SIR WILLIAM SCHWENCK GILBERT (1836 – 1911) and SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN (1842 – 1900): Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri—Robert Wells (The Lord Chancellor), Jacob Kato (George, Earl of Mountararat), Michael Gonzales, Jr. (Thomas, Earl of Tolloller), Baker Lawrimore (Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards), Brent Byhre (Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd), Brittany Griffin (Queen of the Fairies), Jeanette Luna (Iolanthe), Emily Armstrong (Celia, a fairy), Mackenzie Crim (Leila, a fairy), Michaela Kelly (Fleta, a fairy), Alicia Reid (Phyllis, an Arcadian shepherdess and Ward in Chancery); Chorus and Orchestra of Greensboro Light Opera and Song; David Holley, conductor [Produced, directed, and choreographed by David Holley; Lighting designs by Lucas Klingberg; Greensboro Light Opera and Song, Aycock Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Sunday, 21 June 2015]
‘Some things get lost in translation, I think.’ Thus was the relative paucity of successful productions in the United States of the works of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan once explained by an eminent interpreter of these gentlemen’s concoctions that, 140 years after the inauguration of their collaboration, still inspire widespread jocularity in Britain. Naturally, the words are the same for American speakers of English, but the language is not: many of the specific social and political situations lampooned in Gilbert’s libretti are as foreign to American listeners as Cantonese and Tagalog. Still, it seems counterintuitive that comedic depictions of peculiarities of Victorian Britain, especially those in the vernacular, are less relevant—surely the most dangerous word in opera—to contemporary American audiences than more serious examinations of episodes in Norse and Teutonic mythologies, ill-fated marriages among European royal houses, and idiosyncrasies of the courting customs of Eighteenth-Century Viennese aristocracy. Unless one's linguistic skills are very poor indeed, it is impossible to imagine anything being lost in translation in Greensboro Light Opera and Song’s production of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s seventh collaboration, Iolanthe, as faithful a recreation of any of the pair's works as one is apt to encounter anywhere in the world. Who could be more familiar to today's observers on either side of the Atlantic than inept politicians, ambitious social climbers, and lovers separated by circumstances beyond their control, whether they speak with Cockney or Carolina accents? Perhaps what eludes audiences not steeped in the traditions that shaped the genesis of a work like Iolanthe is why the characters one meets merit interest deeper than that granted to stereotypes. The foremost success of this performance of Iolanthe was the manner in which the ladies and gentlemen upon the stage transformed the symbolic archetypes they portrayed into people of flesh, blood, and real emotions who sang their way into the audiences' hearts.
GLOS's production placed Iolanthe in a visually-stimulating setting that, contrary to many stagings encountered in the world's theatres today, enhanced rather than distracted from the impact of the music. Because of the populist vein of much of his music, it is easy to overlook what a gifted composer Sir Arthur Sullivan was. Via John Goss, with whom he studied in his teens at the Royal Academy of Music, he benefited from a direct artistic lineage extending back to Mozart, and the quality of his work, whatever its ethos, far exceeded the imitation and dilettantism exhibited by the music of many of his contemporaries. Produced, directed, choreographed, and designed by GLOS's Artistic Director David Holley, who also conducted the performance, this Iolanthe enabled the biting wit of Gilbert's text and the considerable pulchritude of Sullivan's music to weave their spells uninhibitedly. Lucas Klingberg's lighting designs bathed Holley's attractive sets and the handsome cast in a warm, flattering glow that focused attention on the production's subtleties. Introduced to London in 1882, Iolanthe was the first of Gilbert's and Sullivan's works to be premièred in the newly-opened Savoy Theatre in the Strand, the world's first theatre lit wholly by electricity. GLOS's production charmingly paid homage to the groundbreaking scenic effects engendered by the Savoy's innovation with illuminated wands for the fairies and their queen, and Holley's scenic designs made excellent use of every millimeter of space available on—and beyond—Aycock Auditorium's stage. Still, there were a few scenic inconsistencies. When the characters, particularly Phyllis and Strephon, looked like refugees from Hogarth prints, it was strange to note that the royal monogram on the guard's house in Act Two settled the drama in the reign of the current Queen, Elizabeth II. Likewise, why was Private Willis standing guard on the South Bank, across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster? Considering that the Lord Chancellor's residence is also located within the Palace of Westminster, his sleepless wanderings having led him to the opposite bank of the river introduced a significantly-increased peril of misadventure of the riparian variety! The production was a model of employing adherence to the librettist's and composer's intentions to draw the audience into the soul of their work, however, and its scenic and musical glories were testaments to the intrinsic value of a score that, along with her siblings, is too often dismissed as frivolity.
His obvious virtues as administrator, director, designer, and, above all, tireless advocate for opera notwithstanding, it was on the podium that Holley contributed most indelibly to the success of this performance of Iolanthe. Under his baton, rhythms remained taut but never confining, and he infused the composer's melodies with the rubato for which they veritably cry out. Sullivan's orchestrations are far cleverer than the composer's reputation as a purveyor of gaiety suggests, and Holley and the GLOS Orchestra—violinists Naiara Sanchez and Galen Tim, violist Theresa Fox, cellist Karl Ronnevik, double bass player Rebecca Marland, flautist Amanda Mitchell, oboist Thomas Pappas, clarinetist Mark Cramer, trumpeter Chris Underwood, percussionist Andrew Dancy, and pianist Rachel AuBuchon—darted and danced through the energetic Overture. Sullivan's music for Iolanthe contains humorous echoes of a broad assortment of fellow composers' handiwork: Purcell makes an appearance in the Fairy Queen’s utterances, Offenbach's jollity shines through the Peers' and Fairies' choruses, the spirits of Mozart and Rossini soar over ensembles, and Sullivan's beloved Mendelssohn peeks around the corners of the music for Phyllis and Strephon. In Holley's handling, every affectionate tribute, wry allusion, and well-intentioned jibe was given its due, but the prevailing sentiment was not one of parody. Rather, the performance undulated with an unapologetic Romanticism that sharpened the edge of the satire. The surprisingly bold sexual innuendo—though a child of Victorian decorum, Iolanthe was also a contemporary of John Addington Symonds and Oscar Wilde, after all—was timed to perfection, with the conductor as attentive in dialogue as in musical numbers. [I observed similar concentration when I saw Kirill Petrenko conduct Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, and what a difference the Maestro’s 'pacing' of Hofmannsthal's dialogue made!] Every member of the orchestra performed his or her part with distinction, the playing marred by almost no lapses in intonation or ensemble. Holley’s tempi were obviously meticulously chosen but had the air of spontaneity about them, and even with interruptions of dialogue the music flowed organically. Holley earned special praise for his precise but unobtrusive cuing of all musical personnel. Why has this most basic element of conducting opera become a near-dead art?
The chorus that opens Act One, 'Tripping hither, tripping thither,' immediately revealed one of the production's unmistakable strengths, its cast of talented, enthusiastic youngsters for whom Gilbert's words and Sullivan's music were anything but alien territory. The merry band of fairies, anchored by the appropriately spritely Celia and Leila of Emily Armstrong and Mackenzie Crim, were a source of delight throughout the performance, the lovely voices of these ladies blending ravishingly with those of Michaela Kelly's Fleta, Chandler Clarke, Leary Davis, Mary B. Safrit, Lara Semetko, Georgia Smith, and Shelby Thiedeman. This was followed by 'Iolanthe! from thy dark exile thou art summoned,' the Fairy Queen's invocation to the banished Iolanthe. Costumed with a suggestion of Elizabethan finery that established a link between Gilbert's and Sullivan's character and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, reinforced in Act Two by Gilbert's homage to the Golden Age of 'good Queen Bess,' Brittany Griffin brought the otherworldly authority of the Sorceress in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas to the Queen's magisterial pronouncements. The ethereal mood of the scene was intensified with the entrance of Iolanthe, whose 'With humbled breast, and ev'ry hope laid low' drew from Jeanette Luna singing of focused simplicity, her warm mezzo-soprano inspiring the wish that Sullivan might have given his title character more music.
With a beguilingly innocent 'Good morrow, good mother,' the Strephon of baritone Brent Byhre bounded onto the stage with irrepressible boyish charisma. His ebullient spirit was not always matched by vocal security or comfort in Strephon's music, but the tender-hearted sincerity of his acting made amends. There was a bizarrely touching hint of wistfulness in Griffin's phrasing of the Queen's 'Fare thee well, attractive stranger,' and she and her subjects took leave of their newly-discovered, half-mortal relation with truly beautiful singing.
Having proved a very capable harpist in the opera's opening scene, Alicia Reid returned as an equally engaging Phyllis, lovingly joining Strephon in 'Good morrow, good lover.' Their Andante non troppo lento Duet, 'None shall part us from each other,' was shaped by both singers with the boundless imagination of young love. Like her earnest swain, Reid's Phyllis was sometimes more effective dramatically than vocally, her tone inconsistently projected and shrill at the top of the stave. She projected Phyllis's love for Strephon across the footlights like a ray of pure light, however, and her wiliness left no doubt that this Ward in Chancery was no one's shrinking violet.
The Entrance and March of Peers, 'Loudly let the trumpet bray,' was a vehicle for the steamrolling of the stage by the grimacing, scowling, and preening assemblage of Peers impersonated with salacious glee by Jason Barrios, Derek Jackenheimer, Lucas Johnston, John Jones, Baker Lawrimore, Zachary Pfrimmer, James Austin Porzenski, and Benjamin Ramsey. Like their Fairy counterparts, the Peers sang splendidly, producing a wall of chest-poundingly masculine sound. The sheer fun of the young men's singing was brilliant and set the stage for the arrival of the larger-than-life but smaller-than-he-imagines Lord Chancellor. Robert Wells burst onto the stage as though fired from a canon, and his voicing of the Lord Chancellor's 'The law is the true embodiment of ev'rything that's excellent' was no less comically volatile. In this performance, Wells was the epitome of the Gilbert and Sullivan leading man: rubber-faced as Red Skelton and limber as a ballerina, he both was unafraid of making a fool of himself in order to elucidate the Lord Chancellor's foibles and sounded as though he could have sung Rigoletto had he been asked to do so. Words rolled off of his tongue like fireflies released from a child's hand.
Combining with Reid's annoyed Phyllis in the trio 'My well-loved lord and guardian dear,' Lords Tolloller and Mountararat were portrayed with the swagger and easy camaraderie of rowdy frat boys by tenor Michael Gonzales, Jr. and baritone Jacob Kato. Gonzales sang the mustachio-twirling Tolloller's Barcarole, 'Of all the young ladies I know, this pretty young lady's the fairest,' with the assurance of a dandy as convinced of his own attractiveness as of that of his beloved. Kato answered with a robust performance of Mountararat's 'Though the views of the house have diverged on ev'ry conceivable motion,' but Reid silenced both of her would-be suitors with Phyllis's 'I'm very much pained to refuse, but I'll stick to my pipes and my tabors,' uproariously delivering the lines, 'I can spell all the words that I use, and my grammar's as good as my neighbours.' Gonzales responded to Phyllis's 'Nay, tempt me not, to wealth I'll not be bound' with a heartfelt delivery of Tolloller’s 'Spurn not the nobly born.’ His glistening, heady singing was one of the performance’s constant enchantments.
Wells proclaimed the Lord Chancellor’s parable in song to the despondent Strephon, 'When I went to the Bar as a very young man, said I to myself—said I,' with superb self-righteousness, utterly oblivious to Strephon’s distress. The young man’s despair poured out in Byhre’s singing of 'When darkly looms the day, and all is dull and grey,' and Luna’s warmly maternal comforting of the lad ideally triggering the scene of affection understandably misinterpreted by Phyllis and her regiment of aristocratic fops. Inconvenient as the reality of being a man of five-and-twenty years with a mother whose visage appears not a day past seventeen may be, who would deny an eternally-youthful mother as gorgeous as Luna’s Iolanthe? Expressing the befuddled and enraged Phyllis’s response to witnessing what she misinterpreted as Strephon’s amorous rendezvous with another woman, Reid took advantage of the ‘long cadenza’ indicated in Sullivan’s score with a rocketing interpolation of a portion of the cadenza from the Mad Scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The Act One finale, a battle of wills between the Fairies and Peers, was waged with the confidence of parties certain of their victory. In truth, Act One runs slightly long, but in this performance it seemed to whiz by like the crack of a whip.
Lawrimore launched Act Two with a traversal of ‘When all night long a chap remains,’ the song of Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards, that lacked only the last word in rolling basso profondo resonance. The ensemble’s singing of the Fairies’ and Peers’ chorus 'Strephon's a member of Parliament!' wanted for nothing, the choristers’ voices combining riotously. Their vigor extended to Kato’s performance of Mountararat’s song 'When Britain really ruled the waves,’ which this gifted young singer dispatched with excellent diction and ringing top notes. He and his partners in the peerage melted in the glimmer of Celia’s and Leila’s duet with chorus 'In vain to us you plead—Don't go!' Arguments posed by such appealing ladies can hardly be resisted! Griffin’s sonorous lower register was heard again with pleasure in the Queen’s song 'Oh, foolish fay, think you because his brave array my bosom thaws,’ one of those moments in which the modern listener might justifiably ask whether Her Majesty is endeavoring to convince herself or her frolicsome followers of her imperviousness to manly magnetism. Similar emotions were the foundation upon which Phyllis, Tolloller, Mountararat, and Private Willis built their Quartet, 'Tho' p'rhaps I may incur your blame,' the singers’ voices intertwining appealingly. Gonzales and Kato made Tolloller’s and Mountararat’s paean to friendship more than a comic exercise: like the Queen’s farewell to Strephon in Act One, there was something strangely moving in the daft earls’ devotion to their bond.
Wells intoned the Lord Chancellor’s recitative 'Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest' with consummate artistry, making the scene seem like a truly funny hybrid of related scenes in Händel’s Orlando and Bellini’s La sonnambula. His Allegro ma non troppo song 'When you're lying awake with a dismal headache, and repose is taboo'd by anxiety,’ one of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s signature numbers, was chirruped with the rousing vivacity of Figaro’s ‘Largo al factotum’ in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Wells’s mastery of the song encompassing almost every syllable of its breakneck patter. His skills as a comedian were complemented by those of Gonzales and Kato in their coltish account of the Trio for the Lord Chancellor, Tolloller, and Mountararat, 'He who shies at such a prize.’ The physicality of their droll interactions was paralleled by the excellence of their singing.
Their misunderstandings sorted out, Reid and Byhre restored to Phyllis’s and Strephon’s duet 'If we're weak enough to tarry ere we marry' the sweet tones of besotted youths. Their singing was here at its strongest, their diaphanous voices uniting entrancingly. The hopes of her son and his betrothed in danger of being dashed, Iolanthe is compelled to again break her fairy vows and reveal herself to the Lord Chancellor, who proves to be none other than her husband. Having long believed Iolanthe to have died and never even having known that he has a son, the Lord Chancellor is at once bewildered and utterly altered. Luna’s voice was like a tsunami sweeping across the open sea in Iolanthe’s recitative 'My lord, a suppliant at your feet I kneel' and the Andante non troppo lento Ballad 'He loves! If in the bygone years thine eyes have ever shed tears.’ Here, finally, was the opportunity to shine that Luna deserved, short-lived though it was. Accepting the inevitability of attraction, the ensemble exclaimed the waltz finale, 'Soon as we may, off and away,’ with unfettered jubilation. It was for this cast of dedicated young artists precisely as Gilbert’s own words indicate: ‘Happy exchange—House of Peers for House of Peris!’
It is easy to dismiss Gilbert's and Sullivan's operas—and operas they are and nothing less—as fare too British for the American palate. As Britons of a certain age might reply, What rot! In his libretto for The Gondoliers, Gilbert wrote that 'when everyone is somebody, then no one's anybody'; a clever conceit, that, but one with unique pertinence to today's operatic milieu. Both the empty-headed praise lavished on productions with the admirable intention of ensuring opera's survival and the undeviating rejection by some connoisseurs of all but artists of purportedly-glorious pasts disregard the genuinely exceptional work being done by regional opera companies from Atlantic to Pacific. Lamenting the current state of this or that once-great institution is an inexcusable waste of time and resources when a company like Greensboro Light Opera and Song offers audiences feasts as delectable as this production of Iolanthe. Reluctant as our society is to admit it, everyone cannot be somebody; not in the lecture hall, the workplace, or the opera house. GLOS's Iolanthe made no self-congratulatory pretensions at being 'somebody,' which is perhaps the most cogent reason why it was.
I am the very model of a modern…Wait, wrong show: Baritone Robert Wells as the Lord Chancellor in Greensboro Light Opera and Song's production of Gilbert's and Sullivan's Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri, 21 June 2015 [Photo by Martin Kane, © by UNCG University Relations]