Iolanthe at Buxton: peers in a pretty pickle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, Iolanthe: National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company’s Chorus and Orchestra / John Andrews (conductor). Opera House, Buxton 3.8.2022. (RJW)

National G&S Opera Company’s Iolanthe © Charles Smith

Director – John Savournin
Scenic design – Paul Lazell
Lighting – Matt Cater
Costumes – Lichfield Costumes, Harriet Ravdin
Choreography – Merry Holden

Lord Chancellor – Matthew Kellett
Lord Mountararat – Ben McAteer
Lord Tolloller – Hal Cazalet
Private Willis – Matthew Siviter
Strephon – Matthew Palmer
Queen of the Fairies – Amy Payne
Iolanthe – Meriel Cunningham
Celia – Catrine Kirkman
Leila – Kate Lowe
Fleta – Alexandra Hazard
Phyllis – Emily Vine

The National G&S Opera Company seems to go from strength to strength. A well-filled theatre was captivated by a stunning performance under John Savournin’s direction and John Andrews’s musicality. (Andrews is well known for his Sullivan recordings with the BBC Concert Orchestra.)

There was much to delight when the curtain went up on Paul Lazell’s rustic Acadian setting. The troupe of excellently choreographed fairies sang their ‘Tripping Hither’ to perfection. At this point the lighting too was nicely choreographed to enhance the mood set by Sullivan’s spritely music. The delicacy of the moment was for me somewhat marred by a few unnecessary up-staging antics by Celia that WSG would have considered a ‘Pork Pie’ moment.

An elegantly dressed and not too stout Fairy Queen (Amy Payne) summoned the appearance of Iolanthe (Meriel Cunningham) in a tender and emotional Incantation scene that was quite moving to watch. With Strephon (Matthew Palmer), the trio sang magnificently throughout the show, especially in the love duet, ‘None shall part us’, and Queen’s solo, ‘O foolish Fay’. Stephon’s modern suit and flat cap took some getting used for one conditioned by the George Sheringham’s look of britches of silken bombazine.

Strephon and his petite Phyllis were matched nicely in harmonic tone and acted with sincere passion for each other. The lengthy march of the Peers was sensibly cut so that the opening fanfare quickly ran into their chorus number, ‘Loudly let the trumpet bray’. In elegant robes their choreography was noticed to retain some of the smart D’Oyly Carte moves, however. Bridget D’Oyly Carte always told new producers, ‘On no account will I allow you to get rid of the peers’ robes for the peers’ entrance in Act I’.

As the peers’ scene develops they swap their coronets for bowler hats and are given individual personalities. Coupled with neat groupings and stage business, it made their interaction with the fated couple very convincing. I liked their tea party and fuss that went with it, a true reflection of Westminster Terrace activity in London, perhaps. The ‘Blue Blood’ scene came very much together as a result, with Lords Mountararat (Ben McAteer) and Tolloller (Hal Cazalet) singing to perfection. The Lords pondered their demise while the Lord Chancellor took the chance to stuff himself with sandwiches from an adjacent tea trolley. Frozen moments of action, enhanced by a change in lighting, were introduced at moments of soliloquy. This was a nice touch to the production, and was a device repeated appropriately in the Act I finale during the Queen’s incantation. The finale’s vocal forces were superb and they sang us one of Sullivan’s finest written finales with considerable strength. This was professional theatre at its best.

The Lord Chancellor (Matthew Kellett) © Charles Smith

Act II revealed an authentic and attractive setting of Westminster Square, based on the setting used by the Bridges Adam’s set of 1919. The Chancellor’s confident manner (Matthew Kellett) was appealing and his sonorous voice was much appreciated. He gave a clear rendering of the Nightmare song and showed sensitively when interacting with Iolanthe at the time of their unexpected meeting. A confident Private Willis (Matt Siviter) added joy to the performance by giving his opinions of Parliament from the view of a common guardsman, with Gilbert’s lyrics about ‘MPs leaving their brains outside’. This is as true today as it was in Victorian Britain of 1882 when written.

Raymond J Walker

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