Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant review – a fresh take on Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera

7 June 2023

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s musical excellence brings Sullivan’s score to life, but the challenge of Gilbert’s gender stereotyping proves difficult to overcome.

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida has always been a bit of a difficult sell; it received only 246 performances on its first run in 1884, and it has sat, since, as the middle, unloved, child between the early successes of Pirates, Pinafore and Patience, and the subsequent crowd-pullers of Mikado, Yeomen and Gondoliers. While it contains some of Sullivan’s best musical crafting (the sequence of numbers at the beginning of Act II, for example), somehow, beyond King Gama’s witty ‘If you give me your attention’, the operetta’s songs have never topped the G&S charts. Like that of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Ida’s plot has gender stereotyping (and witty tropes thereupon) stitched into its main seam, making performances of it in today’s world of sensitive sexual politics doubly challenging.

Simon Butteriss, as well as being a writer and director, is no stranger to buffo operatic roles, and might be regarded as the last scion of the D’Oyly Carte ‘Grossmith’ persona in the Savoy opera tradition. It was no surprise then, that the direction and reworking of Ida for a semi-staged performance at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall (as well as his channelling the late John Reed – even down to the outraged squeaks – into the Gama role) fell to him. Butteriss’ adaptation eschewed spoken dialogue, opting for a personally written and delivered narration. It was a clever idea, as Gilbert maybe wasn’t at his most pithy for this work, and a full performance of all three acts would have made for a lengthy evening.

Certainly, the narration was agile, witty and “…pedantically pentametering…”; it was packed full of topical references (“…whose views on schooling girls is much like the Taliban’s…”), and the plot was used as a vehicle for some gentle ribbing of the current culture wars. Perhaps this was the most that could be done with such an anachronistic tale without daring diehard fans’ petulance at the inauthenticity of a complete rewrite, but it all still felt a mite safe, and even, on occasion, collusive with the maintenance of easy humorous tropes around gender; here was nothing to upset (Adam’s) apple carts, or induce mauve-faced indignation in Daily Telegraph readers. And again, maybe this was well thought through given the demographic of a likely audience for a London G&S performance – but it still seemed like a missed opportunity.

“Butteriss’ adaptation eschewed spoken dialogue, opting for a personally written and delivered narration”

The costumes (by Dreamchasing Young Producers) were appropriately trad with the odd modern twist: the usual conquistadores armour for Gama’s sons; smocks for the denizens (both female and cross-dressing) of Castle Adamant, and a floaty white number for the Princess herself; the obvious St Trinian’s references were present and correct in Lady Blanche’s long school tie and sensible cardigan/academic gown, together with the hockey stick and croquet mallet brandished by Lady Psyche and Melissa in Act III.

When it came to the ‘Sullivan contribution’, no one could have been more suited to the job than John Wilson, whose career has recently undergone a seamless transition from his brilliant repackaging of 20th century Hollywood and Broadway musicals to becoming a much respected interpreter of British ‘classical’ music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Aided and abetted by the Orchestra (and Choir) of the Age of Enlightenment and a top-notch cast of principals, Wilson produced an immaculate account of the music.

Firstly, a big shout-out must go to the choir for their excellent handling of all the choruses; from the get-go (‘Search throughout the panorama’) you knew that here was blend, precision, and a fierce attention to summoning mood: the upper voices’ deliberately ragged and quavering reprise of ‘Death to the invader’, the exaggerated RP in ‘most politely’, and the studiously enunciated patter in ‘When anger spreads…’ were a joy; they even managed not to giggle for the ridiculous words of ‘Merrily ring the luncheon bell’. The orchestra (whose terroir this musical style most certainly is) turned in a stellar performance, and Wilson, with insouciant brilliance, brought out the best of Sullivan’s clever writing (that little oboe solo in the Overture, so typical of the composer, was played to perfection). It was also a pleasure to hear a full orchestra on stage, spread out, so the textures were clearly defined.

Sophie Bevan took the role of the eponymous princess; her voice wasn’t quite as sweet has it has been, and the odd top note (in ‘O Goddess Wise’) was a touch unfocused, but she maintained a charming lyrical quality, especially in ‘I built upon a rock’. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Lady Blanche was artfully delivered, with some impressive use of chest voice in ‘Come mighty Must’. Robert Hayward brought an unyielding sonority to King Hildebrand, and Benjamin Hulett as his son, Hilarion, produced just the right sort of warm English lyric tenor sound, which, when complemented by Ruairi Bowen’s edgier tones (as Cyril) and Charles Rice’s solid baritone (Florian) made for some great trio work, even if their campy antics when pretending to be female students felt a little gauche. Gama’s sons (Morgan Pearse, Robert Davies and Jonathan Brown) delivered some good comedic baritone work, and Bethany Horak-Hallett (Lady Psyche), Claire Ward (Sacharissa) and Marlene Devoe (Melissa) had their enjoyable moments in the sun. Of particular delight was Melissa and Blanche’s Act II duet ‘Now wouldn’t you like’. Sullivan occasionally produces these duets for similar low voices (Point and Shadbolt’s ‘Hereupon we’re both agreed’ in Yeomen, for example), and they’re always a bit of a rare treat; Devoe and Wyn-Rogers did not disappoint.

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