Nothing much has changed in the world of politics. That is one striking point brought home by watching Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Nashville Opera Artistic Director, John Hoomes, calls it “…the best operetta you’ll ever see that blends dancing woodland fairies and the British Parliament.” A fairy tale might seem to be an odd vehicle for political commentary but the very absurdity of the situation actually works to its advantage…
We are not quite as accepting of fairies as subject matter these days, but the political satire in Mr Gilbert’s libretto will never go out of style as long as there is ineptitude in government, laws that lack common sense, and self-serving, not-overly-bright politicians who follow their leaders in lock-step fashion. As in Gilbert and Sullivan’s day, there seem to be no shortage of these.
Iolanthe is a fairy who committed the crime of marrying a mortal. After being pardoned from her twenty-five year banishment by the Fairy Queen, Iolanthe reveals that she has a son, Strephon, who is half fairy (his upper half) and half mortal. Strephon is in love with Phyllis, a ward of the Lord Chancellor.
Complicating matters is the fact that most of the members of the House of Lords are also salivating after Phyllis. Further complication occurs when Strephon is seen embracing Iolanthe, who, being an immortal fairy, appears to be a girl of seventeen. Phyllis and the Peers refuse to believe that she is Strephon’s mother.
Iolanthe is not often produced in the United States, although it is hard to understand why. The operetta is fast-paced and funny with lots of surprises along the way. The delicious, audience-pleasing political satire woven into the improbable story resonates with US audiences, as with those elsewhere. The spectacle of a government official declaring “…if there is an institution…which is not susceptible of any improvement at all, it is the House of Lords!” and “I’ve a great respect for brains – I often wish I had some myself…,” brought hearty laughs from the Nashville audience, many of whom were probably mentally replacing “House of Lords” with “US Senate.”
Mr Sullivan’s music is varied, occasionally lush, and beautifully performed by members of the Nashville Symphony under the direction of Maestro William Boggs. As the Queen of the Fairies, Melissa Parks was not only vocally adept but displayed comic timing worthy of a professional comedienne. As Iolanthe, Kirsten Gunlogson was a stand-out as well. Her plea to the Lord Chancellor for Strephon’s happiness was a touching interlude, a rock of pure heartfelt emotion in a stream of silliness.
The rest of the cast ranged from adequate to admirable, although there were some uneven parts during ensemble pieces and duets, especially early on. The company seemed to gain its footing as the show progressed. The finale of Act One, perhaps the most traditionally “operatic” part of the operetta, was especially effective.
Act One’s fairy forest setting and Iolanthe rising from a stream offered opportunities for stunning visuals which unfortunately went unfulfilled by the disappointing set. The forest – with an inexplicably enormous mushroom, pinecone, and spider web – was rendered in dull colours. Rather than a stream, Iolanthe emerged from a cloud of dry-ice mist, an effective enough entrance except for the distracting noise of the machines producing it.
Stage Director Roger Stephens tweaked the libretto a bit, adding some contemporary lines. In many cases, this can be something to dread, but here the changes were brief and got a hearty laugh from the surprised audience. Lines about another Presidential term for George Bush followed by Hillary Clinton as “Queen” were out of place, yet hilarious. Improbably, the BBC also came in for some ribbing. The Fairy Queen sings about it helping her avoid lusting for a handsome mortal: “Oh BBC, you keep my heart from breaking. You put me to sleep …and keep my desire from waking.”