San Francisco Symphony’s ‘Iolanthe’

Tripping hither, tripping thither … 

When the San Francisco Symphony’s chorus members enter the stage at Davies Hall, they are all in formal black. The women, though, are sporting huge, dressy hats, shaped in brightly colored semi-transparent netting. One woman seems to have a swan perched on her head.

It’s all perfectly in keeping with the bright pink patterned sections where they are sitting—the women on one side, the men on the other—divided by a bright green, seemingly carpeted walkway, over which hangs a neon-looking moon. The orchestra, divided as well on either side of the tiny stage, sits below them.

As the music cranks up, it isn’t hard to figure out where we are—the inimitably fun, fragile and frantic world of Gilbert and Sullivan. With the entrance of tiny ballerinas, their long, slender legs sheathed in pink tights, glittering wings set on their exquisitely boned backs, and wreaths of delectable floral nonsense on their heads, it’s clear we are in fairyland, and that can only mean Iolanthe.

Almost all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are about the silliness of Victorian England’s institutions. Their’s is a social commentary that is both incisive and loving of its society’s foibles. There is a consistency in the approach and sameness in the rhythms of the language and the melodic path of the music. Sameness even in characters and the songs they sing, which is especially clear in the duo’s most popular plays. There are the young lovers: Strephon and Phyllis (Iolanthe), Nanki Poo and Yum Yum (The Mikado), Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine (H.M.S. Pinafore), Frederick and Mabel (Pirates of Penzance). The inept and highly placed functionary who spins us at top speed through a self-defining patter song of preposterous and witty lyrics: Lord Chancellor (Iolanthe), Ko Ko (The Mikado), Sir Joseph (H.M.S. Pinafore), and Major General Stanley (Pirates of Penzance). And a formidable woman of a certain age—and plainness—who wreaks some havoc between the lovers before being assigned to a suitable marriage: the Fairy Queen (Iolanthe), Katisha (The Mikado), Little Buttercup (H.M.S. Pinafore), and Ruth (Pirates of Penzance).

…and nobody knows why or whither.

The plot is almost always the standard comedic fare: boy and girl fall in love; topsy-turvy and logically bizarre events of fate drive them apart; equally topsy-turvy and logically bizarre events of fate bring them together, culminating in a huge celebration of marriage that unites all the play’s lonely hearts.

As Victorian as these plays may be, they remain fresh. Whatever allowed their creators to set their characters in motion over and over, through the same types of songs, has served them well through the past 150 or so years. The idea that love conquers all—despite the suitableness of arranged marriages—and will have its way—no matter the proscriptions of society—retains its popularity in our own idealistically romantic and whimsical society.

Soprano Sally Matthews sings the lusciously naïve Phyllis, and baritone Lucas Meachem is her match as the brainless but affable half-fairy-half-mortal Strephon in the semi-staged production at San Francisco Symphony. It was lovely but marred by a necessary (?) amplification that added enough reverberation to the voices to make some of the lyrics difficult to understand. Without supertitles to help, this was a serious handicap to understanding the text. Lord Chancellor’s brilliant patter song, “Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest,” was, unless you knew the lyrics well, mostly unintelligible, despite Richard Suart’s skillful but breakneck-speed delivery.

Joyce Castle’s fine portrayal of the daftly pompous Fairy Queen did a lot to keep the operetta on track. And her “love song” to Private Willis, who was depicted in an equally fine performance by Robert Lloyd, was lovely.

I’m a sucker for this particular Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, and I was totally charmed. The tiny dancers—the fairies in pastel chiffon, and the parliamentary pages in black tunics and crowns, both choreographed by stage director Patricia Birch—lofted us into an otherworldly dimension, far away from the concert hall’s acoustic devices, and that’s where we all stayed until the final note.

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post