Saturday, March 24, 2007

Lyric Opera’s Iolanthe Does Justice to G&S Gem


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Christopher Jonstone and Priya Palekar as Strephon and Phyllis; Dan Hall as Lord Tolloller, Priya Palekar as Phyllis, and Robert Taylor as Lord Montararat; Martha Jane Weaver as Queen of the Fairies in Lyric Opera San Diego’s production of Iolanthe. Photos copyright © 2007 by Ken Jacques Photography; all rights reserved.

Long before Lyric Opera San Diego could even dream of its current program or its splendid new home in the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, it was known as the San Diego Gilbert and Sullivan Company — and while it’s since branched out to encompass everything from classic American musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I to full-scale operas like Rossini’s La Cenerentola, in every season they do at least one production that returns them to their roots. This year, their Gilbert and Sullivan entry is one of the team’s more obscure works; Iolanthe: Or, The Peer and the Peri, the team’s seventh collaboration, which premiered at London’s Savoy Theatre on November 25, 1882, four years after the blockbuster success of H.M.S. Pinafore had made their reputation.

While it’s not as boisterously funny as the three G&S blockbusters — Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado — Iolanthe is witty, charming and all too current in its satire of the foibles and frailties of politicians. In his essay on Sullivan in the 1939 Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia, Eric Hodgins proclaimed it the best of all the G&S operettas: “From the opening woodwind notes of the overture to the rollicking dance tune that concludes the last act, this opera never falters in the beauty and drama of its music or the perfection with which the words and action are carried forth by Sullivan’s skill.” Lyric Opera San Diego honors this rarely heard work with a production that, despite some flaws — notably the annoying insertion of modern-day political and cultural references into Gilbert’s libretto and a typically hammy, overacted performance by the company’s artistic director, J. Sherwood Montgomery — does justice to the piece.

Iolanthe’s plot is loosely based on an ancient legend (set seriously by Tchaikovsky in his last opera, Iolanta) about a fairy princess who married a mortal man and was exiled, condemned to live without either her husband or her fairy peers. In Gilbert’s take, Iolanthe (Laura Bueno) has spent the 25 years of her exile living in a bog with some frogs so she can keep an eye on her son Strephon (Christopher Jonstone), who’s a fairy from the waist up and a human from the waist down — a Gilbertian gag given some arch but blessedly underplayed sexual overtones by the cast and directors David Brannen and Leon Natker. Strephon, who’s 24, has fallen in love with 19-year-old Phyllis (Priya Palekar), whose guardian, the Lord Chancellor of Chancery Court (Montgomery), head of the House of Lords, has the hots for her himself — as do most of the rest of Britain’s unattached male nobility.

Plot complications ensue when, after the Queen of the Fairies (Martha Jane Weaver) releases Iolanthe from her banishment, Phyllis sees Iolanthe and Strephon together and naturally assumes he’s dumping her for another girlfriend. Since fairies (except their Queen, for reasons Gilbert doesn’t explain) are not only immortal but look 17 forever, she doesn’t believe this other woman can possibly be Strephon’s mother. On the rebound, Phyllis accepts the proposals of two of the lords but can’t decide which, and the Lord Chancellor sees his chance in the confusion to grant himself permission to marry Phyllis and seize her out from under the other three men in her life, but it all ends happily with Phyllis and Strephon together, the Lord Chancellor paired with Iolanthe — it turns out he is the mortal husband from whom she was forcibly separated — all the other fairies paired off with mortal men, the ban on fairy-mortal intermarriages lifted permanently and all the dramatis personae lifted off to fairyland.

Though the fairy parts of the plot date more than the political satire — at least that was the clear verdict of Lyric Opera’s opening-night audience March 23 — Iolanthe was written while Britain was in the midst of a public controversy over whether fairies existed, and laughably inept fake photographs of them were accepted by many (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes) as evidence that they did. The piece’s satirical element revolves mostly around the powerlessness of the House of Lords — which, during the Napoleonic wars (changed by Lyric Opera’s rewrite squad to the current war in Iraq) “did nothing in particular, and did it very well” — and the turmoil caused when Strephon, who via fairy magic is not only elected to Parliament but serves with both major parties and gets every bill he introduces passed, insists that admission to the House of Lords be by competitive examination. “Now that the peers are to be recruited entirely from persons of intelligence, I don’t see what use we are down here,” says Lord Tolloller (Dan Hall) as he and the other Lords agree to relocate permanently to fairyland with their new fairy brides.

Ironically, Lyric Opera San Diego is producing Iolanthe just as the British Parliament is in the middle of a heavy-duty debate over the future of the real House of Lords, with proposals ranging from eliminating the hereditary peerage — meaning you’d be appointed to the Lords for life but your children wouldn’t have the automatic right to succeed you — to electing it by popular vote, which might reverse its centuries-long slide into political irrelevance and turn it into a British version of the U.S. Senate. Iolanthe also supplies an intriguing footnote to the history of the U.S. Supreme Court; the late chief justice William Rehnquist saw it and was inspired by the Lord Chancellor’s costume to have huge gold chevrons sewn on the sleeves of his black judicial robe. The author of a New Yorker profile on Rehnquist suggested that he should have chosen to wear something else when he presided over the impeachment trial of former President Clinton, given the similarities between Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and the Lord Chancellor’s attempt to use his authority to force himself on a 19-year-old girl who doesn’t love him.

Actually, the Pam Stompoly-Erickson costume Montgomery wears in Lyric Opera’s production goes much further than Rehnquist’s did; he’s covered from neck to toe in gold stripes, which makes him look like an inmate of a gilded prison. Indeed, her designs throughout maintain the piece’s joyous humor — especially those of the chorus of fairies, who in the opening scene look like a Gay high-school student ran riot with his ideas for costuming the cheerleaders. The Lords come equipped with long capes which Brannen and Natker have the members of their chorus fling around themselves like Mexican folklórico dancers. The direction overall is sprightly and well paced, making the fairies properly winsome and the Lords properly pompous; the marvelous scene between Phyllis and her suitors, Lords Tolloller and Mountararat (Robert Taylor), in which Gilbert’s writing becomes almost Wildean in its lusciously “milked” absurdity and parody of social-class conventions, especially stands out for its direction and proves these performers can act as well as sing.

Vocally, by far the most impressive cast member is Priya Palekar as Phyllis. The role is the toughest in the score, especially in the scene in which she confronts Stephron and Iolanthe together and reacts to her apparent betrayal with flights of coloratura obviously meant as a parody of the mad scene in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. (Iolanthe is full of musical parodies: the overture evokes Mozart, the Act I finale is Rossinian and the music by which the Queen of the Fairies summons Iolanthe from her exile is clearly patterned on Wotan’s call to the earth goddess Erda in Wagner’s Ring.) Palekar has first-rate coloratura chops and easily meets Sullivan’s other vocal challenges; what’s more, she’s a good enough actress to turn a stick-figure ingénue heroine into a tough-minded woman determined to get what — and whom — she wants. Jonstone’s voice isn’t as strong; he’s got all the notes of his role but needs to work on projection. Still, he’s tall, dark, handsome and everything a fairy might want in a man. Montgomery handles the big patter songs in his usual mincing way, which is amusing and makes the point, but there are enough records of truly great G&S patter baritones (especially the late Martyn Green) to show that these numbers can be sung with more vocal beauty and cleaner diction and be even funnier that way.

Conductor Kelly Kuo also deserves raves. He doesn’t try to make Iolanthe into another Pinafore; instead, he savors the score’s unusual, almost Mozartean delicacy and the contrapuntal effects between the two choruses which Sullivan wrote into his score. The sets by Grosch Scenic Studio are up to Lyric Opera’s usual standards; the fairy glen in which Act I takes place looks like something from The Wizard of Oz and the London street for Act II places the action in front of a convincing backdrop showing the Houses of Parliament and the Thames river. Overall, despite those annoying anachronisms — the Fairy Queen’s love object gets changed from “Captain Shaw” to Johnny Depp and she even dances with a cutout of Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean costume — Lyric Opera’s Iolanthe is a first-rate production of a quite good, unfairly neglected work in the G&S canon. The production is dedicated to Lyric Opera’s former president, the late William Shearer, who died in March after over 20 years’ involvement with the company, and it’s a worthy memorial.

Iolanthe runs through Sunday, April 1 at the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Single tickets for Iolanthe are $30, $35, $40, $45, and $50, with reductions for groups (please call for group sales). Children aged 5 to 17 are half price. Tickets are now on sale at the box office at (619) 239-8836 or