All Classical Radio James Depreist

Up in the air sky high, sky high: Light Opera of Portland’s “Iolanthe”

LOoP’s debut, a charming production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fairy opera.

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Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

OVERTURE

Dear Sir Arthur, 

It has come to our attention that you were never satisfied with being known primarily for your comic operas. But having just seen a delightful performance of your Iolanthe, performed by Light Opera of Portland (LOOP) in Oregon, USA it is for that work, nay, for all of your wonderful partnerships with Sir William that I am so grateful. Iolanthe’s melodies; that beautiful overture! It was an evening of laughter and wonder at the perfect marriage of music and words. I hope a bit of the Fairy magic will carry this message to you, wherever you are, and bring some joy.

Dear Sir William,

The English language in your hands is twisted and twirled and twined into the most poignant entertainment. Your stories, your characters, the intricate rhyme scheme, a gift. At the conclusion of one opera recently we were, as Iolanthe’s final chorus states “up in the air sky high, sky high.” Cheery bye and thank you.

Portland Oregon USA, Brunish Theater, June 28, 2024

***

Light Opera of Portland, you should be so proud of your Portland 5, Brunish Theater debut. Could you feel the energy of the crowd on the June 28th opening night? Did you hear the animated chitchat at intermission? That raucous standing ovation was for you all and it was well deserved. 

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Here are two overarching observations before getting into specific reflections about this show. This company truly seems to enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan, reveling in each word and musical line. They are very serious about comedy.

The intimacy of the hall was wonderful. The furthest distance from the unelevated stage area to any of the 200-250 patrons was about 35 feet, although the folks on the left and right extremes of the 180 wrap many have felt a bit excluded at times. Vocal projection was unforced and facial expressions bold. Iolanthe’s zigzagging storyline could be heard; almost every gem of Gilbertian absurdity crystal clear. The 23-member cast, 11 in named roles, plus 5 instrumentalists spread the entire width when all were present. There was plenty of room for small groups and some solo frivolity.

Phoebe Gildea as Iolanthe in Light Opera of Portland's production of "Iolanthe." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Phoebe Gildea as Iolanthe in Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

Iolanthe’s story is built upon a collection of bipartite elements, similar and dissimilar. Two worlds – Mortal and Fairy, and each governed by an authority figure, the male Lord Chancellor and the female Fairy Queen. The male protagonist, Strephon, is Fairy on his top half and Mortal from the waist down. His romantic partner, Phyllis, is a lowly shepherdess and a Ward in Chancery (the court). The ensemble performers are in two camps: six sisters of the titular Fairy Iolanthe, and the 7 Peers (Lords, Dukes, Viscounts, Earls, Marquises and Barons) of the Chancery. Only Iolanthe, Strephon’s mother, seems to be without a counterpart. Seems to be; check back later.

First onto the stage came the choristers of Fairies and Mortals, feminine and male, levitating and earthbound. Fairies were costumed in a cacophony of color, layered fabric and woodsy headbands; the Peers in satiny royal red weighed down by furred collars and gold crowns. While the airy Fairies arrive trippingly if not daintily, the pompous Peers stumble and bumble, heavy footed, their noses seeking only the air aloft. Even the basic body postures in each camp seemed opposites. Good acting. Choreographer Marsha Kelly assigned both Fairies and Peers eye-catching arm motions in which the Peer bumblers were often slightly out of sync. Was that opening night jitters or design? Oh, even if not by design, please don’t fix it. It wasn’t broken, it was perfect.

Carl Dahlquist as Strephon and Ireland McNeill as Phyllis in Light Opera of Portland's production of "Iolanthe." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Carl Dahlquist as Strephon and Ireland McNeill as Phyllis in Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

The roles of the young lovers, Strephon and Phyllis, played by Carl Dahlquist and Ireland McNeill were well performed. Dahlquist has a fine voice and could be more confident in his ability to let those melodies soar in the same way he delivered spoken lines. McNeill played Phyllis so naively air-headed at times, unaware that the Peers were falling at her feet in rapturous longing. She sang with an innocence ideal for the role.

Gilbert wrote strength and authority in the counter-roles of Lord Chancellor and Fairy Queen. Soprano Morena Colombetti has a wonderful stage presence and delivered Sullivan’s music boldly in her stentorian lower register. The first giggles of the evening came when the audience recognized that her Queenly costume, fashioned by costume designers Nan Dahlquist and Lindsey Lefler, was pure Brünnhilde. 

Morena Colombetti as the Fairy Queen in Light Opera of Portland's production of "Iolanthe." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Morena Colombetti as the Fairy Queen in Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

In May of 1882, London audiences were awed by 36 performances of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen; seven months later, at Iolanthe’s Savoy Theatre premiere, the entrance of the Fairy Queen complete with steel-winged headpiece and formidable breast-plating would have been greeted with giggles galore. Cheers to LOOP’s nod, one of many, to the original D’Oyly Carte production. 

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LOOP Director Laurence Cox, also taking the role of Lord Chancellor, was from his entrance to his final bow a model of pomposity. He seemed to float in his long robe, eyes a-bulged and lips pursed, his body tightly contained, head rotating as if on a pedestal. Then suddenly he would leap and twirl and flail about with such grace. As if he were his own two parts. But the whole of his stage presence was mesmerizing. In one endearing but fleeting moment toward the opera’s end, upon realizing he has been reunited with his true love of long ago, his face slackened to reveal his heart. Precious. 

Laurence Cox as Lord Chancellor in Light Opera of Portland's production of "Iolanthe." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Laurence Cox as Lord Chancellor in Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

The Lord Chancellor gets to demonstrate the very best of Gilbert’s absurdist blather. I especially enjoyed his string-of-peals delivery of a “conundrum” monologue regarding his own amorous feelings toward his Ward, Phyllis, a small segment of which, delivered in third person, is:

“Can he [the Lord Chancellor] give his own consent to his own marriage with his own Ward? Can he marry his own Ward without his own consent? And if he marries his own Ward without his own consent, can he commit himself for contempt of his own Court? And if he commit himself for contempt of his own Court, can he appear by counsel before himself to move for arrest his own judgment?”

Don’t we all have similar private conversations with ourselves? Is this not why this absurdist comedy works – because within it there is a touch of reality? It works when performed with absolute sincerity and that is what Cox brings to his performance and what he brings to his company in his role as Director.

Pitter patter

And now to the patter song. In Iolanthe the patter belongs to the Lord Chancellor – of course it does – and is prompted by a nightmare, no doubt brought on by the numerous repercussions of the LC’s decision not to allow Strephon to marry Phyllis. Cox was outstanding. Each word clear in a brisk, unrelieved tempo. Those pursed lips must really aid in breath control because there were no gulps or gasps. This patter is considered to be one of the very best of that genre and the audience reacted with such enthusiasm that Cox had to offer an encore, at an ever faster tempo, and then yet one more reprise before he was not-too-forcibly removed. Bravo. Listen to that patter song, a bit tamer than Cox’s, here. 

Three Fairies with expanded roles helped move the narrative in spoken word and song. Rebecca Raccanelli, Celia, stepped out of the Fairy chorus with the opera’s first solo, delivering it, and other later brief solos, with clear enunciation and a full, confident voice. Sheryl Wood as Leila continued with similar vocal strength. Joined by Fleta, played by Dominique Garrison, the three deftly delivered essential dialogue that explains, upon the entrance of the Fairy Queen, how their beloved Fairy sister Iolanthe came to be banished, instead of being put to death, for marrying a mortal, twenty-five years earlier. Snip. Snap. The story begins and Iolanthe, “the life and soul of Fairyland,” emerges from her watery exile. 

Phoebe Gildea as Iolanthe has a rich, beautiful voice and was radiant on stage. Her singing role in Act I is minimal, but as the conclusion nears she gets to deliver the opera’s most beautiful aria. Gildea’s performance was touching and convincing. The words, which could have been more clearly enunciated, explain why the opera carries Iolanthe’s name. She is the story’s heroine; pure love is her weapon against the forces that would divide young lovers.

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Phoebe Gildea as Iolanthe in Light Opera of Portland's production of "Iolanthe." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Phoebe Gildea as Iolanthe in Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

Let’s discuss the stage set. This won’t take long. Act I – a footbridge over a stream. Act II, an up stage right panel depicting Big Ben, a sentry house stage right and the granite-like living-set-piece Grenadier Guard, played by Mike Mendyke. Minimalist, functional, referential. On the small Brunish stage nothing further was needed. Check.

To my musical ear, the most perfect pairing of the evening was Lords Mountararat and Tolloller. Like Lewis Carroll’s Tweedles, Dee and Dum, these two bumble about the stage as representative members of the entire Peerage. But at the first solo lines of Tolloller – “Oh, Rapture” – here was a voice. Tom Harper’s beautiful tone and the way in which he unfurled Sullivan’s melodic line momentarily elevated the Peerage. And then came Mountararat and I was again in awe at the silky voice of Casey Lebold. Two actors, two roles, two personalities. Voices and manner as one. How sublimely they sang, even when the words coming from their mouths confirmed that they were absolute numbskulls. Oh, these two get some marvelous jabs in at their fellow Peers and at themselves. Shhhh. I don’t think they were aware.

Tom Harper as Tolloller, Casey Lebold as Mountararat, and Ireland McNeill as Phyllis in Light Opera of Portland's production of "Iolanthe." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Tom Harper as Tolloller, Casey Lebold as Mountararat, and Ireland McNeill as Phyllis in Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

Oh, the poor British Peerage does take a beating in this seventh G&S opera. The satirical pen of Sir William tosses stinging lines hither and thither. But even British Prime Minister Gladstone is believed to have found the satirical barbs in good humor. 

Harper and Lebold paired up with Colombetti (the Fairy Queen) and Mendyke (the granite Grenadier) for a scrumptious Sullivan quartet. Another memorable ensemble moment comes toward the end of the Queen Fairy’s aria in Act II, when she wonders whether Captain Shaw’s full Brigade can quench her secret love for mortal man. Excuse us, who?

The Fairies and their Queen sing with such adoration to this unknown guy and even hold up a placard with his photo.

"Captain Eyre Massey Shaw"  from 1883 Entr'acte Annual. Illustration by Alfred Bryan (1852-99).
“Captain Eyre Massey Shaw” from 1883 Entr’acte Annual. Illustration by Alfred Bryan (1852-99).

But who is this mystery man? In 1882 the entire audience knew the highly respected Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, chief of London’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade, an avid theatre goer and advocate for more stringent theatre fire code enforcement. Captain Shaw was in attendance at the premiere.

Not knowing promoted the absurdity; program notes explaining Shaw’s inclusion in the opera would have prompted a different reaction. I’d have enjoyed being made privy to this insider trivia ahead of time. Here’s more information about Captain Shaw.

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The program might also have included a story synopsis. Here’s one you might enjoy reading before LOOP presents Iolanthe in Hillsboro later this month. Details below.

A slightly larger program font would have been a gift to some patrons. But there was a glossary link, directing us to the hundreds of terms with which modern audiences might be unfamiliar. And also, loving inserted in four places in the program were four original Bab drawings by W. S Gilbert. Small touches, present or absent, can make such a difference. 

"The Fairy Curate," one of W. S Gilbert's Bab drawings.
“The Fairy Curate,” one of W. S Gilbert’s Bab drawings.

Cheers to the entire music ensemble. We heard some darn good singing by the choristers, often in motion. Of course, they had the foundation laid by the instrumentalists. “Pit” players can be overlooked in musical theater. In this performance in the Brunish, however, one only needed to look over to the up stage left. There they were. Musical Director and keyboardist Reece Sauve conducted the four players: a sister pair, Metta Maise and Merle Maise, on violin and cello; Megan Mendyke, viola; and Mitchell Nelson, trumpet. The flutes, percussion, double reeds and other instruments we clearly heard in the overture were uh, where?

Catch this. Sauve said, in brief post-performance conversation with OAW, that he programmed those other instruments into the computer beforehand. The sounds were amazingly authentic. He led his four live players in precise synchronicity to the track and played the keyboard part. With Sauve behind the singers, unable to give hand cues, it was testament to the performers’ alertness and accuracy that the forces strayed only a few times. And the balance of singers to instruments was ideal throughout. 

Musical director Reece Sauve performing in Light Opera of Portland's production of "Iolanthe." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Musical director Reece Sauve performing in Light Opera of Portland’s production of “Iolanthe.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

Sullivan’s overture is a beautiful piece of writing and a reminder that Sir Arthur was a masterful composer who produced a significant body of work until his death at age 58: nineteen operas sans-Gilbert; choral works including oratorios; thirteen orchestral works; songs, ballads, hymns (Onward Christian Soldiers); and the fourteen comic operas in collaboration with Gilbert. Listen to the Iolanthe overture here

Sir Henry Wood, G&S opera conductor of the early 1900s, wrote “Sullivan’s music is much more than the accompaniment of Gilbert’s libretti, just as Gilbert’s libretti are far more than words to Sullivan’s music. They were an unmatched set, two parts of a wonderful whole.” (Foreword to “Gilbert and Sullivan Opera: A History and a Comment”, H. M. Walbrook, 1921.)

The person behind, in front of and in the middle of all of this wonderful G&S goodness is Laurence Cox. Cox’s knowledge of the G&S operas and his expertise on stage are extensive and a gift to Portland musical theater community. Read Oregon ArtsWatch contributing writer and editor Brett Campbell’s recent profile of Cox, in which the director states: ”Gilbert takes a lot of stuff people see in the real world, turns it on its head, amps it up so it’s utterly ridiculous – but the characters act as though everything’s normal and to be expected.” 

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Here’s what you can expect when Light Opera of Portland opens their Hillsboro run of Iolanthe. A cast of fine singers and actors who put their whole selves into the art. The top-notch music direction and stellar instrumental ensemble behind every beautiful musical moment. Original designs and delivery due to Cox’s excellent guidance. And, the brilliance of Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan and Sir William Schwenk Gilbert.

Light Opera of Portland presents three sets of Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances of Iolanthe, July 19-21, 26-28 and August 1-3. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm at the Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theater, Hillsboro. Tickets and more information can be found here

POSTLUDE

Dear Sir Arthur,

I just listened to your only Symphony, in E, later called the Irish Symphony, written when you were just 24. It’s lovely. I thought you’d like to know.

Dear Sir William,

Have you ever heard of the British comedy troupe called “Monty Python” who did this “Flying Circus” program in early 1970s? I think you would like their work. I bet they are grateful for yours. 

Dear Reader,

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SPOILER ALERT: Iolanthe (and everybody else) pairs up in the end.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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