It would be interesting to know whether that is a coincidence or the result of smart planning that two operas succeeding one another at English National Opera are both by British composers and both have magical fairylands as their subject matters. The similarities also include confusion caused by the omnipotence of magical powers amongst mortals, presence of first distraught and then reunited lovers, new amourous unions formed as the result of immersion into fairyland, and the finales that bring happiness to all involved. The plots and approaches are very different, and actually give an example of what works more effectively on stage and in music when presenting an imagined or parodied world. It seems that excessive imagery and seduction of audiences by multiple gimmicks that was characteristic for ‘Iolanthe’ actually works not so effectively as minimalism of design that lures our minds into the dream land that was specific for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
Iolanthe. ENO Chorus and cast. Credits: Clive Barda
Gilbert’s idea for ‘Iolanthe’ stems from his ballade ‘The Fairy Curate’ where a fairy mixes up with mortals to produce a semi-mortal sun. The plot developed by Gilbert for the opera “Iolanthe, or the Peer and the Peri’ that opened at the Savoy theatre in November 1882, develops the original idea by throwing a pair of lovers (a sun of a fairy and a mortal woman), a major love histeria resembling a Greek bacchanalia, and a parody of British parliamentary system into the melting pot. The opera is quite characteristic of Gilbert and Sullivan’s corpus in the sense that there are miriads of puns within the lines in the arias, and many of the word-play elements have to do with mores of the creators’ contemporaries. Some are extremely satirical, many are physically very quick and wordy (quite a challenge for performers), and there is an ample room for a director to indulge in the proposed theatricality an parody even further.
Iolanthe. ENO Chorus and cast. Credits: Clive Barda
Cal McCrystal, who is known to theatre audience by his ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ at the National theatre (a smashing hit that was later transferred to West End and Broadway), does exactly that: the satirical word created by Gilbert and Sullivan is further saturated by this inventive director, not leaving a viewer too much space or time to get distracted from what is going on stage. And that becomes both a blessing and a curse, as everything is so quickly laid out before us to process that there is no room for leeways of one’s own imagination when one watches ‘Iolanthe’. Besides, one also needs the time to process all textual puns (thanks god, there were subtitles), and thus the experience requires a lot of concentration indeed. The question is whether the result is always worth the efforts spent.
Iolanthe. Credits: Clive Barda
The first thing that one is bound to notice are really touching inventions from the designer Paul Brown (who sadly passed away in 2017) – flocks of birds flying over the stage, forgotten pink flamingos, heads of unicorns among huge flowers and berries of fairyland. Brown, in unison with McCrystal’s ideas of physical comedy on stage, later on experiments also with flying people who appear from unexpected places. He also swiftly changes the designs from fairyland to Arcadia and then to the inside parlours of the British Parliament (represented as if a tourist full of ‘Britishness’ ideas has his dream come true). There are also a huge locomotive (very successful with the public) and a Royal guard’s cabin on stage, although one can’t get over the feeling that all these are a bit passé for the modern taste. In a way, these designs are never illuminating the story beyond what is there in the plot, they are partly illustrative and partly purely setting the ground for multiple director’s tricks to be realized on stage. And there are indeed many – there are really funny group movements from fairies and peers throughout the show, and a particularly exhilarating slapstick episode where a page boy (extremely flexible Richard Leeming) gets flown around the room (virtually everywhere, and repeated in an encore) by the parliamentaries. I also liked the metatheatrical puns characteristic for McCrystal, where the jokes are about the show running wrong and where wrong people and objects appear on stage at wrong times.
Andrew Shore (The Lord Chancellor) ], Ben Johnson (Earl Tolloler), Ben McAteer (Earl of Mountararat) and Richard Leeming (Page Boy). Credits: Clive Barda
But, strangely enough, such direction coupled with the Gilbert and Sullivan’s richly worded plot, leaves less time to enjoy the mastery of individual performers: they all suffer from the overwhelming demands on one’s immediate attention that the show puts on the viewer. Every performer is indeed funny, and channels a continuous sense of self-parody suggested by the director, but, apart from the excruciatingly quick and funny aria from Andrew Shore as a Vice Chancellor, one has trouble in singling out anyone in particular. Ellie Laugharne as a joyfully attractive Phyllis, Marcus Farnsworth as full-of-life Strephon, Samantha Price as an elegant and unworldly Iolanthe and Yvonne Howard as a sturdy Queen of the Fairies could be singled out just because they had principal roles to perform. It was rather the conductor Chris Hopkins that could be lauded for a steady and inventive direction of the musicians to produce a dynamic Sullivan’s score. Clive Mantle as Captain Shaw who brought in the interactive elements into the evening also stood out for his direct humour. However, the moments where one actually forgot where one was and laughed at outrageous jokes were the simple ones (described so comprehensively by Bergson in his essay ‘Le Rire’) where one fell on the ground or was beaten down, or slapped, or appeared and disappeared unexpectedly. Not sure if this is the kind of opera that would make my cup of tea (and neither was ‘One Man, Two Guvnors) but it certainly boosted the audiences’ spirits and brought in something of those ‘hearty laughter’ naivété that, as we imagine, was part and parcel of the 19th century theatre-going.
Marcus Farnsworth (Strephon) and Ellie Laugharne (Phyllis). Credits: Cive Barda
The other experience of immersion into the fairyland – that of the production of Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1960) was far more rewarding and lyrical, allowing the audiences to form both their inner pathways into Shakespeare’s and Britten’s worlds and for all performers to shine individually. Britten and his partner Peter Pears reworked Shakespeare’s play into a libretto focusing largely on the magical world of Athenian forest and the extravagance of ‘play-within-the-play’ production, leaving the everyday Athens of the play largely behind.
Midsummer Night's Dream. Trinity Boys Choir and Miltos Yerolemou (Puck). Credits: Robert Workman
The atmosphere created by Britten is also very specific and immediately tunes the listener out of the normal rhythmically correct and predictable opera expectations. There is also constant creation of atmosphere and almost impressionistic tone-painting employed by Britten in his score. Introduction of a prominent male chorus as Titania’s fairies and a countertenor as a lead (Oberon) are also unusual elements creating the unusual beauty of the piece that lures one into its unique world. The conductor Alexander Soddy was very faithful to Britten’s intentions and singled out such instruments as harps and glockenspiel that were used frequently to create a magical midsummer night’s world, while also being attentive to boys’ chorus and individual performers during the evening.
Midsummer Night's Dream. Trinity Boys Choir. Credits: Robert Workman
Current production at ENO is a revival of Robert Carsen’s production that first shined at Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1991 and was then revived in its birthplace in 2015, on both occasions being a five-star success with critics and audiences. The ENO brings this production to London (and it is again a perfectly groomed and coordinated Trinity Boys Choir that appears here as it did in Aix-en-Provence), with Daisy May Kemp being a revival choreographer. It is Michael Levine’s extraordinary simple and powerful design that is the first to catch the viewer’s imagination and to create a visual frame where Britten’s music and Shakespeare’s plot will develop. The ‘forest’ on stage is not naturalistic – it is just a trapeze-shaped space with a hill that turns out to be made of two giant white pillows.
Midsummer Night's Dream. David Webb (Lysander) and Eleanor Dennis (Helena). Credits: Robert Workman
All that happens could well be part of our bed dreams, as Puck (the Greek actor Miltos Yerolemou) informs us in the end of the evening, and we do indeed fall under the charms of this magnificent bed-time story throughout the opera. The beds continue to be an ever-present part of the design (and the beauty of the decision that it is so simple and similar, yet always so new, exactly as a dream might be), multiplying in numbers and even getting eerily suspended over the stage during the evening. The colouristic decision was also exquisite and consistent both in the set design and the costumes (associate costume designer – Zeb Lalljee) – it contained green (for non-existent grass and leaves), dark blue for rich hues of the sky, and white for moon. Additionally, some sparkles of red (like the flower of love potion) were occasionally introduced into the stage design – it looked magnificently simple in its suggestive minimalism.
Midsummer Night's Dream. Soraya Mafi (Tytania), Trinity Boys Choir and Joshua Bloom (Bottom). Credits: Robert Workman
All the performers stood out, as there was so much space created both by Britten and by Carsen to surround, highlight and support their voices. Green-blue-red clad boys from Trinity Boys Choir were the first ones to transfer our perception to the world of crystal purity and androgenic fuzziness where genders did not exactly matter. Then a lean and tall countertenor Christoper Ainslie appeared as Oberon, making us think of a Greek god in the world of magic dreams. The soprano Soraya Mafi as Titania was definitely his match (and that’s how Britten’s music ingeniously coupled the pairs) in her exquisite and uniquely flexible and lyrical delivery. Then, moving one step down to the world of humans, the couples of young white-clad Athenian lovers were also performed with much gusto (both vocally and theatrically) by David Webb (Lysander), Claire Presland (Hermia), Matthew Duncan (Demetrius) and Eleanor Dennis (Helena). I personally preferred Dennis who played Helena, but all singers were incredibly good in impersonating feisty Athenian lovers, while their clothes (that acquired more green spots) revealed their growing engagement with the magical forest. And finally, another type of musical world was created by Britten for a group of laymen preparing their ‘spectacle extraordinaire’. The direction of these scenes was imbued with the abundance of humour rarely seen in theatre productions of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and the culminating performance caused a continuous laughter from the audiences. The watching group of Athenias also intermittently chipped in their musical lines as comments on the show – quite an intricate juggling of music phrasing from Britten.
Midsummer Night's Dream. Timothy Robinson (Snout) and Joshua Bloom (Bottom). Credits: Robert Workman
Miltos Yerolemou was also excellent - he indeed became the impersonation of mischievous Eros (looking like a mix between Lindgren's Karlsson and overweight Brussels boy), either getting straight into action or observing it from the sideways. And the bits where he played with theatrical illusion (dropping the cloth that served as a baby, or getting out of magical hypnosis and then falling into it again) were just another exquisite bunch of cherries on the cake of this production. It indeed served a perfect example how humour and exquisite lyricism could be combined on an unsurpassable level, while creating space for singers to shine and for audiences to indulge in their own powers of imagination. An unforgettable treat from ENO!
Midsummer Night's Dream. Miltos Yerolemou (Puck) and Christopher Ainsile (Oberon). Credits: Robert Workman