NEW YORK — Ted Sperling helmed his MasterVoices forces and a number of Broadway luminaries in a very satisfying performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 Iolanthe at Carnegie Hall on May 3. The audience response was positive, and rightly so, but sadly the house was only about two-thirds full. G&S in this country no longer have a bespoke public the way, say, Handel and Wagner do. The British team’s most famous trio — The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, and H.M.S. Pinafore — show up occasionally in opera houses or in music-theater versions. We see the occasional attempt at reviving Patience, usually to jump on its parodic object Oscar Wilde’s coattails.
But Iolanthe, which had simultaneous premieres in London and New York, is a harder sell from the dramatic point of view, being a deliberately absurd trifle about the confrontation between a fairy band and another outlandish crew, the stuffy, proudly mutton-headed House of Lords. Hence the light opera’s subtitle, The Peer and the Peri. Actually, some of Gilbert’s lines about the entitled and basically ignorant legislators ring all too true today, but there’s not too much at stake in their conflict or in the temporarily blocked romance between the Lords’ collective lust object, Phyllis (a shepherdess who’s a ward of the state and depending on the Lord Chancellor) and Strephon, a product of the illicit liaison between the Lord Chancellor and the fairy Iolanthe 25 years before. Her marriage to a mortal got her exiled to a nearby stream bed, but she remains a dewy-looking teenager, leading to misunderstandings with Phyllis when she sees mother and son embracing. It ends happily, with everyone paired off and, one gathers, both titled and immortal.
The score, however, is delightful, with a lovely overture that begins as a Mendelssohnian idyll and then steps up the tempo and adds some temperature-raising percussion. Sperling’s orchestra played it masterfully. There are other clear musical influences — Offenbachian dance rhythms, the occasional grand opéra touch (the brass-festooned entry chorus of the Peers evokes Le prophète and Lohengrin), and not a little bel canto. There’s a remarkable and remarkably extended multipartite first-act finale that springs from the Rossini-Donizetti playbook.
Most of the roles require considerable vocal panache as well as verbal dexterity. Of the original London Savoyard cast, some were known more for dramatic or music-hall work. But mezzo-soprano Jessie Bond in the title role had studied with Manuel García, Jr. and done some oratorio work. Leonora Braham, who eventually tackled Pagliacci and La traviata, created Iolanthe (a part I heard as a child sung by Valerie Masterson, herself a future Violetta). London’s first Strephon, baritone Richard Temple, had roots in touring opera companies.
The Earl Tolloller, Scottish tenor Durward Lely, enjoyed an opera career both before and after his G&S years, during which he also created Nanki-Poo in The Mikado (1885). Trained in bel canto repertory by Francesco Lamperti (who taught among others early North American international stars Emma Albani and David Bispham), Lely was famous as Bizet’s Don José and also appeared opposite international eminences like Adelina Patti and Minnie Hauk both onstage and in concert. And London’s first Private Willis, bass Charles Manners, went on to Covent Garden and co-running his own globe-trotting English-language grand opera company. The simultaneous New York premiere, by contrast, had a cast mainly not drawn from the classical performance world, though the Earl Tolloller, Welsh tenor Llewellyn Cadwaladr, had some touring grand opera experience before undertaking G&S leads.
After Iolanthe‘s original New York production, there were at least 19 revivals on Broadway through 1955, almost all of them in the context of visits by the D’Oyly Carte or some other specialist group offering G&S in repertory. Almost all of these undertakings employed non-classical vocalists. However, in 1918-19, Iolanthe figured in an English-language opera repertory company also staging the likes of Carmen, Mignon, and Martha; over the decades, a few singers with Met associations took part in domestic or imported revivals: bass Herbert Waterous (Private Willis), soprano Muriel Dickson (Phyllis), and tenor Morton Bowe (Tolloller).
Sperling’s cast leaned mainly towards Broadway, but as usual he had some singers in place who have training that allows them to span several categories. Lyric-coloratura soprano Ashley Fabian’s pure-toned Phyllis looked and sounded worthy of any stage in the world. Opposite her, as the half-mortal Strephon, Schyler Vargas (clad à la Candide to show off his thighs) showed personality to burn and a very creditable baritone; he and Fabian, both skilled at varying dynamics, duetted well and did Sullivan’s often superb music for the lovers full justice. Bass Phillip Boykin’s Private Willis kicked off the second act with an awesome display of vocal abundance, personal warmth, and keenly projected text. As Earl Tolloller, the resourceful Jason Danieley showed his classical training with a legato-based approach and remarkable breath control and phrasing.
By contrast, as his friendly rival lord Mountararat, Santino Fontana sounded good but very “contemporary miked Broadway,” with choppier phrasing and a more cavalier approach to pitch. In the title role, Shereen Ahmed acted sympathetically but started the evening with a rather shallow, Disneyish sound that under-served her music; she improved steadily. Canny veteran David Garrison made some verbal substitutions in The Lord Chancellor’s patter songs but made them lots of fun and really nailed the long, difficult Nightmare Narration.
London’s first Queen of the Fairies was contralto Alice Barnett, a beloved but not notably glamorous figure. Stephanie Blythe, Meredith Arwady, or Ronnita Miller could all rock her music with aplomb. Here we had Christine Ebersole, utilizing a still-pleasing Broadway belt, avoiding any pretense of British accent, and making it work on her own starry terms, with every inflection and stance maximally expressive of character and mood. Celia, Leila, and Fleta — a fairy threesome owing something to Wagner’s widely imitated Rhinemaidens — drew spirited performances from Nicole Eve Goldstein, Kaitlyn LeBaron, and Emy Zener, with LeBaron in particular strikingly individual of timbre. The evening was enlivened immeasurably by the graceful, bravura dancing of New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck.
Scott Lehrer’s sound design gave the voices a hazy aura and that all-too-familiar Broadway sense of being beamed in from elsewhere and — at least at first — made the large and very sonorous women’s chorus virtually incomprehensible without the supertitles. It seemed a shame to be reading Gilbert’s brilliant rhymes rather than hearing them. But with most of the cast attempting some kind of British accents (with, to be kind, varying degrees of success), titles were indeed helpful, especially as there were also (in green print) useful glosses of historical and linguistic allusions that the original audience would have grasped. This Iolanthe proved time well spent.