Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



David Craven: Have we moved on to that abysmal failure of an Opera Iolanthe? Is it time to list the twenty reasons why it does not measure up to that neglected masterpiece, Utopia or the timeless classic Sorcerer? or even up to those mediocre hits Der Mikado, Il Piratti, or S.S. Pinafore.......

Chomping at the bit....

Andrew Crowther: Ooh, I don't know how you can say such things....

_Iolanthe_ is, I think, my favourite of the operas. Maybe it's partly personal - it was the first complete G&S recording I got, with Sargent and the Pro Arte, and it was the first G&S opera I saw in performance. But really, how can anyone hear the overture and not get that frisson of anticipation? This is Gilbert and Sullivan at their individual and collective bests. That central idea - bringing together Fairies and Peers! - so completely ludicrous and at the same time so _right_! All right, so the plot may be a bit confused -

("Well, you see there's this fairy, and she's been banished to this pond for marrying a mortal, and... She's got a son, see, and _he's_ engaged to Phyllis, only the Lord Chancellor won't let them marry.... Anyway, Strephon - that's the son - he becomes an MP, because, er, because the Lord Chancellor thought the Fairy Queen was a schoolteacher.... Well, anyway, he goes into Parliament. Well, then you see the fairies fall in love with the Peers, and... Oh! I nearly forgot, it turns out in the end it was the Lord Chancellor Iolanthe married - that's the fairy I told you about at the start, and the Fairy Queen's about to kill her when the fairies say they've all married the Peers, so that's all right, and... well, then they all fly off to Fairyland, you see?")

- but what does that matter? I doubt if anyone really cares a damn about that, because the moments are so wonderful. It's the most _likeable_ of the operas to my mind. Sullivan at his lushest - but never sentimental (well, hardly ever). A _superb_ First Act finale. A bravura patter song which almost seems like Gilbert demonstrating what he can do in verse. The choruses taking centre stage to an extent they don't in any of the other operas. Funny, touching, dramatic, tuneful, satirical, and also (IMHO) that little touch extra - that indefinable thing that's beyond all criticism, which I'll cop out and call genius.

In short, I like it.

Andrew Crowther: I forgot to add that I think _Iolanthe_ has the most superbly joy-creating ending of any of the operas. I don't mean that bit of nonsense about putting "Don't" into Fairy Law - I mean all the mortals suddenly sprouting wings, and the wonderfully silly last line, "Then away we go to Fairyland!" I always feel unreasonably happy coming out of the theatre from _Iolanthe_, and for that I'm sincerely grateful.

Neil Ellenoff: I also feel gratified.

Eugenia Horne: David Craven wrote: "Chomping at the bit...."

Oh, all right, but remember this is probably incoherent rambling because I don't have the qualifications to analyze the musical merits of particular chords or whatever. In other words, it's just my subjective opinion.

This was the first G&S show I actually got to do. It still remains 2nd on the list of shows I'd like to do again. I occasionally try to "pitch" this show to the local opera group. Even tried two weeks ago. The response: "Oh, no one comes to see the lesser known G&S shows." (I'm really hoping once the downtown theater is restored, it will give the town a mid-size theater where someone will stage these type of shows instead of just the intimate (60 to 100 seat theater) shows or the extravaganzas (2000 seat theater)).

Anyway back to "Iolanthe" and some of the aspects of the first show that I really liked:

Staging: This is a show that easily lends itself to dancing. The overture was used to have some of the fairies dancing and just naturally segued into the first number "Tripping hither..." without a break. The overture also lends itself nicely to "drawing the audience into the piece", and by having fairies enter one-by-one it made a nice change of pace from the usual "mass chorus entrance" or "tableau opening".

This was also the production with the people (different group than the one mentioned above) who knew how to make maximum use of lighting. Since the stage was small, set pieces were kept to a minimum, the second act set was largely just an outline of the Parliament buildings via lighting effects. (It was always so amusing to have people come up afterwards and rave about the sets. This group provided some solid examples of "less is more".)

Characters: In some respects the characters are more "real" than in other G&S operas, probably partly due to the plot being more driven by the characters than devices (Tom Shepard: This point really nails it. Congratulations for noting it. I believe IOLANTHE is absolutely unique in this respect. It is the personal agendas far more than the quirks of fate that motivate and prevail.) Eugenia Horne: (although in this one the "devices" are the ramifications of half the characters being fairies who in turn suffer from "mortal" failings "the weakness is so strong".) And even the "deus ex machina" to resolve the opera at the end of Act II is more logical than elsewhere. (Really, the Fairy Queen was just looking for an excuse not to "slaughter the whole company".)

Anyway, Gilbert's lyrics don't seem quite as cynical as elsewhere and evidence some "romantic" feelings towards lovers and the situations that they find themselves in. Sullivan matches these with music reflecting this. While other works may seem like excuses to display wit and satire, the whole is more interlaced with the plot and characterization in this one. Sure, G&S take time out to "roast" the House of Lords, but even the Lords are looking for love in this one and like most people are "bruised" by reject and try to laugh it off.

Kenton L Chambers: Iolanthe is my favorite; it was the first opera I memorized (age ca. 17, from DOC 78 rpm recording); it has (IMHO) the best march, the most beautiful love song, the best patter-song (or maybe in a tie with Sorcerer's), and the most tear-inducing song. Of course I refer to "My lord, a suppliant at your feet.." I simply can't listen to, or even read the words of, Iolanthe's song without choking up. When we did the play last summer, I sat backstage (in my soldier's uniform) listening, and crying, every night.

What other songs in the canon induce tears, dear Savoynetters? Oh, thoughtless crew; Ah, leave me not to pine; Love is a plaintive song; I built upon a rock; Alone, and yet alive; To a garden full of posies; There was a time? All contenders, perhaps, but none have quite the "extraordinary effect"--on me, at least--as Iolanthe's sentimental pleadings. Does anyone else have a favorite piece which they respond to in this way (whether mentioned above or not)?

Paul McShane: When we ranked the G&S operas in terms of favouritism some months ago, the consensus of the 37 people who took part in the survey was that Iolanthe was - by a comfortable margin - the Savoynetters' favourite opera.

Eleven people (Ken Chambers, Andrew Crowther, Larry Garvin, Gene Leonardi, Sarah Mankowski, Derrick McClure, Paul McShane, Philip Nolen, Deborah Sager, Tom Shepard and David Stone) voted for Iolanthe as No.1. Another ten people (Joe Boonin, Mary Finn, Eugenia Home, Robert Jones, Rachel Keegan, Michael Nash, Elizabeth Pugh, Nick Sales, John Shea and Chris Wain) picked it as No.2. That left only 16 of the 37 surveyed who rated Iolanthe further back than second favourite.

On the other hand, the parallel survey (on what was considered the "best" G&S opera) saw Iolanthe finishing a dismal sixth, behind Mikado, Yeomen, Pirates, Pinafore and Gondoliers. Half of the respondents on the merit survey (David Craven, Robert Jones (!), Gordon Pascoe, Marc Shepherd and Sam Silvers) didn't put Iolanthe in the top half. Only 10 people felt confident enough to rank the operas from 1 to 13 (excluding Thespis) on a "best" to "worst" basis, but nevertheless the difference in the two sets of results shows fairly clearly that Savoynetters feel that Iolanthe has some technical flaws, but for all that is the most lovable of the canon.

It would be interesting to hear from those who made Iolanthe their first or second favourite (and Andrew Crowther has already begun this theme) on its moments of pleasure, and from those who feel it has a few shortcomings as to what might have been done to make it better.

In my own case, I could point to many moments of joy, but particularly:

  1. The best Act I Finale - the ensemble "Young Strephon is the kind of lout" always gives me goosebumps.
  2. The best men's' chorus - the Peers chorus is terrific.
  3. The best bit of dialogue in the canon - Mountararat and Tolloller's George/Thomas scene.

And on an historical note, I managed to work the Nightmare Song into my English examination paper in my final year at high school. (I still passed.)

"You may use any language you choose"
Paul McShane

Robert Jones: Kenton L Chambers wrote: "On the other hand, the parallel survey saw Iolanthe finishing a dismal sixth. Half of the respondents on the merit survey didn't put Iolanthe in the top half."

I must have been drunk or insane. I'd certainly rank it higher if asked again.

Gene Leonardi: Dear SavoyNet,

I won't make this a very long contribution to any IOLANTHE "love-fest" but I am happy to answer Paul McShane's call for praising my "number one" G&S. First and foremost, I think it is the most successful marriage of sparkling dialog and sparkling music in the canon. This is epitomized in (as Paul said) the first act finale which is literate, funny, and masterfully musical. Throughout, there is no excess and nothing jarring or out of place. The overture is both as lovely as Mendelssohn and, at the end, as exciting as Rossini. And "pace" David, villains or no, everyone is charming and quirky and fun to be with. Well, I guess that's enough from me.

Judith Weis: Goosebump moments - the overture. I will always remember waiting in the wings in my first chorus performance of Iolanthe as a college sophomore, listening to the overture before we went on.

I get a similar "frisson" every time I hear that overture.

Louis Wernick: Several 'netters have, in their now-familiar wonderful way (and keep this going, PLEASE), have suggested that IOLANTHE is unique in the G&S canon because the nature of the emotional impact it is likely to have on modern audiences may be different from that in the other operettas.

I have thought of a reason why, and that reason is that "The Peer and the Peri" combines two alternate styles of comic music theatrical which Gilbert and Sullivan may have wished to actually include in Iolanthe.

The first of these is the traditional format of staged comedy which involves two or more characters approaching the same goal with a certain self-centeredness that leads to a midpoint confusion. In an earlier part of the nineteenth century, many musical works including but not limited to comedies, used a technique frequently credited to Mozart of placing everyone with incongruent points of view on the stage just before the midpoint to sing their variegated ideas in counterpoint, after which an intermission could occur with all threads of the plot left up in the air.

Have not the 'netters been saying that the various actions of the Faerie Queen (with her viewpoint of her laws) vs. The Lord Chancellor (with his viewpoint of his laws) is an almost perfect example of what we consider in our century to be "musical comedy", especially the way the two characters have to address each other in the Act I Finale. (Indeed, if our construct of musical comedy was not known in England of the 1880's, might G&S be credited with bringing it into the world on a large scale as their operettas traveled from one country to another?)

Opposing this is the operetta tradition, coming from further East in Europe and much earlier in the century, of having characters sing and act "naturaly" in sets and costumes that suggest "never-never land". Some of the 'netters have been saying that characters such as Phyllis and Strephon, as well as the title character, sing and act in the pure operetta tradition. Indeed, the Act I set of Arcadia vs. the Act II set of Parliament suggest a visual that gives the audience one the one had "operetta" and on the other hand "musical comedy".

Might this be something that G&S had in mind when creating IOLANTHE, and a possible reason why IOLANTHE at this time in history is a very safe bet for Savoyard Societies and potlucks, community and amateur theater companies, etc..?

Mary Mahoney: My favorite perhaps because I happen to have seen more performances of it than of the others. One example - as a student at a Scottish university long ago, I was living in lodgings where the landlord was a keen member of chorus of the local town AOS; he had the record, and every morning for weeks I woke to hear the strains of one or other of the songs floating up the stairs. He understudied the Chancellor, and got his big chance the night I attended. Talk about accents all you like - his was STRONG Glasgow - but it worked fine. Well, the Scots are pretty good with consonants aren't they?(I'm not one)

Barri Soreil: Subject: Iolanthe First Defect Rebuttal

While a dozing, the following thoughts presented themselves (while the counterpane uncovered my toes), Iolanthe has the HAPPIEST ending in all of G&S! Not only do all the fairies marry mortals (before they are changed into fairies) thus avoiding their newly enacted fate, BUT Strephon who will now live in fairyland with his beloved Phyllis has avoided the fate of "what to do about his upper half when his lower half has departed!" In fairyland, of course, even mortals are immortal! There is no happier ending the entire canon!

May I add on a final note, that as a fairly new web browser, I have seen virtually nowhere else on the www the intelligence and insightfullness that I find right here at Savoynet. I'm truly delighted to have found you all.

Nick Sales: Subject: OOTW Iolanthe - Music - moments of wonder/tear jerkers

I'm slowly getting back up to speed now, and (to Robert Jones's evident relief) am working on the first draft of my HMA (humble musical appreciation) of Iolanthe.

In the meantime, however, there have been various postings on which bits of the operas induce goose-bumps or tears. It has occurred to me that for myself, Iolanthe has by far the most of any one opera; viz:

  1. The Overture. The opening, and various other bits - but how do I explain without the use of music *which* bits?
  2. The opening number.
  3. The invocation, particularly Iolanthe's opening lines.
  4. The start of the Peer's chorus (orchestrally).
  5. Ah! Blue Blood (ah, Arthur, could I ever tell thee!)
  6. 'Neath this blow
  7. "and hide the fear that makes them tremble"
  8. Young/When Strephon (and the orchestral intro (all 1.75 bars of it)
  9. The last 18 bars (or so) of Act I
  10. The fairy Queen's song (its merely being in Dflat feels SOOOOO good)
  11. Friendship (from the first note to the dying of the echo). Boo hoo hoo hoo.
  12. Nightmare song (the change from minor to major)
  13. Iolanthe's plea. (helpless, sobbing wreck)
  14. The repeated notes that precede the Queens "Thou thyself thy doom"
Not bad, and basically off the top of my head. Gosh, I really DO love Iolanthe.

bis spater


Stop. There's too many. I shall wait until my HMA is complete, and regale you all then.

Charles Schlotter In re: The Favorite Operetta thread

I don't know what my favorite operetta is (though I suppose "Thespis" should be my sentimental favorite.)

However, I do know it was the favorite of one of my clarinet teachers, the late James G. Borelli. Mr. Borelli was, for some years in the 1920's, the solo clarinetist with the Sousa Band. Through that great Savoy Opera admirer, he acquired an expert knowledge and technical grasp of the Sullivan idiom. (Not to mention that he was a helluva clarinet player, even in old age.)

After leaving Sousa, he freelanced in the city of Pittsburgh, PA and was recruited to join the pit orchestra whenever the D'Oyly Carte troupe played Pittsburgh. He must have especially liked "Iolanthe" because of the interesting woodwind parts. If I had not been so young and dumb, I would have thought to question him thoroughly about those productions (and about his years with Sousa, for pete's sake!) but I do recall the smile on his face whenever he thought of Martyn Green.

Tom Shepard: Steve Sullivan wrote: "Every journey has an end -- We are now coming to the end of the Iolanthe Opera Of The Week. Iolanthe has always been my favorite, but before now I have never been say why it is my favorite. I would like to thank all the contributors for pointing out all the things there are to like about Iolanthe."

When I was six years old, on a rainy day at the beach in Deal, NJ, my favorite aunt, Florence Green, played the 11 78s of IOLANTHE, telling me about the mother who looked like a young woman because she was a fairy, and her son who was only half a fairy, and about that funny old Chancellor who......etc.etc.

I was hooked. Totally hooked. I saw myself someday as living in a world like IOLANTHE, or perhaps becoming a character within the operetta itself. A beautiful world of sunshine and elegant speech, wonderful music, and, to a young and growing 6 year old body and mind, it was a completely non-threatening world, no crime, no sex, (who knew about St. James's Park then?). Just a beautiful magical kingdom full of the prettiest young ladies, the most elegant gentlemen, in a society where goodness is protected and eventually rewarded.

So I began to learn and memorize each operetta, and I still retain most of the lyrics and music in my head (but not the dialog because it usually wasn't recorded).

But IOLANTHE will always hold the special place in the heart of a six year old on a rainy day in summer, too cold and wet outside to go to the beach, but absolutely the perfect day for becoming involved on a life-long basis with G&S.

Updated 28 November 1997