United Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, Iolanthe: Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company/David Steadman (conductor), Simon Butteriss (director); Buxton Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, Opera House, Buxton, 3.8.2013 (RJW)
Simon Butteriss … Lord Chancellor
Bruce Graham … Earl Mountararat
John Upperton … Earl Tolloller
Alastair McCall … Private Willis
Simon Pontin … Strephon
Frances McCafferty… Queen of the Fairies
Victoria Byron … Iolanthe
Rebecca Moon … Celia
Angela Simkin … Leila
Lesley Cox … Fleta
Charlotte Baptie … Phyllis
Choreography by Stewart Nicholls
Before entering the theatre one knew this production was in good hands when the names of Simon Butteriss and Frances McCafferty appear together in the programme. Butteriss is a well seasoned G&S director and performer, particularly of patter roles, while McCafferty is a well respected singer from her Hyperion G&S recordings and as guest artiste at the Buxton Opera Festival.
From start to finish the director had introduced much fresh business into a traditional staging that omitted passé inuendos or gimmicky artificiality. This refreshing staging provided an extra dimension, that of giving the Lord Chancellor an aide who was constantly with him. Where asides are usually made to the audience or talking aloud to himself these were more meaningful. The aide who would even answer some of the rhetorichal questions and this made good sense. Likewise, the Fairy Queen effectively addresses a number of asides to Private Willis who remains on-stage for most of the Act.
Particularly strong performances came from the Lord Chancellor with typically quirky mannerisms (and brilliant stage business) and from the Fairy Queen who was making her debut at the Festival and filled the stage with a commanding presence. Both were wonderful in voice and diction. Frances McCafferty’s rich contralto singing was lovely as was the drama and pathos provided by fine mezzo Victoria Byron’s Iolanthe. Phyllis a light soprano and Strephon a robust baritone worked well together in duets: perhaps though the West Country accent of Strephon grated somewhat (a bit like Grosvenor’s cockney style delivery) if one’s idea of ‘Arcadia’ is thought of as rural perfection.
The audience raved over Stewart Nicholls’ choreography for the long March of the Peers: this was extraordinarily complex and looked stunning. The Peers were particularly good with their flamboyant and multi-varied cloak gestures and their interaction with the fairies in the Act I finale looked convincing. Their magnificent courtiers’ costumes and cloaks helped make a good stage picture. The fine gown worn by the Fairy Queen with its breastpate (after D’Oyly Carte designer, Wilheim’s take-off of Brunhilde for an early production) was rather severe yet the fine colours of Whitehall contrasted well with the rustic hues of Strephon and Phyllis. A remarkable performance by Alastair McCall in his role as Private Willis gave a new dimension to the character where at the opening of Act II he is found flirting with two of the fairies. I liked the way he coped with the flirtacious advances of the Fairy Queen.
Throughout the singing was magnificent and under David Steadman’s baton the festival orchestra was energetic, milking the score with appropriate dynamic changes that had been sensitively introduced.
I have felt that the fresh approach to staging at Buxton by Butteriss has brought fresh air to this comic opera and is a draw to the Festival for its audiences. One often thinks that all the good presentational formats for G&S have been tried and the rich seams of Gilbert’s texts have been exhausted, but on this showing it is certainly not the case.
Raymond J Walker