Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

Philadelphia Diary, 1996

Day Six: Thursday, July 25

The Three Princesses, Oberlin College

As most G&S fans will know, the opera Princess Ida was based on Gilbert's play The Princess, which was in turn based on Tennyson's narrative poem of the same name. Director Gayden Wren seems to have been the first to think of of performing all three in the same day, a project which was first brought to fruition at Oberlin College last February and repeated at the Festival in Philadelphia.

I looked forward to the so-called "Three Princesses" performance with much anticipation. Festivals like this are exactly the right place for readings of dramatic poetry and performances of obsolete plays like The Princess, neither of which would be likely to appeal to the garden variety theatergoer. Moreover, for G&S lovers, the project provided a unique opportunity "to trace the evolution of a single story through three different genres" (as the copiously-annotated program notes expressed it).

That said, the gap between this noble idea and its pitiful execution could not have been more pronounced. Many factors inveighed against the project's success, from the compression of nearly eight hours of performances into just 9½ elapsed hours, to lack of adequate rehearsal time, to the complete elimination of all intermissions within each piece, to a sadistic director to who rehearsed his charges for nearly sixteen hours straight on the eve of the performance and then fed them only a few pizza slices on the day of the show itself.

The victims here were not only the audience members who sat through the whole thing, but more importantly the young performers themselves-talented college kids who acted and sang their hearts out, but were betrayed and abused by a director to whom even the most fundamental elements of stagecraft were utterly foreign. Among the debacle's horrified witnesses, no one could think of an occasion when they had witnessed directorial incompetence on such a grand scale.

Tennyson's The Princess, though at times "stiff andůverbose" to modern ears, is nonetheless a remarkable piece of dramatic poetry, laced with flowery similes and flights of fancy. It was evidently quite popular in its time, given that several composers set some, or all, of the songs embedded in the text. As Gayden Wren observes, the poem's "shape is innately dramatic," and hence, well suited to being read aloud.

The Princess is divided into seven parts, each of which had a different reader, plus a prologue and epilogue, which were read by a "narrator." A quartet of singers, with piano accompaniment by Musical Director Chris Ertelt, sang the eight songs-two of them to Sullivan settings, the others by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

The eight readers interpreted the poem with considerable depth of understanding. Nearly all of them seemed to know the material well and kept the narrative varied and interesting. Only one reader delivered in a poorly-enunciated monotone, offset by the high drama of Noah Sferra's emotional, bombastic reading of the poem's final part.

Director Gayden Wren informed us that the reading would take three hours, but in fact it ran forty minutes longer than that, without an intermission, and in a hall that was not air conditioned. Despite the committed skill of the readers, many of the audience bailed out before the end, and those of us who stayed had considerable difficulty staying awake. The poem should have been read the day before, and an intermission provided.

Gilbert's The Princess started about twenty minutes late, since the poetry reading ended just ten minutes before the play was scheduled to begin, and everyone in the reading was also in the play. The audience was told it would run for ninety minutes, but this stretched to two full hours, once again without intermission.

The Princess is a burlesque with interpolated songs, the melodies of which were drawn from popular operas such as La Périchole (Offenbach), The Barber of Seville (Rossini) and Manon Lescaut (Auber). The humor is deliberately over-broad, the puns excruciating, many of the men's roles taken by women (this to show off their legs). It is not the type of work that could be popular today, even with the most skillful of performances.

Burlesque is considerably more difficult to perform than comic opera, as the material is inherently less polished and requires mastery of timing to get the point across without becoming tedious. If the director, Gayden Wren, understood the slightest thing about the genre of burlesque, it was not apparent in the performance, which was an undisciplined mess reminiscent of a skit on the last day of summer camp. The performance looked like a first run-through, and I later learned that, for many of the actors, it was exactly that.

Two of the company managed to rise above the fray and give memorable performances despite the mess-Sally Ann Desmond (Cyril) and Noah Sferra (Hildebrand). But, most of the cast seemed to be just walking through it, with little understanding of the burlesque idiom and obliviously up-staging one another. Throughout the afternoon, audience members quitted the auditorium in droves.

The performance ended just forty-five minutes before the opera was to begin, leaving little time for either audience or cast to have dinner. I would later learn that it had occurred to no one that the actors needed a meal; all they got were scraps from what was meant to be prop food for the Castle Adamant luncheon table. Those who had also been in the poem had now been going for over six straight hours.

The opera started about twenty minutes late. An audible groan was heard in the theater when Ian Smith announced that Princess Ida would be performed in five acts, without intermission. Gayden Wren is not the first commentator to observe Princess Ida's ungainly structure (over-long second act book-ended by short first and third acts), but he must be the first to insist that his audience sit through the work for two straight hours, a privilege usually reserved for patrons of Parsifal and Götterdämmerung.

The sets were ugly, and spare. One of the acts had nothing but a black curtain upstage. This was the common element for all the acts. All entrances and exits were made through that curtain. Often, the action was held up for a parade of characters to find the place where the curtain parted, and to make their way through it. The up-stage curtain seemed like a magnet, with characters always drawn to the back of the stage by an unseen paranormal force.

The first act was a page out of the Marquis de Sade: women were treated as playthings, always forced to look down. They preened Hilarion (who reclined on a sofa) during his solo. During "O dainty triolet," Hilarion and his friends abused the ladies-an interpretation, needless to say, that is at war with the music. In the last act, all the characters wore leather.

The director had one or two good ideas. The fight scene, for example, was very well choreographed. Cyril and Florian were defeated, with only Hilarion left standing. At the end, everyone gathered in a circle and threw down their weapons, leaving Ida, who relented with reluctance. These ideas, though non-traditional, seemed a reasonable interpretation of the text.

There was an elaborate and very detailed program booklet, which revealed the director's thoughts on Princess Ida as a tragedy. But, the tragedy here was the inept direction, possibly the most incompetent piece of theater that I have ever witnessed.


Page created 5 June 1999