‘Welcome to our hearts again, Iolanthe!’ sings the fairy chorus in Gilbert and Sullivan’s fantasy-satire, and during this exuberant new production by Cal McCrystal you could almost hear the assembled G&S fans sighing in agreement. Iolanthe is our trump card against the sceptics, and not merely because Gilbert’s digs at parliamentary politics are still so startlingly acute. No, we insist, it’s the music, stupid: just listen to it! Sullivan’s score gleefully assimilates Handel, Mendelssohn and Wagner (Tannhäuser, Rheingold; even Tristan und Isolde), and to fly that close to the magic flame of Bayreuth without getting frazzled is something that very few composers have achieved with such freshness and melodic grace.
So that’s the fans spoken for. McCrystal’s job is to make everyone else laugh, and he’s at it from the off, with gags even before the curtain rises on a stage filled with colossal multicoloured flowers. The designer, the late Paul Brown, has taken his cues not just from G&S’s own creative lineage (grand opera meets 19th-century music hall), but from the stylistic layers of the score. Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) and Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne) are dressed like porcelain figures in a Gainsborough Arcadia; when realism crashes in, it’s with an unambiguously Victorian self-confidence.
McCrystal crams this world with visual comedy. The chorus of Peers performs a non-stop beer-bottle juggling act, a puppet horse defecates on-stage and an officious fireman (an invention of McCrystal’s) peremptorily extinguishes the Fairy Queen’s thunderbolts. Cast members can soar aloft at any moment, and frequently do. It’s the music, though, stupid: and while this isn’t a cast full of superstar voices, exactly, they’re all highly listenable and endlessly game. Yvonne Howard’s Fairy Queen is a Valkyrie with a twinkle in her eye, Laugharne shapes her lines with delightful alertness, and Andrew Shore’s turkey-cock of a Lord Chancellor bustles through his patter songs with champagne clarity. Ben McAteer gets the gormless dignity of Lord Mountararat down pat, and when he’s not camping it up with Ben Johnson’s Tolloller (McCrystal never misses a chance to out an unsuspecting subtext) swaggers sonorously through ‘When Britain Really Ruled the Waves’. Timothy Henty, conducting, finds in Sullivan’s music a dramatic momentum and a sense of light and shade that you won’t hear on any recording.
As for McCrystal’s Carry On additions to Gilbert’s script, well, purists will just have to suck them up, because the audience roared. But it’s a pity that he couldn’t fully trust Sullivan in all those inconvenient slow bits. The lovely duet ‘None shall part us’ was obliterated under some knockabout business with plastic sheep, and by Iolanthe’s surprisingly sincere final reunion with the Lord Chancellor you half-expected a pantomime unicorn to trot on and take a leak on the woolsack. Perhaps this can be ironed out later in the run, or in the many and frequent revivals this staging unquestionably deserves. McCrystal says that he set out to make a genuinely funny and joyful show, augmented by a mischievous and daring production, and fair play to him. I’ve already bought tickets to see it again.
Strange to say, David Pountney’s new Welsh National Opera production of Verdi’s La forza del destino shares similar weaknesses and strengths. An opera with a reputation for complexity is stripped back to its dramatic core: the words ‘Peace’ and ‘War’ are projected at the start of each act and a pair of screens swing back and forth against the surrounding blackness to serve as bedroom, battlefield, or monastic cell. The bloodstain from the Marchese’s accidental death remains throughout, a symbol of the obsession that drives Verdi and Piave’s headlong plot. And having clarified the essentials, Pountney proceeds to add a layer of distracting complication, turning the military scenes into Oh, What a Lovely War!, with Preziosilla (Justina Gringyte) as an embodiment of Destiny stalking about in tailcoat and tights like a sort of gothic Debbie McGee.
Carlo Rizzi conducted, and his ability to generate tension within a single phrase (the first clarinet deserved a solo bow), even as he drives the music forward in taut, gleaming paragraphs, made the whole thing gripping and compensated for a slightly underpowered duo of male leads (Gwyn Hughes Jones as Alvaro, Luis Cansino as Carlo). No worries on that count with Mary Elizabeth Williams’s Leonora: her singing was radiant, and touchingly understated in her scenes with Padre Guardiano (it was an excellent idea to cast the same singer — Miklos Sebestyen, sounding even more than usually noble — as her father too). Not for the first time, Pountney pulls it off by understanding the collective strengths of his company. The news that he is to step down as WNO’s artistic director at the end of next season is cause for real dismay.