Buxton Gilbert and Sullivan Festival 2011 (3) – Arcadian setting for Cambridge University’s Iolanthe

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sullivan,  Iolanthe: Soloists and Chorus of Cambridge University Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Buxton Opera, 9.8.2011 (RJW)

Jonathan Padley … Lord Chancellor
Alan Hay … Earl of Mountararat
James Hall … Earl Tolloller
Neil Campbell … Private Willis
Aled Walker … Strephon
Anna Harvey … Queen of the Fairies
Danielle Phillips… Iolanthe
Francesca Costigan … Celia
Helena Culliney … Leila
Davina Barron … Fleta
Charlotte Greenhow … Phyllis

Musical Direction by Monica Buckland
Directed by Claire Pike

It is good to see this long-standing university society making its appearance at Buxton alongside the Oxbridge Opera Company’s production of The Gondoliers. The staging and singing was of an excellent quality throughout. The opening number was inventive: gone were fairies awakening from their slumbers or hiding behind bushes and in their place two fawns with realistic horns and hooves mischievously prancing around. This originality strengthens the arcadian fantasy setting. Only with two bars before the chorus are about to sing do they enter. Later, the peers enter ready for a picnic in country shooting clothes and though in the interval audience members expressed disappointment that traditional robes were not worn, in Act 2 the peers satisfied their lust and appeared resplendently attired. This approach makes better sense than the usual D’Oyly Carte routine of robes in the countryside.

Of the characters, the best performances and most confident singing came from the Earl Montararat, Strephon, Phyllis, Lord Chancellor, Fairy Queen, and Private Willis. Despite some good role portrayals there was a need for better voice projection by some, and turning slightly downstage to the audience when in close conversation with each other would have helped.

The production was well rehearsed and Claire Pike’s production brought in some nice touches, like a convincing dry ice effect for Iolanthe’s Invocation and the hypnotism of peers during the reading of the Queen’s Sentence. Some witty contemporary changes were made to the script, especially in Private Willis’s song. His portrayal of youthful innocence strengthened the effect of the Queen’s open flirting. The insertion of ‘Fold your flapping wings’ – a number usually dropped – was interesting to hear afresh.

Earl Montararat commanded a good stage presence, especially in Act 2 with ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’ and the company gave good support to each other on stage. But where the voices were not strong the orchestra needed to be more sensitive to the need to reduce playing to ‘p’ and ‘pp’. In Act 2, ‘Oh, foolish fay’ and ‘Fold your flapping wings’ the imbalance was most noticeable, the latter being important as the audience would not have known the lyrics.

An excellent reading of the overture was provided. The costumes and stage moves of this group were excellent and the company displayed strong confidence and used the stage well. I hope to see a return of this society next year since their freshness of approach is appealing and ensures an enjoyable occasion.

Raymond J Walker