ENO is Gilbert and Sullivan’s home on the big stage. As the Royal Opera House Covent Garden has productions in the repertoire for nearly all of Verdi’s operas, ENO is working towards having bulletproof revivals for all the works of the Mr W S and Sir Arthur. Cal McCrystal, of Gifford’s Circus, Cirque du Soleil and the like, has kicked Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore up the arse and rolled them in glitter, gifting ENO productions that are popular, fun, easily updatable and likely to be trotted out regularly over the next 40 years.
Here, Samantha Price reprises the role of Iolanthe, a fairy banished to the bottom of a river for the heinous crime of falling in love with a mortal. When the court of the Fairy Queen (Catherine Wyn‑Rogers) dredges her up she tells them her crime was even worse; since her banishment she’s birthed Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth), her half-fairy, half-mortal son. He has also fallen in love illegally, with Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne). And as a ward in chancery, she must marry a member of the House of Lords, of course.
Whilst Gilbert’s libretto skewers the hypocrisies of the British state (again), Sullivan’s beautiful music pokes fun at the pastoral, paraphrasing Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Thanks to conductor Chris Hopkins, the ENO orchestra plays nimbly and sounds crisp; perfect energy for fairies dashing about.
On its debut in 2018, McCrystal’s Iolanthe was brash, hyperactive and insincere. It’s still all these things, but thankfully the dial has been turned down from 11/10 to a slightly more palatable 10/10. There is always something happening, everywhere and throughout this production. In many places this adds to the fun; Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries banging on the doors of the House of Lords (ENO audiences love that sort of thing) and Lizzi Gee’s dances are appropriately entertaining.
In more ways, the constant happening of things distracts. Phyllis and Strephon’s sweet Act I duet is purposefully overshadowed by some stagehands pratting about onstage, and there are plenty of moments where Gilbert’s work is made to take a back seat to whatever McCrystal wants to do. This is unnecessary in a strong piece with an equally impressive cast.
It’s fantastic to hear Price and Farnworth in the lead roles again. They’re brilliant together and zing off each other with excellent comic performances on their own merit. Likewise, Wyn‑Rogers contends very well with being made to fly, slung about this way and that across the stage; she delivers a brilliantly matronly performance, more Brünnhilde than Glinda.
Our Lord Chancellor is sung by the excellent comic baritone and G&S afficionado John Savournin, who tonight lacks some oomph and is somewhat overshadowed by the booming Ben McAteer as the Earl of Mountararat. Hopefully we’ll have the chance to see McAteer’s Chancellor in the next revival, he certainly earned his Sullivan stripes in the magnificent Scottish Opera productions of The Gondoliers and Utopia Ltd last year.
Creating the contrast of imagined idylls of the past and the dankness of Parliament are the designs of Paul Brown. These are beautiful, imaginative and faithful to the period. Overall, the mix of cast, staging and design is all there, if over-seasoned with ad libs.
Libretto by: W S Gilbert
Composed by: Arthur Sullivan
Directed by: Cal McCrystal
Conducted by: Chris Hopkins
Designed by: Paul Brown
Choreography by: Lizzi Gee