthe as a comic fairy-tale about love and time and the paradox of belonging to two worlds (I remember that I once did), picking up in the most general way on satire of poking fun at all those Lords in their state robes, without needing to know much more. But this production set me wondering how much more subversive humour was encoded in the plot, to be picked out by the more knowing of the original audience and still lurking in full view today. Strephon is a fairy to the waist and below ? Is that the sort of thing a young man wants to tell his fiancée?

Richard Suart was splendid in what one wants to call the patter-role (or possibly the George Grossmith part) of the frankly (but of course discreetly) lecherous Lord Chancellor, who spends all day giving agreeable girls away. Gilbert’s girls never seem to mind this sort of thing as long as they make a wealthy match, so it’s pleasant to consider that in this plot at least, the gentlemen of the chorus (British peers though they may be) are the ones elevated by their wholesale marriage to the ladies of the chorus, who being fairies can transport their husbands from the House of Peers to that of Peris.

Presiding over all, the Fairy Queen is one of Gilbert’s profoundly voiced Grandes Dames, ladies of a certain age and stature who are funny precisely because they are not lissom and seventeen. In the 1882 production she was a stout and awe-inspiring Valkyrie, making it a Wagnerian joke that Iolanthe in her banished state is a decidedly damp Rhine Maiden (and even with a complete change of visual concept, you can’t miss the Rhinegold pastiche when Iolanthe is recalled with a watery Wagnerian motif.) Here the excellent Jill Pert (is it just the glamour of the theatre, or does she, in character at least, bear some resemblance to Alice Barnett, the singer who created many of these roles in the original productions?) came on as Elizabeth I crossed with a spider, a beautifully arresting figure who looked like a Shakespearean metaphor come to life.

In the second act she had morphed into a more stately Queen Victoria (fairies being by nature adaptable and eager to grasp the main chance) ready to be bowled over by the masculine charms of Private Willis (and I think there’s more than one joke in that name). When this production goes to London, Gyles Brandreth will be adding contemporary references to the libretto, to keep a modern audience amused. Well, that’s what Gilbert was doing so it’s quite in keeping, but the one change I noticed here seemed rather obvious. Willis sports a kilt and the Queen now makes a Mrs Brown reference, replacing an original verse which means that the aforementioned Captain Shaw doesn’t get that musical nod which the history of G&S should surely afford him – the more so as the big, shiny programme here offers us both a photograph of and a hint of scandal about the real man. Enshrined in print for being mentioned in an opera from which the mention of him has been excised – how’s that for a Gilbertian paradox? But audience responses aren’t that easy to pin down – apparently in Scotland the Queen’s romantic musing on being Mrs Brown has been applied to not to Victoria’s ghillie but to the present prime minister. Gilbert would have loved it.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson