Opera Review: Iolanthe | ArtsHub Australia
It has been almost 140 years to the day since Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) first introduced Iolanthe at the Savoy Theater in London, simultaneously opening a production in New York the same evening. It was an ambitious undertaking, but the seventh of their 14 so-called Savoy operas became an instant hit. It remains one of their most enduring works.
It seemed fortuitous to have the opening just days after the death of Queen Elizabeth and ushering in a new era for Britain and the Commonwealth. Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University (QCGU) chose to mark the occasion with the orchestra playing ‘God Save the King’ before the start of the show. Not only was it a real tribute, but it also gave a sense of Iolanthe‘s historical context, given that in G&S times this anthem would have been played every night.
Iolanthe is one of the silliest and most convoluted stories about fairies marrying mortals. Yet the force of Gilbert’s acerbic and satirical lyrics, alongside Sullivan’s romantic and sometimes emotive composition, gave this work a big heart and an innate intelligence. More than many others of their works, Iolanthe satirizes the legal system of the time, targeting the aristocracy and politicians, ridiculing them as a bastion of inefficiency, privilege and stupidity.
The relevance to current issues is all too obvious, especially given the recent state of political turmoil in the UK. It has been standard in many recent interpretations of G&S work to update Gilbert’s text; indeed, Gilbert himself encouraged this.
The role of chancellor, for example, might have had a much stronger physical and verbal resemblance to recently defeated prime ministers, but this was not explored. The text remained almost extant and, given that the songs were all subtitled, perhaps made such archaic language to our ears all the funnier.
The production and direction by longtime aficionado and expert of G&S work, Stuart Maunder, was exemplary. He perfectly understood the tone of the work from the start, injecting humor into many situations with a sharp wit, top-notch timing and clever direction. Maunder’s general direction of his young cast, particularly the large chorus scenes with the fairies and then the peers, was exceptionally crafted, polished and professional, with excellent attention to detail.
The scene in which Strephon (touchingly played by Oliver Heuzenroeder) is part mortal and part fairy, with only his human legs, was beautifully controlled; the fairies looking him up and down in amazement. There was a terrific performance by Alla Yarosh as the Fairy Queen, whose amorous advances towards loyal soldier Willis, sung loudly by Vikram Goonawardena, were equally delightful.
The Chorus’ Monty Pythonesque arrival and posture as peers of the land, complete with their capes and crowns, was immensely silly, topped by Aidan Hodder as Chancellor, who gave a clever rendition of “When I’m went to the bar”. Hodder also excelled in an outstanding rendition of the finely crafted patter song, “When You’re Lying Awake…”
Maunder was aided by clever and well-directed choreography from Lois Redman, also his assistant director. The movement and dancing in the fairy chorus scenes, including some early jumps and childlike gyrations, as well as that final can-can, were all top-notch. The peers, with their poised formality and rustle of capes in a choreographed dance line, were also well done.
Maunder also created effective dance scenes with the Chancellor. Earl Tolloller (Sebastian Maclaine) and Earl Mountararat (Dallas Tippet) received great performances.
Simone Romaniuk is to be commended for stunning, exuberant set design and brilliant costumes. She created an extraordinary blaze of color to open the show with brightly colored fluorescent streamers hanging from the ceiling around striped poles. Simple but very effective. Later it moved to a ceiling full of large hanging umbrellas, then to a stage in London with a sentry on duty, a picture of Big Ben and hundreds of union jack flags.
Romaniuk dressed his fairies in a mix of bubble gum colors, with rainbow outfits consisting of tops and short skirts, leggings, plushies, headpieces and wigs. They looked like children’s pop-up book characters with their beautifully designed wings. Yarosh’s fairy queen stood out in silver and white. These scenes created the brightest stage images, beautifully lit by Keith Clark, who also designed mood lighting for the darker and parliamentary scenes as well as that of Private Willis outside the palace.
The peers arrived dressed in street clothes indicating their political party affiliations, but quickly donned royal cloaks of many colors and topped with crowns. Strephon and Phyllis, the latter charmingly played and sung by Caitlin Weal, were dressed as mere mortals, though Strephon looked Arcadian, while Phyllis wore ordinary modern dress. Perhaps a more shepherdess-like look would have been appropriate here – she seemed oddly anachronistic.
The actors all did a great job with their roles, both musically and as stage performers and dancers. It helped to have supertitles for songs and improved spoken lyrics on stage. Sophie Mortensen’s Iolanthe, as well as Kira Donner’s fairies Clair Wheatley and Tashana Hardy, alongside the fairy choir and gentlemen peers, sang and performed their roles well. It was a solid set.
Musically, the show was in very competent and assured hands under the direction of Maestro Johanne Fritzsch. The beautiful Sullivan-composed overture, with its deliberate pastoral overtones and a lushness in both strings and woodwinds, was very well played.
Orchestrally complex, the score offered both humor and levity, as well as pastoral music and lush orchestration that gave it heightened emotion. The Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra handled these changes well and with technical assurance, especially in the very fast sections.
Read: Theater review: A raisin in the sun
All in all, it was a wonderfully produced and delivered production of a difficult work for students to undertake. They handled it with great aplomb and a sense of joy and confidence.
Musically of a very high standard, it was one of the best productions of the opera school in recent years and deserving of all distinctions.
Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan
Presented by Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University
Conservatory Symphony Orchestra
Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, Southbank, Brisbane
Conductor: Johannes Fritsch
Director: Stuart Maunder
Costume designer: Simone Romaniuk
Lighting designer: Keith CLark
Ass. Direction and choreography: Lois Redman
Cast: Alla Yarosh, Sophie Mortensen, Kira Dooner, Clair Wheatley, Tashana Hardy, Caitlin Weal, Aidan Hodder, Dallas Tippet, Sebastian Maclaine, Oliver Heuzenroeder, Vikram Goonawardena and students from the Conservatory of Music
Iolanthe will be played until September 17, 2022.