Iolanthe English National Opera 5th October 2023

Cal McCrystal (Director)
Chris Hopkins (Conductor)
Lizzi Gee (Choreographer)

I had not had the opportunity to see ENO’s Iolanthe in its first run in 2018, so it was with a completely open mind that I entered The Coliseum to see what the company would make of it, a second tier G&S show in terms of popularity though regularly voted musically the best among online aficionados.

Following an entertaining on-stage introduction by Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle, playing a complete part manufactured from one passing reference) I was very impressed by the overture: it’s not often that Sullivan’s full score with all the doubled wind and two percussionists is heard. Under Chis Hopkins’ baton, the fine ENO orchestra held the whole audience in rapt attention as barely any noise was heard to disturb the mood-setting. Impressive stuff.

The first chorus of the fairies was a riot of colour and energy held together by choreographer Lizzi Gee’s robust choreography. On a few occasions that energy led to ragged entries and inaccurate rhythms which was unfortunate, though forgivable in the opening scene on an opening night. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Fairy Queen – paying more than a passing resemblance to Brunhilde, both in costuming and style – was a delight to hear.

Strong performances too, from Ellie Laugharne as Phyllis and Marcus Farnsworth as Strephon, whilst John Savournin’s delivery of the patter songs, particularly the Lord Chancellor’s notoriously wordy ‘Nightmare’ song was clear and with impeccable diction.

That said, whilst I’m all in favour of taking Sullivan’s music at a healthy pace, at times here I found it simply too rushed. Words were lost, tempos fluctuated between stage and pit with the occasional obvious anxious glance downwards. However all this is forgivable on an opening night.

What, I am afraid, I find totally unforgivable is the Director’s complete lack of trust in the material. Any additions to the score and libretto should be placed with care and thought – sadly lacking here.

For some reason Phyllis and Strephon’s first act love duet is upstaged by a person simulating a sex act with a sheep. The Fairy Queen is compelled to mistake Strephon’s name with a fake phallus. The second act quartet is interrupted by a not particularly topical Boris Johnson and Liz Truss reference. Private Willis’s shrewd observations on politics and politicians were accompanied by a defecating horse. And so it went on…. and on…. and on. Whilst this sort of thing might have worked in the privacy of a rehearsal room, they didn’t bring anything of any merit to the production, which was a great shame.

In summary, a slightly skittish opening night that will without doubt settle into something you can close your eyes and enjoy listening to. Preferable, anyway, to watching parts of it.

Lucas Elkin