Tripping hither, tripping thither
Nobody knows why or whither ...
“Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri,” is 108 years old. That’s long in the tooth for any satiric comedy. It’s a tribute to the efforts of its creators that the comic opera endures, remaining as goofy and lovable as perhaps it was when first presented at London’s Savoy Theatre. This past August 2, the Lamplighters began a run of their fine production of this satiric opera.
After having spent the majority of the past three years in the UK, I’ve learned a lot about English culture. One of the plusses of living in England, I suppose, is that I better understand Gilbert and Sullivan. Not that their opera is that difficult to understand. It’s almost commedia dell’arte in its reliance on a field of stereotypical characters, who change ever so slightly based on the opera’s setting. Whether set in Japan, Venice or southwestern England, a Gilbert and Sullivan opera sticks to its formula: the innocent and pure lovers driven apart by the stupidity of their surrounding culture, ultimately win each other’s hand. The interfering culture trips over its own cloak, the dagger was only a stage device. And oh yeah, there’s always an astounding patter song. Or two.
There are aspects of British culture, however, that Americans will probably never get. First among those is the class system. “Iolanthe” was meant to satirize the aristocracy – though that’s a favorite Gilbert and Sullivan target – specifically through lampooning the House of Lords. Gilbert’s peers are brainless, over-privileged clowns who entangle the law and spend most of their time mooning after their wards and pursuing age-inappropriate liaisons. Knowing how deep into the marrow of the bone class privilege dwells in England, I’m amazed at Gilbert and Sullivan’s audacity. They make Lenny Bruce look tame.
For us they are a romp. And a delightful romp at that. Lamplighters does a great job with this opera, preserving the lightness and gaiety that enabled Gilbert to pursue his cultural critique. The singers seemed wonderfully suited to their roles. Sonia Gariaeff sang the Queen of the Fairies, a Katisha kind of role, which is to say the man-crazed middle-aged woman, and she imbued the part with grace and a dash of dignity. Iolanthe, who has been banished from the fairy kingdom for marrying a human, was sung by lovely Molly Mahoney. Her human paramour, the bumbling legal mishap of a Lord Chancellor (I’ve been told no one pays any attention to the Lord Chancellor even to this day, but I rather doubt that) was sung and acted admirably by Rick Williams, though his patter could be crisper.
The lovers played sweetly by John Melis (Strephon) and Elena Galván (Phyllis) embody the contradictions of the opera’s characters. A fairy down to the waist and a human from the waist down, the Arcadian shepherd Strephon causes a political mess when he enters the House of Lords. With one leg liberal and the other conservative, he is unstoppable in creating political alliances. Phyllis has a similar role when she catches the eye of the entire House of Lords, their eager pursuit reduced down finally to two would-be fiancés. Phyllis doesn’t recognize that there’s any difference between her red-robed ermine-crowned suitors, Lord Tolloller (Michael Desnoyers) and Lord Mountararat (Robby Stafford) beyond vocal fach.
Sean Irwin was a wonderful Private Willis, deep voiced and fairy-winged. And choruses of fairies and peers tripped hither and thither with élan. The orchestra, conducted by Baker Peeples, was excellent.
Photo: Molly Mahoney as Iolanthe and Sonia Gariaeff as the Fairy Queen in the Lamplighters’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”. Photo by Lucas Buxman.
Lamplighters’ “Iolanthe” continues with performances at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, August 16–18 and the Bankhead Theatre, Livermore, August 24–25. www.lamplighters.org/season/tickets.html or (415) 978-ARTS (2787).