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Gilbert and Sullivan hits high note with ‘Iolanthe’

The comic opera focuses on forbidden love between a fairy and the half-mortal Strephon

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 22, 2013

‘Iolanthe’ is the seventh of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 14 comedic operas produced between 1871 and 1896.

Opera may seem like a genre of the past, but Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe, or, The Peer and the Peri” transcends the bygone era from which it came.

Directed by Meghan Kelleher ’12 and presented by Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan, the opera will enchant a modern audience with its comic plot, unique interpretations of characters and talented acting.

Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan pays homage to the 19th-century theatrical partnership between librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, whose comic operas famously satirized the fusty conventions of Victorian England.

Gilbert caricatured these 19th-century social and political trappings to convey their stuffy absurdity — his antagonists are often bumbling and bombastic figures of power, with plots frequently revolving around the inanity of a bureaucratic loophole. Sullivan’s music provides dramatic scaffolding for Gilbert’s scripts, emphasizing the humor of satirical ditties or evoking pathos for characters thwarted by insufferable institutions of power.

Though “The Pirates of Penzance,” “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Mikado” are their best-known works, Gilbert and Sullivan produced 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1896. “Iolanthe” is the seventh of these productions.

The play opens with a troupe of immortal fairies reuniting with Iolanthe, a fairy returning from banishment — having been pardoned by the Fairy Queen — for committing the high crime of marrying a mortal.

Iolanthe introduces the fairies to her grown son, Strephon, who laments that he is a fairy only from the waist up. He does not initially reveal this genetic anomaly to Phyllis, a ward of the court, to whom he is betrothed. When the Lord High Chancellor forbids the marriage, the central action of the play unfolds, as Phyllis spies Strephon seeking solace in the arms of his eternally 17-year-old mother.

Reluctantly, Phyllis resigns herself to marry one of the members of the House of Peers — a chorus of dim-witted nobles who fawn on her as shamelessly as on the Lord High Chancellor.

Anna Stacy ’17, who plays Phyllis, demonstrates a broad range of expression with her clear, bright soprano, which lilts with glee as easily as it thunders with jealous rage. Even as she sings, her nuanced body language and refreshingly modern facial expressions make her the life force of the play. Phyllis’ open contempt for the dull and dreary members of the House of Peers is enhanced by Stacy’s gags of disgust and “can-you-believe-this-guy” eye rolls, a comic juxtaposition between the spunky and sycophantic.

But the scenes she shares with Strephon, played by Buck Greenwald ’14, are the ones that endear her the most to the audience. Their onstage chemistry feels real and unscripted — they tease each other with a natural, easy rhythm, and their faces noticeably light up when gazing into each other’s eyes.

Most actors manage to infuse their roles with distinct personality. Paul Martino ’17, who plays the Lord High Chancellor, performs with an understated, self-conscious irony, lending his character a sympathetic humanity, despite his pompous exterior. Thomas Chavez ’16 shines as the stuffy guard Private Willis, slipping in flamboyant gestures and fluid comic timing before resuming a stiff upper lip.

But there are a few moments when clarity is sacrificed for comic effect. Some of Gilbert’s most caustic satire is articulated through a rapid-fire succession of lyrical absurdities and multi-syllabic rhymes. Because it can be difficult for the audience to keep up with this convoluted rhetoric, nuggets of satirical brilliance are sometimes lost when actors fail to enunciate the lyrics clearly.

The pit orchestra, directed by Alec Kacew ’14 and Solomon Goldstein-Rose ’16, adds sprightliness to playful fairy scenes, grandiosity to scenes in the House of Peers and dramatic tension as these two worlds collide. Though the live music generally enhances the performance, cohesion between actors and the orchestra could be tighter, especially during faster songs in which even a slight mismatch in tempo can throw off the next few measures.

Aside from exposing the ineptitude of the British Parliament of Gilbert and Sullivan’s era, the play also takes a remarkably progressive approach toward conventional gender roles. In contrast to a traditional damsel in distress, Phyllis is unapologetically irreverent — a force to be reckoned with — and most of the heroic action comes from such pivotal female roles as Iolanthe and the Fairy Queen.

The show opens tonight in Alumnae Hall Auditorium at 8 p.m. It will run Saturday at 2 p.m and 8 p.m and Sunday at 3 p.m. Admission is free.

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  • Glen Broemer

    If this seems like overposting, I generally publish when I’ve been assaulted, or when my privacy is ignored, or when my cats cry out in pain by some act of government. Thousands of times over the past decade now, I’m sure that estimate is accurate….My cats actually have scabs on their back as a result of being shot with energy weaponry. The federal government of course has all the power in the world to stop it.

  • Glen Broemer

    Typically operating through puppets–including puppets in the judiciary–the right wing has for decades been committing crimes and trying to classify them to cover them up, a move explicitly forbidden by the Code of Federal Regulations. The right has accomplished its political objectives by presenting a fraction of the evidence to judicial officials who, having seen the pattern dozens of times before, could not help but realize that they were being presented with incomplete and inaccurate information.

    With either the willfully blind approval or the willful ignorance of the judiciary the right has killed & stolen several of my pets and routinely shoots energy weaponry at me and my pets. Recent harm to animals include: two kittens from a pregnant stray i took in were killed a few months ago. The remaining two, just 3 months old, shake their head as government operatives shoot them with energy weaponry. They shot the eye out or removed the eye of a large really good natured stray at the port, hobbled another cat at the port, shooting it with energy weaponry, and for years routinely killed and left dead animals in my path. A few years ago one of them threatened ‘we’ll just kill a cat every so often’, in so many words. This has continued despite my calls to the police, the FBI, Congress, and my petitions in court. In the usual case, it appears that the right goes to a judicial crony for a ruling permitting them to harm animals to retaliate against me for my free speech. The federal government, the right wing in particular, interfered with my personal life and economic options for 3 decades, so their solution to my noting it is to kill animals. Makes perfect sense right? It does if you’re a sociopathic criminal, criminally stupid, and hawkish. Invariably their lies are exposed and the wrongfulness of the harm is clear to everyone, though not until the animals have been maimed or killed. There is really only one solution, and that’s to disempower them politically.

    If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, right? the Democrats’ great accomplishment is producing the political equivalent of a Rodney King video, clearly demonstrating the lies of the right, the right Hilary Clinton correctly identified as a vast conspiracy. Confirm by examining Central District of California Cases, 01-4340, 03-9097, 08-5515, 10-5193, US Tax Court 12000-07L –though I think you want to view my US Tax Court Appeal to the 9th Circuit for a good account of their day to day assaults, a few month time slice indicative of a decade of assault, and more 9th Circuit case 11-56043.

  • Glen Broemer

    if you want to read more about bureaucratic loopholes: