The 120-voice MasterVoices choir performs classics of the choral canon but has also made vivid concert stagings a specialty over the years. At Carnegie Hall last night, led by conductor and director Ted Sperling, the 120-piece chorus plus soloists and orchestra staged a colorful and thoroughly enjoyable version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, one of the pair’s many hit comic operas.
First staged in 1882, Iolanthe opened simultaneously in London and New York. The production at London’s new Savoy Theatre was the world’s first entirely electrically-lit theatrical production. The story, with its fairies, charms, and politicians, perhaps seemed appropriate for the debut of a “magical” new technology.
Iolanthe took a wry look at male-female relations and political corruption. It skewered the entitled and sometimes horribly inept Peers who held their positions in the House of Lords through inheritance. Yet somehow Gilbert and Sullivan managed to please those politicians as well.
And although the libretto references topical matters of the time – it even calls out a certain Captain Shaw, a fire chief who was in the audience at the London premiere – it still pleases us, too, 130 years later. Such was its musical and conceptual genius. And like many G&S operas, the issues it tackles in brilliant comic style remain issues today.
Fairies, Peers, and Polish
MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale) has long stood atop New York’s large ecosystem of volunteer choirs. It’s also easily large enough to project over an orchestra, especially the relatively small one that ably accompanied. The only significant hiccup was in the sequence when the Peers first appear. All the men of the choir emerged from behind the orchestra to line up downstage, where, unable to see the conductor, they rushed their lines.
But professional polish dominated, from the soulful clarinet feature in the Overture and the graceful moves of the Dancing Fairy (Tiler Peck of the New York City Ballet, in a newly conjured role) to the hilarious Finale of Act I and David Garrison’s performance of the stupendously difficult patter song “Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest” (the “Nightmare Song”) in Act II.
Oozing Broadway aplomb, Christine Ebersole made a deliciously (yet judiciously) over-the-top Fairy Queen. Santino Fontana was in sterling voice as a drolly mugging Lord Mountararat, paired with an equally sturdy Jason Danieley as Lord Tolloller. Sweet scenes came off well: Schyler Vargas as Strephon and Ashley Fabian as Phyllis, both with acting skills to match their top-notch singing, struck just the right balance of tenderness and lightheartedness singing “None shall part us from each other.” Iolanthe (Shereen Ahmed) did the same when singing “My lord, a suppliant at your feet,” showcasing the shining voice that has made her a rising star. On the low end, Philip Boykin was a big crowd-pleaser as Private Willis, his steely-deep voice plunging into the basso profundo realm.
All of that, together with the abundant comic business, contributed to the evening’s success. That’s thanks in no small part to Sperling’s smooth staging, considering the limited space and the soloists being (for the dialogue) on-book. He had also, as usual, marshaled the skilled choristers into a well-balanced whole with a large yet positively sleek sound as the fairies, the Peers, and the winking commentary. Tracy Christensen’s costumes and Andrew Palermo’s choreography sparkled too.
‘Iolanthe’ in the 21st Century
The supertitle display provided a bit of commentary as well, occasionally explaining now-obscure references sometimes in tongue-in-cheek style. Part of me wishes full-fledged G&S productions would always provide supertitles, as it can be hard to follow some of the lyrics, and Gilbert’s are, of course, unparalleled in cleverness.
On the other hand, supertitles do draw your eye away from the pageantry on stage – which, in productions like those of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, can be rich as a Peer.
Last night’s show, being a concert staging, put the focus on the music and lyrics. But it was a banger of a concert staging, providing the steak-and-kidney pie – if not the fancy trimmings – of a true Gilbert and Sullivan production.