It’s evidence of the ongoing popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan that this year alone the UK has seen three professional productions of their 1882 Fairyland-clashes-with-the-House-of-Lords opera Iolanthe: English National Opera’s lavish staging directed by Cal McCrystal, Sasha Regan’s all-male touring version, and now Irish director Vivian J Coates’ more traditional version for the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company.
Traditional, of course, is a movable concept, and though the elegantly attractive sets and costumes are well within the bounds of what regulars might expect, some of the political jokes in Private Willis’ Song (strikingly voiced by Matthew Siveter) have been updated to reflect current parties and concerns: Brexiteers and Corbynites inevitably get a look-in.
Coates’ show flows like oil. Impeccably delivered, the dialogue is something to be savoured. Expertly choreographed by Mary MacDonagh, the dance routines – often complex when the substantial choruses of Peers and Fairies are involved – are conveyed with absolute precision and form effective and meaningful stage pictures.
The cast is strong throughout. Gaynor Keeble’s grandly sung Queen of the Fairies is commanding when roused. Richard Gauntlett’s peremptory Lord Chancellor knows exactly how to get his material over to its best advantage. Rosanna Harris and Bradley Travis make a winsome pair of young lovers as Phyllis and Strephon respectively.
Nicholas Sales and Eddie Wade offer a blissful double act as daffy Lords Mountararat and Tolloller: at moments they’re like something out of Samuel Beckett (a G&S fan, incidentally). Jennifer Parker underlines the pathos of the title role.
Binding the whole show together is the alert work of the chorus and orchestra under rising young conductor James Hendry, whose acute sensitivity to balance and tempo serves Sullivan’s score wonderfully.