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Gilbert and Sullivan

The National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company

Buxton Opera House

July 30 and August 3, 2022 (also August 13, 17 & 21, Royal Hall, Harrogate); 2 hrs 30 mins

The chorus fairies and peers in the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company's Iolanthe. cr Charles Smith
Tripping hither: the chorus fairies and peers in the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company's Iolanthe. All pics: Charles Smith

Iolanthe was the first of this year’s shows performed by the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Buxton and in John Savournin’s production, very much follows the formula of tradition-with-tweaks.

Nothing to frighten the horses or the purists (no rewording of Oh, Captain Shaw…, for instance), despite the fact that of all the G&S canon, its references seem furthest removed from the present-day world. We don’t even have a proper Lord Chancellor now, and our House of Lords is far from being made of blue-bloods alone.

But a visit to the festival at Buxton or Harrogate is almost like travelling back to Victorian or Edwardian times anyway, so no one seems to worry about a storyline concerned with a long-gone legislative and judicial establishment, with a Lord Chancellor in charge of wards of court and membership of the house of peers requiring nothing other than breeding. Add to these the romantic Victorian fascination with fairies, and you are soon into an innocent fantasy world with its own rules entirely.

There’s just the occasional, sharp-eyed reflection on the nonsense: I liked Phyllis’s response to Strephon’s revelation that he was half-fairy and only half-man, as Emily Vine snapped out her line: “Which half?”. And today you can hardly avoid a titter over the line “She’d meet him after dark, inside St James’s Park, and give him one…”, but that’s about as far as the double-entendres go.

Merry Holden is the choreographer, and the ever-hard-working cast and chorus have moves that require some coordination and sometimes recall the much-loved skipping around of the old D’Oyly Carte routines (in If you go in, you’re sure to win, for instance – which got its equally traditional encore). The music was again in the expert hands of John Andrews, with the National Festival Orchestra providing flexible and sympathetic accompaniments.

Stand-outs among the principals for me were Matthew Palmer (Strephon), an excellent young tenor still at the outset of what should be a very successful career, and Meriel Cunningham (Iolanthe), who has a rich mezzo-soprano tone and real clarity.

Matthew Kellett enjoys rattling off the patter as the Lord Chancellor; Matthew Siveter has his spot of glory as Private Willis; Emily Vine is a winsome Phyllis and Amy J Payne an imperious Queen of the Fairies, and Ben McAteer and Hal Cazalet enjoy prancing their way through as the Earls Mountararat and Tolloller.

Info and festival tickets here


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