Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 satire on aristocracy and parliament, Iolanthe, contains what is probably their single greatest song. It comes in the second act, as the hapless, lovelorn Lord Chancellor, unable to sleep, conjures up the most bizarre of nightmares. It begins with straightforward insomnia (‘when you’re lying awake with a dismal headache/And repose is taboo’d by anxiety/I perceive you may use any language you choose/To indulge in without impropriety’) and then soon spins off into far richer and stranger directions, as he imagines a nightmarish Channel crossing morphing into a bicycle-bound trip across Salisbury Plain, complete with an 11-year old attorney who is trying to interest him in a card game. It then displays imagery worthy of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, as ‘you get a good spadesman to plant a small tradesman/First take off his boots with a boot-tree/And his legs will take root, and his fingers will shoot, and they’ll blossom and bud like a fruit tree.’
WS Gilbert’s fine flair for verbal humour is here matched by one of Arthur Sullivan’s most sophisticated patter songs, as the ascending and descending music mirrors both the sleeplessness and the voyages that the Lord Chancellor finds himself in. In Cal McCrystal’s excellent new ENO production of Iolanthe, the fine Andrew Shore does full credit to the piece, mixing humour with a kind of hapless pathos at his predicament. It is one of the many highlights of the evening, but it is to the company’s credit that it does not overshadow all around it.
Nobody goes to Gilbert and Sullivan for the complicated plots, but the one here is one of their most straightforward and accessible. Phyllis and Strephon are a young couple in love. All would be well were he not the son of the banished Iolanthe, and half-fairy, half-mortal, and she the ward of the Lord Chancellor, who, sick of seeing his many other wards married off to lucky young men, has finally decided that he wants his own share of the action, being a widower of many years standing. Of course, the course of true love never did run smooth, and with a chorus of peerless peers, attitude-laden fairies and the world’s unluckiest page, and you have the recipe for a wonderful evening.
McCrystal came to prominence as associate director on One Man, Two Guvnors, and has something of a reputation as a genius when it comes to choreographing physical comedy. His opera directing career has been less prolific, and my fear when walking in was that, just as some Shakespearean stagings shamelessly mug for cheap laughs, he would not trust in the innate humour of the material and desperately burlesque the whole thing. This is, thankfully, not the case. The repeated use of Clive Mantle as the Victorian-era firefighter Captain Shaw, prone to addressing the audience from the curtain and occasionally intervening on stage, might rile some, as might the Fairy Queen’s mispronounciation of Strephon as ‘Strapon’, but I found it all hilarious. And if you’re wondering where the big moments of physical comedy are, step forward the excellent Richard Leeming as the hitherto unlucky page, who, in Act II, displays flawless timing as he tries, and fails, to avoid being hit in ever-more inventive ways.
In fact, after a fair few disappointments at the ENO, this represents a magnificent return to form, as long as one isn’t expecting traditionalism. The late Paul Brown’s stage designs – the last he completed – are both witty and effective in their melding of fairyland and the House of Lords, and there are numerous excellent coups d’opera involving animals, performers in full flight and even, at one show-stopping moment, the unexpected arrival of a steam train upon the stage. Timothy Henty conducts with obvious enjoyment and sympathy for one of Sullivan’s greatest scores, and all the singers – not least Samantha Price as Iolanthe – are magnificent throughout.
Quibbles? It’s a bit long and self-indulgent (on press night, the promised two-and-a-half hour run time came in at nearer three), and that rare breed – the Gilbert and Sullivan purist – might well be horrified at some of the additions and liberties taken to make it all seem slightly more contemporary. (The fairies aren’t all lissom young girls, for instance.) Yet this would be the perfect introduction to G & S for anyone, as it’s hard to imagine this being made more accessible, or fun. Which in turn makes this the ideal gateway drug to ‘proper’ opera. And with The Marriage of Figaro, amongst others, coming up later in the season, there will be plenty of further chances to indulge. Let’s just hope that they’re all as good as this.
The ENO’s production of Iolanthe at the London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES until 7 April 2018. Production images by Clive Barda. For more information and tickets please visit the website.