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Reviews

<em>Iolanthe</em>, English National Opera
14 Feb 2018

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.

Iolanthe, English National Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: ENO cast

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

The story of a marriage between magic and mortality prompted William Gilbert to turn his satirical eye on the parliamentary and legal systems at which he had poked fun three years before, in The Pirates of Penzance, and which would he would lampoon again in Utopia Limited in 1893. Initially the libretto was explicitly political, but a song attacking slum living-conditions and another decrying snobbery were excised before the opening night. The British political class - as seen through the eyes of the faery folk - did not escape Gilbert’s pointed pen, though, and are gently ridiculed for their self-importance, ineffectuality and inanity.

Iolanthe, a fairy, has been banished from Fairyland. Her crime? She married a mortal and gave birth to Strephon, a hybrid, a half-fairy ‘from his head to his waist’. Twenty-five years on, Strephon wishes to wed pretty young Phyllis, the Lord Chancellor’s charge, but the Lord is not keen on her marrying a mere shepherd, and, in any case, he has his own eye on the nubile lass. What’s more, the Lord Chancellor is Iolanthe’s former husband and father of Strephon. (The plot’s not so different from your ‘average’ comic opera, after all.)

When Strephon seeks comfort in the arms of his ‘ageless’ mother, Phyllis believes him unfaithful and renounces her love. The Queen of the Fairies forgives Iolanthe and intervenes, telling the Lords that Strephon will become an MP and force them to pass any law that he proposes: they will lose their right to a short working-day, and, to their horror - ‘a Duke’s exalted station/Be attainable by Competitive Examination!’ - commoners will be able to qualify for membership of the Upper House.

Identities are revealed - Strephon discloses his fairy-form to the forgiving Phyllis - and concealed: Iolanthe must, on pain of death, remain unbeknown to her former husband when she pleads the lovers’ case. It takes a spirited mass-action by the sprites, who marry all the peers of the realm, to force the Lord Chancellor to relent.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, director Cal McCrystal expressed his astonishment at how current the issues are, explaining, ‘So I let the satire speak for itself, resisting the temptation to mention Brexit, duck houses, freemasonry or any other present-day preoccupations. The original material will be enjoyed all the more for the longevity of its relevance and its traditional, period-accurate setting affords more opportunities for comedy - British audiences will notice how little the peers’ costumes have changed in the last 135 years’.

So, there’s no over-egged ‘relevance’, and instead McCrystal delights in the Victoriana kitsch and camp: he declines to sharply mock the lordships’ lechery or the ministers’ mindlessness - though there are a few fruity puns and innuendos - and leaves the audience to imagine their own inferences and allusions. McCrystal acknowledges that he has not had much experience single-handedly shaping such large forms and, until he got to work familiarising himself with the entire G&S oeuvre, had seen only one or two of their operettas. But, I enjoyed his charming and amusing production, for English Touring Opera, of Haydn’s Life on the Moon (Il mondo del luna) at Snape Maltings in 2014 - neatly, another opera about bringing pompous patriarchs down to earth - and there’s certainly no doubting McCrystal’s comic nous, given his celebrated work in the theatre (One Man, Two Guvnors) and the cinema ( Paddington, The World’s End).

In the programme book, McCrystal acknowledges that his reputation for ‘physical comedy’ will inevitably lead to expectations that ‘ Iolanthe would contain lots of leaping about and slapstick elements’. And, he duly obliges. One should not come to this production expecting an opera, or even an operetta: what we have is a generic hybrid, à la Magic Flute, of pantomime, Charlie Chaplin and Morecambe & Wise. There’s even some audience participation as the Lord Chancellor pits the left of the auditorium against the right as they take turns to supply the refrain, ‘Said I to myself, said I’, in his end-of-Act 1 moral self-justification, ‘When I went to the bar’.

Steam Train chorus.jpgENO Cast. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

There are visual gags a-plenty, many involving animal puppetry, and they garner the guffaws: a sheep in the side-box peers bemusedly at proceedings; a unicorn’s horn doubles as a beer-tap; a cartoon cow capers; a panto-horse defecates. There’s spectacle, too, the apex of which (with a bathetic nod towards the triumphal march in Aida) is the arrival of the Lords in a steam-carriage which rips, literally, through the Elysian glade. The Lords proclaim their might and majesty in no uncertain terms: ‘Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes:/ Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses! … We are peers of highest station,/ Paragons of legislation, Pillars of the British nation!’

There’s a touch of ‘Eric and Ernie’ about Iolanthe and Phyllis’ Act 1 love duet, ‘None Shall Part Us’, which is sung to the disruptive disorder created by two prop-movers who, blinded by their head-to-toe black ant-suits, rush around in circles depositing pastoral paraphernalia - more stuffed sheep, a shocking-pink flamingo. I did wonder if any in the audience were concentrating on the singing?

McCrystal has also invited some colleagues from the theatre world to join in the fun. Clive Mantle opens proceedings with an imperious pre-curtain house-keeping proclamation, spoofing Captain Shaw, the London Fire Brigade Chief to whom the Fairy Queen later addresses herself, wondering if his ‘brigade with cold cascade’ can quench her great love: Mantle subsequently proves deft with fire-extinguisher and sand-bucket, slaking the sparks that fly from the Queen’s wand. His wry welcome to the audience, which comprises ‘the middle classes … and … the upper-middle classes’, is as sharp as it would have been before Gilbert’s heterogeneous audiences.

Ben Johnson Andrew Shore Ben McAteer Richard Leeming .jpg Ben Johnson, Andrew Shore, Ben McAteer and Richard Leeming. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

McCrystal demonstrates his mastery of slapstick and indulges his love of a knockabout in the Act 2 trio for Lord Tolloller, Lord Mountararat and the Lord Chancellor, ‘He who shies at such a prize’, in which Richard Leeming’s Page is the butt of ridicule, elbows and reprises. Shoved from the stage, bounced off the Woolsack, flipped over the red benches and dropped from the ceiling, he keeps coming back for more until he is unceremoniously thrust down the raised seat of the Royal Throne. The choreography and execution are superb, and Lemming exhibits the artless grace of Harold Lloyd - but I dread to think how many bruises he must have.

Fairy Chorus.jpgENO Cast. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Despite the skilful jesting and burlesquing, it’s the visuals that win the prize though. The designs and costumes of Paul Brown, who died in November 2017 at the age of 57, enchantingly blend realism and romance. The interior of the Upper Chamber is mimicked in all its gilded glory, but Brown also whisks us into a Flower-Fairies grove in which outsize petals, buds, stamens entwine in slightly sinister quasi-erotic embraces: the pre-Raphaelites meet Richard Dadd. It’s a cornucopia of colour and texture, in which the Fairies - led by feisty Fleta (Flick Fernando) - swirl and stomp (‘Dainty little fairies’ these are not) dressed in an eye-popping riot of primary hues, their symbiosis with nature declared by their acorn hats, Dumbledore wings and trembling antennae.

The problem is that there is so much for the eye to take in - from stuffed dogs to dog-roses - that the singing, and the plot, take a back seat. Even Andrew Shore is quite subdued despite the flamboyance of the Chancellor’s black silk damask robe, trimmed with gold lace and frogging, though his enunciation was as crisply controlled as always, and there was no hint of strain or quiver as he cantered through Gilbert’s linguistic contraptions and contortions.

Ellie Laugharne was a pert and suitably girlish Phyllis; her soprano is bright and fresh, and she climbed cleanly to the stratosphere (and beyond, in a dog-whistle yell of passion), but Phyllis’ sweet demureness is rashly swept aside in an impressive tantrum in which she lambasts the ‘faithless’ Strephon and offers her heart to any peer who’ll have her - as long as she can be a countess. Marcus Farnsworth sounds wholesome and handsome as Strephon and essays some impressive dance-steps and leg-kicks.

Marcus Farnswroth Ellie Laugharne.jpgMarcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

As Iolanthe, Samantha Price made the most of her Act 2 supplication to her former husband, while Yvonne Howard was a benevolent Queen: despite her Brunnhilde-breastplate with conical upholstery, she was more weightless than Wagnerian, landing from aloft with a graceful step. (As, on-stage, the Fairies trounced the Aristocrats, I couldn’t resist a wry smile at McCrystal’s thanks, in the programme, to ‘Lord Glendonbrook, whose generous funding at the eleventh hour enabled our fairies to fly’.)

Llio Evans Flick Ferdinando Samantha Price Joanne Appleby.jpgLlio Evans, Flick Ferdinando, Samantha Price and Joanne Appleby. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

As the two Earls, Tolloller and Mountararat respectively, Ben Johnson and Ben McAteer show a pleasing instinct for the G&S idiom, and the self-deprecating satire of the latter’s ‘When Britain Really Ruled the Waves’, as Gilbert lampoons the two-party system, stingingly hit the mark: ‘When in that House MPs divide/If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too/They’ve got to leave that brain outside/And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.’ Barnaby Rea deserves special mention for the deadpan drollery of his Private Willis.

Barnaby Rea Yvonne Howard.jpgBarnaby Rea and Yvonne Howard. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

As mortal Lords and fairy Ladies, the ENO Chorus are excellent (and the audience can have some fun spotting a be-wheeled Boris and a be-spectacled Rees-Mogg among their ranks). The ENO Orchestra played well for conductor Timothy Henty, who did his best not to add to the obstacles against which his singers had to vie for our attention, though at times a little more zip would have raised the dramatic temperature.

In Gilbert’s day, all hereditary peers could join the House of Lords, which had the power to veto legislation proposed by the House of Commons, rights that were controversial and led to growing calls for reform and an end to the Lords’ veto. Gilbert’s ‘denouement’ seems to nod in this direction. The Lord Chancellor, faced with the Fairies’ storming of the Palace, makes a swift amendment to the law forbidding marriage between man and fairy: ‘Every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal’ (perhaps the current Lord Chief Justice could engineer a similar posthumous alternation to the referendum question posed in June 2016 …?)

The operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan reflected and (gently) ridiculed the world in which they were created and received, but they were not designed to bring about revolution. So, McCrystal lets the softish satire speak for itself. It’s all harmless fun, and the production is a vehicle for some visual magic - but, though both Fairies’ wands and Sullivan’s music occasionally sparkle, it doesn’t quite cast a spell.

Claire Seymour

Gilbert and Sullivan: Iolanthe

Iolanthe - Samantha Price, The Lord Chancellor - Andrew Shore, Queen of the Fairies - Yvonne Howard, Phyllis - Ellie Laugharne, Strephon - Marcus Farnswroth, Earl Tollloller - Ben Johnson, Earl Mountararat - Ben McAteer, Celia - Llio Evans, Leila - Joanne Appleby, Fleta - Flick Fernando, Private Willis - Barnaby Rea, Page - Richard Leeming, Captain Shaw - Clive Mantle; Director - Cal McCrystal, Conductor - Timothy Henty, Designer - Paul Brown, Lighting Designer - Tim Mitchell, Choreographer - Lizzi Gee, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Tuesday 13th February 2018.

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