Lively and colourful Iolanthe from Wellington G&S Light Opera

Iolanthe by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W S Gilbert
(Wellington G&S Light Opera Company)

Wellington Opera House

Friday 14 July 7:30 pm

Iolanthe is one of the operettas admired by many who take it upon themselves to judge musical worth, and it doesn’t rank among the most popular, with Pirates, Mikado, Gondoliers and Pinafore. The company last staged Iolanthe in 2008.

Here was a chance to see how those opinions stack up with someone who was not seeing it for the first time (I saw the 2008 production and reviewed it in The Dominion Post), but whose memory needed to be prompted a bit. Over the years I have come to enjoy Offenbach and certain of the Viennese school, most conspicuously, Die Fledermaus, and their close comic relatives by Rossini and Donizetti, rather more than G&S.

G&S has carved a niche in the English-speaking consciousness so that it is not really compared with the equivalent operetta or comic opera genres across the Channel. The Wellington company however attempted to broaden its appeal by adding the words ‘light opera’ to its title a decade or more ago, to accord with staging The Tales of Hoffmann, Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow, The Gypsy Baron; there’s a great deal more to explore, particularly Offenbach.

The music may not be quite as strong and memorable as in the four most popular works, but there are three or four other G&S pieces, including Iolanthe, that do belong up there with the best.

The curtain remained down during the short colourful overture and rose on a possibly somewhat irrelevant but delightful pastoral scene that could as well have been around the Waikato or Rangitikei as in the Home counties. Presumably, John Goddard, listed as Director, was responsible for the stage design, as no specific stage designer was named.

[Monday 17 July, John Goddard commented on my reference to the stage design.  Oddly, he seems to have read the sentence above as suggesting that he was not the director, because I speculated that because no stage designer was named at all, perhaps Goddard was also responsible for stage design, which is not unknown in small – even large – companies. He explains that the set which ‘has been around for generations’, was designed and built by Wilf Conroy; but his name and that information did not appear in the programme. L.T.]

The fairies presented a lovely multi-coloured scene and the chorus singing just what the situation calls for, neither too polished nor too uniform in ensemble: simply bright and delightful. Soloists appear one by one – Stephanie Gartrell as the Fairy Queen, then Iolanthe herself (Alys Pullein), the title role that’s probably famous for having the least to do in all opera. She had been banished from the fairy court for marrying a mortal (shades of Dvorák’s Rusalka), and after being restored, has her brief moments, introducing her son, Strephon (Andrew Mankowski). He reveals that he’s fairy to the waist and human below that. This was a major part, and Mankowski both looked and acted the part in a sort-of fey manner, as well as revealing an engaging baritone voice.

Strephon is in love with Phyllis, the ward of Chancery, and she is, of course, loved not only by the Lord Chancellor himself but by the entire House of Lords, which is the crucial dilemma that is the pivot of the drama. Phyllis was sung by Karishma Thanawala, whose appearance, acting charm and voice combined to created a perfectly delightful character.

The crux of the story, apart from the constitutional complexities that arose through the admission of fairies to the House of Lords, is the Lord Chancellor’s debate with himself over the conflict of interest in his seeking to marry Phyllis, a ward of Chancery.

Chris Whelan has long been a major strength in the company; here as the self-serving (if he can get away with it) Lord Chancellor, he displays both foppishness and ineffectual self-interest, but he commands the stage. His splendid number, ‘When I went to the bar’, was the typical patter song in anapaests (triplets, stress on last syllable), satirising the way the stupid can yet succeed. And I asked Chris Whelan to allow me to print his brilliant little, very topical reworking in the same metre of ‘When you’re lying awake’:

For you dream you are walking in Wellington talking to strangers about hair-net shopping,
Which is odd, you admit, given hair loss has hit, rather harder on your thinning topping.
When you see walk along, in a jostling throng, a crowd of underemployed politicians.
They are arguing loudly and forming up proudly – aligning in strange new positions.
There’s the chap from the left, firmly claiming he’s best as a partner for unaligned greenies,
While the man from the right declares with some spite – their chances are tiny to teeny.
There’s the folks checking polls before choosing their goals and declaring it best for the people.
And the strange little man with the bow tie and tan claiming centrism makes us all equal.
First the left and lefter claim their way is bester and hope no one checks out their numbers
Then the right and the righter do gather in tighter declaring the left as shrill bumblers.
But in moments the troop quickly leap to regroup as the polling shows new ways for reigning,
While the voters stand round with a dumbfounded frown suspecting they’re in for a caning.
Then a figure appears flashing grins and dark sneers – it is Winston the ever outrageous,
Double-breasted his suit and with gaze resolute, claiming he alone “can bring back greatness”.
He compares naive greens to hysterical teens and dismisses the Nats bland abjectness.
“As for Labour”, he cries, “their policy dies on the altar of abject correctness”.
All the parties look glum as their voters succumb to this populist damned agitator,
But he rounds with a grin and a small violin claiming “surely I’ll play nicely later.”
So the parties all split and reform in a bit saying “they don’t heed populist stances”,
And yet none of them dawdles in off’ring him baubles to join them to prop up their chances.

Two lesser members of the Lords, Mountararat and Tolloller (David McKenzie and Kevin O’Kane), have significant parts to play, and they emerge with increasing clarity and conviction. David McKenzie, as Lord Mountararat, made a great job of his jingoistic ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’, as he insists on the dangers of the House of Lords being ruled by intellectuals.

As Private Willis (now the ‘Usher of the Black Rod’), Lindsay Groves opens act 2 with the famous ‘When all night long…’ reflecting on the qualifications demanded for the House of Lords, that brains be left outside, and concludes by recognising the inevitable: that ‘every boy and every girl’ …becomes… ‘a little Liberal or else a little Conservative’.

A comment on the excellent chorus is perhaps the place to mention the extent of the cast’s involvement in many areas of Wellington choral music, as revealed in the biographies in the printed programme. It’s almost a complete inventory of the best Wellington choirs: the chorus of New Zealand Opera, the Orpheus Choir, The Tudor Consort, Nota Bene, Cantoris, the New Zealand Youth Choir, Supertonic Choir, Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, Inspirare. And I’m sure that a list detailing the activities of individual chorus members would reinforce that.

A proper orchestra is as essential to G&S as to any opera production and it lent a real professional touch that there was a good body of players in the pit, mainly from Orchestra Wellington, under music director Hugh McMillan. Ensemble between pit and stage was occasionally out of focus – the singing a little over-enthusiasic, but an overall spirit of enjoyment and orchestral professionalism supported the whole performance, lending it lively rhythm and momentum, yet never getting in the way of the singers. Microphones were used around the stage and while they can sometimes be useful, allowing words to be heard more distinctly, the sound tended to vary according to the singer’s position on the stage.

The company now takes the production to Palmerston North (Regent, 22 July) and Napier (Municipal Theatre, 29 July). If you’ve missed it in on the Kapiti Coast or Wellington, I’d recommend finding a pretext to take a trip to the Manawatu or Hawke’s Bay to catch this very well presented and sung operetta that’s lively and funny in the inimitable style of one of the most famous composer/librettist partnerships in the history of lyric theatre.

8 thoughts on “Lively and colourful Iolanthe from Wellington G&S Light Opera

  1. John Goddard says:

    Listed as director, because he was.

    The set, is the set, has been the set, and required to be used as the set, regardless of director’s wish to redesign. But that was the brief. Designed and created by Wilf Conroy it has been around for generations. Wrong assumption there Lindis. But thanks for the other nice words. John Goddard.

  2. Al Gustafson says:

    I thought Andrew was a base?

    And alas I feature in none of the choirs listed and often pinch myself for being able to perform with such talent. Mores the pity I didn’t venture down this path at the beginning of my life and not towards its end.

  3. Stuart Gordon says:

    To be clear, the Scene 1 arcadian rural backdrop as used is a cherished work of art that had been produced specifically for Iolanthe. Other legacy Iolanthe scenic art and stage furniture was not used.

  4. Rozie Gorman says:

    Thank you for asking permission to publish Chris Whelan’s as put it re=working of “When you’re lying awake; very very cleverly written and so topical after a very interesting run up to the election where you were never quite sure what was going to happen next and in fact we still don’t know, not until the 7th at least!!

    I suggested my Mum read this as she, like Chris Whelan is equally talented in clever writing of poetry and like I thought she enjoyed it as much as I did!

  5. Lindis Taylor says:

    Thanks for the comment Rozie. I’d been similarly impressed by Chris’s poetic embellishment of Gondoliers in 2015 (see 19 September 2015), delighting in the delicate political asides. It might be a form of verse not much admired by the poetic cognoscenti these days, but probably harder to carry off persuasively.

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