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Iolanthe At ENO Triumphs: A Blend Of Whimsical Fantasy And Witty Satire

Satire may not endure endlessly, but it certainly keeps well. WS Gilbert wrote the libretto for Iolanthe in 1882, mocking various flaws in the British political system, particularly the hereditary peerage. Even today, there are lines in the play that remain relevant. This revival of Cal McCrystal’s 2018 English National Opera production of Iolanthe places emphasis on frivolity and silliness rather than deep contemplation.

Gilbert’s lyrics were meant to satirize the politicians and social norms of his time while leaving room for future performances to add timely satire. This production seizes the opportunity, with characters resembling Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The biggest laughs from the audience come from the imitation of Nadine Dorries fruitlessly knocking on the closed doors of the House of Lords.

The plot revolves around Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd who is in love with Phyllis, a fellow shepherdess and ward in Chancery. Unfortunately for Strephon, the Lord Chancellor and the entire House of Lords also have their eyes on Phyllis.

The play is unabashedly campy and sharply sardonic. It incorporates the typical Gilbert & Sullivan themes of first love, competing suitors, and clueless Englishmen pursuing a woman. Importantly, this production portrays the “old men” as foolishly romantic rather than debauched.

The set, designed by the late Paul Brown, is visually stunning. Within a gilded proscenium, a vibrant and lush pastoral utopia is created with flamboyant flowers, foliage, and Arcadian paintings as the backdrop. Brown’s intricate costumes for the fairies and the inclusion of various animals, including a unicorn and a pantomime cow, add to the spectacle. The fairies, portrayed as a rowdy bunch, defy the delicate depiction described in the libretto.

The cast, supported by the lively conductor Chris Hopkins and the orchestra, delivers superb vocals. Samantha Price shines in the title role, alongside Marcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne as Strephon and Phyllis, respectively. Ruairi Bowen and Ben McAteer expertly portray Phyllis’ suitors, while Keel Watson injects humor into the guardsman’s aria, parodying the two-party system. John Savournin commands the stage as the Lord Chancellor, even engaging the audience in a Disney-style sing-along. Catherine Wyn-Rogers steals the show as the metal-plated Queen of the Fairies, exhibiting authority and delivering cutting remarks to the hapless Strephon.

This production is a dazzling display of lavish sets, stellar performances, and biting satire that often feels strikingly current. Its location at the London Coliseum, near the Houses of Parliament, adds an extra layer of resonance as Iolanthe playfully mocks its real-life counterparts.

English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES

Catherine Wyn-Rogers in her element playing a majestic, armament-clad Queen of the Fairies.

Samantha Price is a shimmering Queen of the Fairies and John Savournin as The Lord Chancellor.

Image Source: Ryan Ng / Shutterstock

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