Founded in 1869 by Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, Girton College was Britain’s first residential college for women offering a college degree. Its opening was followed two years later by Newnham College, and at the University of Oxford, Somerville College in 1879 and Lady Margaret Hall in 1878. The University of London opened its first women’s college in 1882. Women’s education was on the move in Victorian England.
On January 5, 1884, the latest Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Princess Ida; or, Castle Adamant opened at the Savoy Theatre for a run of 246 performances. It was a satire of feminism and women’s education, pitting the two ingénue roles against each other in fluttery conflict. A not-unusual G&S plot device that inevitably ends in flowers, ecstatic ensemble singing and the promise of wedding cakes.
Gilbert’s original script is full of Victorian gentlemen prejudices a bit too sexist for our current tastes. In 1994 Barbara Heroux updated the script for the Lamplighters and her version was to garner a heap of awards at the 1995 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in the UK.
The Lamplighters’ newest version of the production opened on Saturday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and under Heroux’ stage direction is very palatable fare, providing a colorful and lively version of G&S’s own brand of silly logic and good-natured comedy. The changes were seamless, offering Princess Ida enough sovereignty and dignity to match the perfect adoration of her Prince. Their happily-ever-after seemed more likely than most.
The Castle Adamant is the women’s university to which Princess Ida has sequestered herself to be with other aspiring women students, learning under the guidance of Lady Psyche (Rose Frazier), Professor of Humanities, and Lady Blanche (Elana Cowen), Professor of Abstract Science.
Sadly, Princess Ida has been engaged and married since the age of one to Prince Hilarion, and her idyllic life is about to crash on the rocks of an arranged marriage. It is to her good fortune that Hilarion has been madly in love with Ida since the age of two, when he was twice her age.
Jennifer Ashworth sings the role of Princess Ida, and she not only seems comfortable in this demanding soprano role, she has a very solid stage presence, oozing grace and rationality. Robert Vann makes a wonderful Hilarion, vocally matching Ashworth and capable of projecting a character that is both stalwart and adoring.
To match and mate the Ladies Psyche and Blanche are two of Hilarion’s mates, Cyril (Jonathan Potter) and Florian (Ron Houk), who accompany the Prince to the Castle Adamant so he can plead his matrimonial case to Princess Ida. They disguise themselves as women students, but are discovered, setting off a war between the sexes, which resonates with Hilarion’s father King Hildebrand’s attack of the Castle Adamant.
King Gama, Ida’s bad-tempered father, offers the patter role, played deliciously by Charles Martin, and he’s supported by Ida’s three ginormous brothers on testosterone overload, Arac (Robby Stafford), Guron (Pete Shoemaker)and Scynthius (Sam Rabinowitz), in an unlikely analog to the Three Little Maids.
Add to this heaps of lively young singers, bright and vaguely medieval costumes of an extravagant cut, gorgeous sets in vivid color with bravura designs and a talented band and you’ve got a hit. And a refreshingly foolish night off from the diseases of contemporary living and crisis politics!
– Jaime Robles
The Lamplighters Princess Ida has additional performances in Walnut Creek and Mountain View. For information and tickets, visit lamplighters.org.