I have a soft spot for Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’. My Mum had the album and, although I was never sure how you pronounced it, I knew that when it went on the deck there would be plenty of ‘tripping hither and tripping thither’ with the opening fairy chorus. The real joy, though, was to get to ‘Loudly let the trumpet bray’ so that we could march round the furniture shrieking ‘Tarantara!’ and waggling brooms at each other.
On Saturday evening at the opening night of 2016’s Berwick Festival Opera’s (BFO) season at the Maltings, there was no impatience to skip through Matthew Rooke’s delightfully reorchestrated version of the operetta. From the first tinkling breaths of the clarinet and flute, you knew you were in safe hands. Indeed, the effervescent Monica Buckland has now conducted ‘Iolanthe’ three times – although I suspect this was her most bijou orchestra to date.
It’s a mad hoot of a story that, as so often with G&S, delivers a political satirical punch and a generally high old time. Two worlds collide: the domain of the female fairy dell – where fun, frolics and dancing predominate; and that of the House of Lords – where hunting, shooting, fishing and hereditary patriarchy rule. Iolanthe is a fairy who has been banished from the fairy dell for marrying a mortal. The son from that marriage (Strephon) wants to wed a shepherdess (Phyllis) who is a ward of court. However, since the whole aged troupe of the House of Lords including her guardian the Lord Chancellor seem to want to marry the young Phyllis too, Strephon’s in for a tricky ride. Cue much fairy intervention and plenty of comic riffs – including some up-to-the-moment referendum references stitched into Gilbert’s exceptional libretto.
Regular Festival collaborators Rocket Opera combine a light touch and a heady energy with perky, inclusive performances. The young cast stepped up to the plate with Lottie Greenhow (Phyllis) and Euan Williamson (Strephon) settling quickly and delivering a couple of tingling duets – Greenhow’s voice seemed to grow and grow with each song: beautiful. The fairy chorus provided pert and impertinent support and were masterfully stewarded by the stern but ultimately soft-hearted Queen of the Fairies (Kath Ireland). The confidence that the audience gains from the seamless interactions and interplay between characters would have been even sharper with a few more rehearsals – but bearing in mind the budget constraints these guys work under, the quality of production and performance is remarkable. Tamsin Davidson shone as Iolanthe, combining understatement and constant engagement. Someone commented on Facebook that when Davidson sang ‘My Lord, a suppliant at your feet’ he had a tear in his eye – me too! Always an audience favourite, Fred Broom (The Lord Chancellor), reprised his role as Pooh-Bah in last year’s ‘The Mikado’, delivering a good dose of slapstick and Panto Dame – to grand effect. Austin Gunn (Earl Tolloller) and Neil Turnbull (Earl of Mountararat) are founder members of Rocket and along with Sam Morrison (Private Willis) injected plenty of frenetic energy and high-drinking jinks to the stage. Hats off to the tech crew: the lighting was excellent.
All in all, BFO continues to bring high-quality, accessible opera to Berwick, presenting great opportunities for young performers to work alongside seasoned professionals and delivering excellent entertainment to audiences. We still have Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Marschner’s ‘The Vampyre’, Poulenc’s ‘La Voix Humaine’ and a Summer Recital featuring Peter Selwyn to look forward to. Excited? You should be!