Do you know there are at least two sung Iolanthes?
One is an opera in four scenes by Tchaikovsky - generally called Iolante, minus that silent "h" - that was premiered the same cold December night in 1892 as a balletic piece of fluff named Nutcracker. Less than a month later, Gustav Mahler conducted the first performance outside Russia.
The other Iolanthe is the seventh of the operas - or operettas, or comic operas - by the famous British team of Gilbert (the author) and Sullivan (the composer). It appeared a decade prior to Tchaikovsky's little-known opus. At the time - 1882 - these chaps were just reaching their stride. Indeed, the play - as the program notes for the recent production by the Durham Savoyards, Ltd., put it - was a big enough deal in Great Britain and the US, too, that it enjoyed a concurrent premiere on both sides of the pond. Yep, 'twas a very big deal, indeed!
It's every bit as silly as the rest of them. Now the Brits are known for their reserve, so to have a (purported) cast of 11 of them - plus three more whole choruses - letting down their hair - and in the process making fun of all the congenital dullards in the House of Peers (which we Yanks tend to call the House of Lords) - well, that was really something, in its day. Toss in a band of fairies (these fairies are [nearly] all women, for what it's worth), a child of one of them, sired by a much younger dolt who grew up to be Lord Chancellor, and a young woman of the purest moral fiber who is loved by everyone, and you begin to get the idea.
In a sense, I suppose, it could have the makings of an extended Saturday Night Live skit, but the music - in the G&S, a mixture of Mendelssohn, Old Empire, and Wagner - would not be nearly as interesting, and truth to tell it's a lot easier to laugh at other people's political chicanery than to find anything amusing about our own sad current state of affairs…. (Now if the Durham company had seen fit to offer a tea party at the conclusion, perhaps we could have come up with some jokes about that….)
And did I say that G&S is a bit of an acquired taste? Some - even some otherwise quite rabid opera lovers - never get it. But the Durham Savoyards have been doing G&S for a long time - 49 years, in fact. And at even the third performance of this run of Iolanthe, given on a lovely Sunday afternoon, the Carolina Theatre appeared to be virtually packed - among other things proving once again that the Bull City has not completely sold its soul to the Nederlanders and their expensive bus-&-truck entertainment spectaculars.
But back to the opera. The principals were Bob Clarke as the Lord Chancellor, Jim Burnette and John Adams as the two Earls, Jay Dunbar as the bearskin-hatted guard, and Demar Neal as Strephon, that half-man, half-fairy wannabe love object of the Maid Phyllis. (Did you notice the men are all named first? - must be some British custom.) The ladies were Lee Galbreath as the Queen (of the Fairies), Cathryn Hoffmann as Iolanthe (Strepon's mom, remember?), Lauren Hussey, Mary Elizabeth Hirsh Miller, and Laura Bevington as the Queen's aides-de-camp (or whatever one calls them), and Katharine Linker as Phyllis. As noted, there were three choruses - of Peers, of Fairies, and of the Court (the latter were seated in the refurbished boxes, overlooking the stage in the nicely-spruced-up auditorium). Alan Riley Jones conducted a mostly superb orchestra of 26 players - thank God the "ballet disease" of recorded instrumental music has not infected the Savoyards! The show was directed - handsomely - and choreographed - ridiculously - by Derrick Ivey. Richard Dideriksen did the remarkably effective set, and the lighting, which was really wonderful, was by Chris Bernier. Karen Guidry designed the costumes, all of which added considerably to the fun.
It was a delightful romp, and if we didn't catch every word (even from the 6th row), well, that's probably due to a whole series of things: Americans with mostly amateur voices affecting British accents while prancing around the stage; too much orchestra, some of the time; and the pacing of the opera, apt for the music but tough on singers not uniformly adept at hurling words distinctly to the very back of the hall. That said, we heard enough - and few can have failed to get the drift or, as an old choirmaster once said, "The overall effect." But bearing in mind this communications challenge, it might make sense for the Savoyards to consider having the principals, at least, wear body mics.
G&S requires decent acting and competent singing. Both were plentiful in Durham. The place went as berserk as mock-British reserve permitted.
Chances are good that most of those present can hardly wait for the big 50th anniversary presentation of The Pirates of Penzance next March.
We'll count on being there, too.
Huzza huzza huzza!