Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe made history twice over on its opening night of 25 November 1882: in the first instance it was the first G&S production to play at the recently completed Savoy Theatre; and in the second, it was the first to open (almost) simultaneously at the Standard Theatre, New York City, beginning barely an hour after the conclusion of the London performance on the same date. The programme from the original London run highlights the piece as a “Fairy Opera” and in this description it is perhaps happily considered a comic predecessor to the extraordinarily popular Immortal Hour by Rutland Boughton. Similarities, comparisons and differences may be drawn in abundance between both works, and yet there is something curiously Wagnerian that binds the two; Boughton of course was seeking to establish the English Music Drama, while the opening eight bars of the Iolanthe overture possess a remarkably ambiguous and misleading harmonic structure, not uncommon in Wagner – it is often forgotten that, whilst Sullivan made no small sum of money from his operas, he still wished to be considered a “serious” composer. However, amusingly, in listening to this overture I am always reminded of Roger Quilter’s A Children’s Overture and consider that Iolanthe with its magic effects, fairies and occasionally lullaby or nursery song-like tunes, may be amongst the best introductions of opera to children. Potential parallels aside, this afternoon’s new production, the second professional offering as part of the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, is engaging, entertaining and charming; beautifully directed, acted, played and sung, the show supports very minor reservations.

© Charles Smith Photography
© Charles Smith Photography

The curtain raised reveals a verdant dell in which the ladies of the chorus (as fairies) delicately trip hither and thither – Angela Simkin standing out especially as Leila, singing with a deliciously warm, controlled tone that left me cursing Sullivan for the part’s limited music, as her voice deserves a larger role. The arrival of Frances McCafferty, perfectly cast as the iron-breastplated, dutiful but weak Fairy Queen, absolutely made the show for me – a lovely and distinctive alto voice with perfect diction and comic timing reaffirmed my long-held affection for the larger fairy. Charlotte Baptie’s Phyllis was well acted but occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, and Simon Pontin’s Strephon experienced similar difficulty; particularly their duet “None shall part us” regrettably rendered both of them sometimes inaudible. Pontin otherwise acted and sang beautifully with a clear tenor tone, firm throughout the whole voice. However, if you are going to speak in an adopted accent, then you have to sing in it too and this is apt to result in singing flat. Furthermore, it stands out as inconsistent when no other character does the same.

Comedy was best found in the gentlemen of the chorus, gloriously over the top as dim-witted hereditary Peers of the House of Lords, headed by G&S veteran Bruce Graham as the Earl of Mountararat. Graham’s affinity for the subtleties of Gilbert’s libretti lends his performances an organic flow that allows Gilbert’s jokes to manifest themselves naturally and without force, and he supports this with a strong, characterful singing voice. High praise for actor and director Simon Butteriss is now a running theme of my G&S reviews and it becomes increasingly difficult to find original ways in which to highlight the excellence of his work without exhibiting potential favouritism. Acting in a double capacity as both director and Lord Chancellor in this production, Butteriss has forged an endearing production in which sensitivity, slapstick and humour may be appreciated in equal measure.

I feel that Iolanthe does not present the same level of emotional variety as other G&S creations – the story is principally comic, with only one real moment of tenderness in Act II when Iolanthe reveals herself to the Lord Chancellor, and this moment in itself is brief. Consequently an audience must rely on the abilities of cast, director and musicians to really bring the piece to life, and in this David Steadman led the orchestra in very good, well placed playing, though some scratchiness in the upper strings occasionally grated on the ear.

With eager anticipation for Princess Ida it is increasingly apparent that with the present team of chorus, chorus, directors and designers of all descriptions, The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company are “the true embodiment of everything that’s excellent...”