The opera is generally considered a pretentious pastime. It’s a place where monocles and top hats flourish, where performers seem to have a somewhat supernatural ability to achieve both the highest and lowest ends of the singing spectrum, and Italian-encrusted sentences like, “The operetta’s libretto was magnifico!” thrive with peculiar regularity. Popular American culture seems to look down on the art form as a hopelessly upper-class European diversion. However, upon watching Sinfonicron Light Opera Company’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” directed by Kelsey Schneider ’14, I was struck by how entertaining a night at the opera could be. There are no traces of tragic melodrama, merely a genuinely comedic tale of true love across a social — and mystical — divide.
At the outset of the tale, the audience is introduced to a group of fairies who form the female ensemble. It’s made clear at once that they are flighty, sprightly creatures who retain their youthful beauty and grace forever. Enter the Queen of the Fairies, played with a powerful self-assurance by Christine Jacobs ’16. The fairies plead to her to summon Iolanthe, a member of their party who has been cast into isolation for the past 25 years for marrying a mortal. The Queen ultimately relents, and Iolanthe (Lauren Harrington ’13), summoned from her stream of frogs, reunites with her fairy kindred. The pardoned fairy reveals that she has produced a son, Strephon (Sky Jarrett ’16), who is now on the cusp of manhood, seeking to marry the lovely Phyllis (Addie Schafer, ’13), the Lord Chancellor’s ward of court.
Iolanthe, despite being the eponymous character, has little to do with the central conflict of the play. The story is mostly concerned with the relationship between Strephon and Phyllis, as well as with the many obstacles in the way of their marriage, the most obtrusive of which is the Lord Chancellor himself, played with a surge of unrivaled bombastic energy by Chris Richardson ’13. The Lord Chancellor, believing Strephon to be a lowly Arcadian shepherd, disapproves of the engagement and may or may not have an interest in Phyllis himself.
Backing up the Lord Chancellor is the male ensemble, a motley collection of lords, counts, earls and barons, who cry out “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!” so often it might as well be their creed. In this ensemble, Lord Tolloller (Andreas Moffet ’15) and Lord Mountararat (Ethan Roday ’14) serve as a unique comic duo, each vying for the affections of Phyllis.
Adding to his distress, Strephon is faced with the singular problem of being only half- fairy. He is blessed with immortality from the waist up, but his lower half remains disappointingly mortal. Although he is treated with tenderness and affection from his mother and fairy “aunts,” Strephon is subject to derision and contempt from the Lord Chancellor and his peers.
The remainder of the play deals with various romantic misunderstandings and unraveled secrets that could only be plausible in a narrative already stuffed to capacity with prancing palace guards and a variety of fairy-human love connections. A higher conflict in the narrative, however, lies with the distance between the fairy culture and the members of Parliament. The strongest sections of the play occur whenever the male and female ensembles are both present on stage, battling each other with their vocals and eccentric dance moves.
Although Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the play in the late 1800s, the setting has been shifted to 1960s swinging London. It’s a conceit that isn’t expressed entirely clearly as fairy fashion doesn’t necessarily change over the millennia and upper-class Parliament members wear dark suits that could belong to any modern decade — some skinny ties and mod dresses would have been fun. However, the stylistic decision was definitely evident in the choreography that included quirky ‘60’s dance staples like “The Twist” and “The Monkey.” The featured dancers, Megan Tatum ’15 and Mallory Tucker ’15, shone exceptionally as two fairies with a bit more confidence in their abilities, flitting across the stage with an inimitable effervescence.
It’s absolutely certain that the show wouldn’t have possessed a tenth of its appeal without a talented orchestra, which often blended into the background, enhancing the actors’ performances, but sometimes walloped the audience with a thunderous authority. An added pleasure comes after the curtain call when the orchestra performs familiar ‘60s songs such as “Happy Together,” a treat that could serve as a show unto itself.
All in all, “Iolanthe” is an unexpected delight. The ability of everyone involved, both onstage and off, is distinctly evident and serves as a reminder of what can be accomplished when individuals with different talents band together to deliver an intensely watchable product. “Iolanthe” plays Jan. 17-20 in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.