Iolanthe is fun and fairies and ENO gave us magic too. Fairies have been different over the ages, ENO’s fairies are multi-coloured Arthur Rackhamesque fairies of uncertain ages: fun and frolics are their territory. It fits fine and the company poked fun at the political pumpkins of our time.
It’s a five star production and the music is fantastic. The front of house announcements were made as stand-up comedy by Clive Mantle as a character fireman, who appears in the action to put out fires. The opening is further subverted with lights fading up on a faux Royal Box showing a sheep wearing a tiara, then a flamingo, the first of many running jokes.
However did we get in the situation that a steam engine on stage has become a cliché? Harry Potter of course, but here it’s a nineteenth century model that delivers the Lords on to stage in the rousing Act 1 chorus, unforgettable in this magical staging. I counted cameos of Boris and Gove amongst the heavy-drinking Lords. The gay card is played by the Lords as much as the fairies.
Iolanthe has one of Sullivan’s memorable overtures, starting oh-so-serious then taking us on to fairyland. Samantha Price (Iolanthe), John Savournin (The Lord Chancellor) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Queen of the Fairies), all in great voice, led the company in Sullivan’s music that embraces melodrama, comedy and patter songs. The phrasing is strikingly different from the classic D’Oyly Carte recordings from the Sixties; ENO are closer to grand opera than musical theatre so they are favouring beautiful musicality over comprehension; there are surtitles to help the audience. The production uses comedy to undermine the “serious” songs, the pantomime cow made several entrances, becoming more ridiculous at each appearance.
It’s bawdy, breasty and there’s a bare bum but there’s satire too, not quite as topical as you would find in Private Eye though there are many pointed jokes about moving to Manchester (as ENO is threatened with) and HS2. The Lords’ door is slammed in the face of Nadine when Boris tries to introduce her to the House. W.S. Gilbert’s original satire is pervasive, the whole premise of Iolanthe is deeply subversive.
Great staging, aerial acrobats, as well as flying entrances for the principals plus the stage lift. Very tight follow-spotting, footlights and subtle sound reinforcement gave this production the light touch the piece deserves. Oh we are so lucky to have English National Opera to showcase our English heritage.
Iolanthe by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Iolanthe a fairy, Strephon’s mother - Samantha Price
The Lord Chancellor - John Savournin
Queen of the Fairies - Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Phyllis an Arcadian shepherdess and Ward in Chancery - Ellie Laugharne
Strephon an Arcadian shepherd - Marcus Farnsworth
Earl Tolloller - Ruairi Bowen
Earl of Mountararat - Ben McAteer
Celia - Llio Evans
Leila fairies - Bethan Langford
Fleta - Petra Massey
Private Willis - Keel Watson
Page - Adam Brown
Chorus of Peers and Fairies
With Clive Mantle as Captain Shaw
soprano Natalie Herman; tenor Philip Clieve; basses Christopher Nairne, Paul Napier-Burrows, Maciek O’Shea
Conductor - Chris Hopkins
Assistant conductor - Murray Hipkin
English National Opera Chorus (Chorus director Martin Fitzpatrick)
English National Opera Orchestra (Leader Igor Yuzefovich)
Director - Cal McCrystal
Designer - Paul Brown
Lighting designer - Tim Mitchell
Lighting revived by - Ian Jackson-French
Choreographer - Lizzi Gee
Sound designer - Dominic Bilkey
Additional material by Toby Davies and Cal McCrystal