United Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, Iolanthe (ed. Henty/Hulme): Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera / Christopher Henty (conductor). London Coliseum, 13.2.2018. (CC)
Andrew Shore – The Lord Chancellor
Ben McAteer – Lord Mountararat
Ben Johnson – Lord Tolloller
Barnaby Rea – Private Willis
Ellie Laugharne – Phyllis
Yvonne Howard – The Queen of the Fairies
Samantha Price – Iolanthe
Marcus Farnworth – Strephon
Llio Evans – Celia
Joanne Appleby – Leila
Flick Fernandino – Fleta
Richard Leeming – Page Boy
Clive Mantle – Captain Shaw
Cal McCrystal – Director
Paul Brown – Designer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting
Lizzi Gee – Choreographer
The London Coliseum has a long and distinguished history with Gilbert and Sullivan. Jonathan Miller’s productions have brought joy to many, while Mike Leigh’s Pirates, issuing in a post-Miller era, brought forth mixed reviews. Now it is the turn of director Cal McCrystal, known for his comedic work via films such as the two Paddington movies; his first foray into the operatic world was in 2014 with English Touring Opera’s Life on the Moon. McCrystal’s Iolanthe is a busy affair but often beautiful, especially in the colourful world of Fairy superbly lit byLighting Designer Tim Mitchell. Visual jokes come thick and fast; and there is a refreshing refusal to make those topical alterations to the text so beloved of Miller (although in fairness there is a bike-riding Boris amongst the peers).
Interestingly, Iolanthe was the first G & S opera performed at ENO (in January 1962). It is a fine, often subtle score (the latter especially noticeable under the sensitive baton of conductor Timothy Henty) that, while it not be as populated by memorable tunes as, say, Mikado or HMS Pinafore, offers huge amounts to enjoy, from bucolic pastoralism (accompanied by inevitable sheep) to mock pomp, including Westminster both outside (including Guardsman) and inside. The entrance of the Peers is a major treat for the eye. Sets by Paul Brown are superbly thought through, with the oil-painting pastoral backdrops to the stage within a stage and much more. Brown sadly died last year and the first night of this production was offered in his memory. Choreography (Lizzi Gee) is magnificently managed.
Only in Gilbert and Sullivan could such a romp between fairies and politicians exist. The production expands on one of the characters: Captain Shaw in the form of Clive Mantle, who opens the show with the aplomb of a Victorian music hall compere (although for some reason the idea of the Animal Tamer’s opening of Berg’s Lulu also sprang to mind). He is funny, of that there is no doubt, and his role as firefighter comes in useful when he turns up to extinguish on–stage flames. The idea of music hall morphs to panto with the arrival of a two-person cow at one point, not to mention a fair amount of flying about (the Fairy Queen’s entrance from roof to stage is a joy). And who could forget the unicorn, whose horn gets used as a beer tap. There’s even an audience sing-along. There is so much to keep the eyes busy that one can expand so much energy that one forgets the music; but what great entertainment it all is.
Andrew Shore, a stalwart of the Coliseum, is exemplary as The Lord Chancellor, a direct equivalent to the Major-General of Pirates. Shore’s experience (more than 35 ENO productions!) shines through as he works his way through his Iolanthe patter song; whenever on stage, his sheer force of character dominates. The titular role of the fairy Iolanthe is commandingly taken by Welsh mezzo Samantha Price; more imposing still is the Queen of the Fairies, the much-loved Yvonne Howard, her lower register positively matriarchal.
Marcus Farnsworth, who has previously taken on Guglielmo for ENO, is a fun Strephon (his name becoming “strap-on” at one memorable point). The light voice of Ellie Laugharne is perfect for Phyllis, and one hopes to hear more from her (she has already taken Figaro Barbarina and Kate Pinkerton Butterfly at ENO). Two Bens – Ben Johnson and Ben McAteer – provide entertainment as the two Earls. McAteer, making is ENO debut, particularly impressive.
The whole affair reiterates what a strong company ENO is. The chorus is stunningly together and throws itself into the swing of things wholeheartedly. There is hardly a weak vocal moment all evening, all brought together by the highly intelligent conducting of Timothy Henty. For Henty, this is clearly a labour of love; everything about the production oozes a similar sense of reverence in its very irreverence. Superb.