MasterVoices concluded its 2022-23 season with a lovely concert staging performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s rarely seen comic opera Iolanthe (or The Peer and the Peri) staged and conducted by artistic director Ted Sperling. The cast was mainly made up of Tony Award winners (Christine Ebersole and Santino Fontana) and Broadway regulars (David Garrison, Jason Danielery and Phillip Boykin) with some fast rising young opera singers (Ashley Fabian and Schyler Vargas) and a principal ballerina from the New York City Ballet (Tiler Peck). All seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their Carnegie Hall outing. The 120-member Master Voices chorus and orchestra gave a glorious rendition of the 141 year old score.
The seventh collaboration in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, it is also famous for being the first new London premiere to be lit entirely by electricity. The story begins 25 years earlier when Iolanthe, a fairy, married a mortal man, a capital crime under fairy law. The Queen of the Fairies banished her for life on the condition that she leave her husband and never see him again. Now the Queen misses her and commutes her sentence, wondering why she chose to exile herself in the frog-invested stream. Iolanthe explains that she wanted to be near son Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, now 25, whom the fairies have never met before.
However, Strephon has a new problem: he wishes to marry Phyllis, an Arcadian shepherdess, who is a ward of chancery, and whose guardian, The Lord Chancellor will not sanction the marriage both because Strephon has no social standing and as he and all the members of the House of Lords want to marry her themselves. When Phyllis catches him embracing his mother who looks 17, she rejects him and announces she will marry either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat, who are the silliest and most useless members of the House of Lords. When Strephon calls on his new aunts to help out, the Queen of the Fairies decides that he will go into Parliament and lead both parties.
Sometime later the House of Lords are stricken that Strephon is advancing a bill to open the peerage to competitive examination which will make a very great change in British government. Strephon has convinced Phyllis that his mother is a fairy and that he is half a fairy down to the waist and she. With the Lord Chancellor still refuses to let the couple marry as he has decided to marry her himself, Iolanthe attempt to plea with him, revealing that she is his long-lost wife. This puts her in jeopardy with the Queen of the Fairies and rules once more. However, the Lord Chancellor suggests that the Fairy rules be amended to say “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal” and all ends happily.
The problem with Iolanthe today is that it has dated badly. Originally meant as a satire on the ineffective and privileged British House of Lords whose only qualification was noble birth, with actual references to famous people of the time it was written, this is no longer as topical or as pungent as it once was. Since the plot is otherwise tissue paper thin, this leaves little for a modern audience but Sullivan’s sprightly melodies and Gilbert’s witty lyrics. Its themes, unfortunately, are not as relevant today as they were when Iolanthe was first presented in 1882.
The cast, however, did not let any of this bother them and gave as fine a showing as was possible. Two-time Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole was a charming and authoritative presence as the Queen of the Fairies. Although she is not a contralto but a soprano, her lush voice did well with her arias and concerted numbers. David Garrison, who has been seen in numerous Broadway and Off Broadway plays and musicals, also seen previously in MasterVoices’ Song of Norway, Knickerbocker Holiday and Pirates of Penzance, here plays a magisterial Lord Chancellor. He does a fine job with his three famous patter songs: “The law is the true embodiment,” “When I went to the Bar” and “Love, unrequited robs me of my rest,” better known as the Nightmare Song. Occasionally both Ebersole and Garrsion seemed to swallow the ends of their lines but that may be the fault of the acoustics, the sound design by Scott Lehrer or the vocal lines.
As the young lovers, soprano Ashley Fabian as Phyllis and baritone Schyler Vargas as Strephon impressed with their luxuriant voices in the several duets. As the ages old Iolanthe who still looks 17, mezzo-soprano Shereen Ahmed charmed in her few numbers. As the two inane lords, tenor Jason Danieley debonair in his formalwear and baritone and Tony Award-winner Santino Fontana hilarious in a pageboy wig (which he kept flicking over his left shoulder) and matching black mustache were delightful as they traded one-liners and non-sequitors and sang their two witty duets. Bass-baritone Phillip Boykin was greeted vociferously for his one aria “When all night long a chap remains” as Private Willis, guardingMPalace Yard, Westminster at the top of the second act.
Nicole Eve Goldstein, Kaitlyn LeBaron and Emy Zener gave Ebersole good support as fairy ladies-in-waiting Celia, Leila and Fleta. Prima ballerina Tiler Peck made joyous periodic appearances on point throughout the evening, making use of the choreography of Andrew Palermo. Tracy Christensen’s beautiful single colored diaphanous gowns decorated the fairies while Ebersole was clad in a floor length blue/black and white print which suggested the forest or the streams. The useful supertitles for Gilbert’s fast-paced lyrics were also enhanced by helpful explanations of the more obscure 19th century British references.
MasterVoices with their top-notch cast, chorus and orchestra gave Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe a glorious musical rendition while not stinting on the witty lyrics and dialogue. While not as popular as the team’s H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado, Iolanthe is unusual in its somber and plaintive overture and its first act finale which is the longest and most elaborate in all the canon. It also gave some fine singers and actors types of roles they normally don’t get to play. It would be of great interest if one of Sullivan or Gilbert’s creations written with others were given a hearing, particularly the composer’s one grand opera, Ivanhoe. Look next season for MasterVoices’ presentations of Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, the Doug Varone/Nico Bentley’s To My Arms/Restore from music by Handel, and a revisited concert version of Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Iolanthe (or The Peer and the Peri) (May 3, 2023)
Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, 881 Seventh Avenue at 57th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Carnegie Charge at 212-247-7800 or visit http://www.carnegiehall.org
For more information, visit http://www.mastervoices.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission