Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



David Craven: A third defect in Iolanthe is an underwritten Baritone role and a badly underwritten Bass role. (Please note that the following discussion is unsupported and represents only my opinion. It is not intended to be an expression of fact, and I expect that there will be reasonable disagreements on this position) As a baritone, one factor in evaluating the overall value and quality of a show is the quality of the baritone and bass baritone roles. In the case of Iolanthe, it is, at best, substandard. The roles of Private Willis and Lord Mountararat are both significantly underwritten.

Lets look at Willis first, as is common with many G&S Bass roles, it is limited to the second act... and within this act, Willis has minimal music. Certainly Willis has a superb song which opens the second act, but it is essentially all of his part. Willis also only has three lines of dialogue. In contrast, the Mikado has substantial dialogue, a great duet, a great solo and a good quintet. Marmaduke has substantial dialogue, a great duet, several significant lines in the finales, and a great quintet. Sir Roderick has a great song and great dialogue and so on...

Mountararat is not as underwritten as Willis, but is still badly underwritten. The one solo which remains is one of the simplest and shortest of the canon and, where it is placed, it is difficult to have any good focus on the song.

Why are these parts underwritten? That is hard to say, but one possible factor is the "over-writing" of the Lord Chancellor. The LC, with the possible exception of Jack Point, is the most significant all of the patter parts and has to carry the show. (While the Savoy-aires have been fortunate to have John Shea and Henry Odum play the Lord Chancellor, other companies are not so fortunate) a bad LC dooms the production.

Is it a major defect? No, but it is a defect, particularly if compared to a well balanced show like Gondoliers...

Bruce I. Miller: Well, David, you can rejoice, because the role of Strephon is -- a BASS role!

Marc Shepherd: I would like to understand, David, more precisely what you mean by this. Is it inherently a defect that the "heavy baritone" and bass roles in IOLANTHE are smaller than in most of the other G&S operas? Or, is it merely a defect from the perspective of the artist assigned to sing them?

It's interesting that you describe GONDOLIERS as a more balanced show, because in this show there is NO principal bass role at all. (This was always the night off for Fancourt, Adams and Ayldon.) The complete lack of a role strikes me as the ultimate in "underwriting."

The principal bass and baritone roles in IDA are arguably just as "under-written" (if this is indeed a defect) as in IOLANTHE, and I don't recall your raising this objection when IDA hat its turn as OOTW.

To summarize: are you saying that there is something *inherently* defective in IOLANTHE because two of the roles are "underwritten," or is this merely the reason why you *personally* dislike it -- i.e., the roles you're most likely to play are not as juicy as you'd like. (A bit like Renata Scotto disliking BILLY BUDD because there is no prima donna role.)

By the way, there's nothing wrong with disliking an opera because one's own role is small. But, that's NOT a defect.

Nick Sales: Hear, hear. As a tenor (who has not yet played the Duke) I'm in no desperate hurry to take part in Patience; but I know that when (and if) the time comes, I shall love it. It's one of my most favourite "listens", and I certainly don't like Patience any the less for its lack of a decent "meaty" tenor role, nor do I think that makes it a "defective" opera.

David - would you like to retire (from Iolanthe-bashing)? It must pain you etc etc etc

Bruce I. Miller: As to Private Willis being underwritten; that may be the perspective of an artist who is likely to think he *never* has enough stage time, but it makes very good sense dramatically - and Mr. Manners, who created the role, always stopped the show with his aria at the opening of Act II.

Robert Jones: Willis is the voice of reason in an insane world and therefore, quite rightly, we don't hear much from him. As for Mountararat, yes, he could have been given more. Tolloller seems to have all the best tunes. But what about Strephon? Surely his role is large and rewarding enough for most baritones. A badly-sung Strephon can ruin an otherwise good production (we've tried it and we know).

Nick Sales: VERY perceptive, Bruce. Also true. Tony Smith (a lurking Savoynetter) did this in the Buxton festival production last year. He was also one of two cast members nominated by David Turner for an award. Difficult to do that if his role was truly "underwritten" - and makes me wonder if there is such a thing as an "underwritten" voice part?

Tom Shepard: David Craven wrote: "That is hard to say, but one possible factor is the "over-writing" of the Lord Chancellor. The LC, with the possible exception of Jack Point, is the most significant all of the patter parts and has to carry the show."

I don't agree. There are varying degrees of major and minor roles in each of the operas, and the fact that Gondoliers gives almost equal weight to all does not, in my opinion, make it a superior work. I might even say that The Gondoliers is often rather unfocused, precisely because everyone is somebodee.

So, getting back to the Lord Chancellor, my favorite patter role, I can't imagine how to strengthen IOLANTHE by cutting his part and building up others. Just what is it that could be cut in order to better serve the rest of the piece?

No---dislike IOLANTHE if you must, or parts thereof, but, please, let's not tamper with it; it is about as good as it gets.

The foregoing are not expressions of my opinion; they are immutable facts!!!

Paul McShane: Here, I must agree to some extent with David, even though he is attacking my favourite opera.

I think that the Chancellor's character would be even better for a bit less exposure. With his parts in the Act II trio and the finales, he doesn't really need 3 solos. I think that the first solo ("The Law is the true embodiment") is unnecessary for the plot, doesn't quite come up to G's or S's standards in the rest of the Opera and could have been omitted without too much pain.

And it would have been nice to have an extra number for Willis - perhaps a duet with the Queen. It would be interesting to hear from anyone who has access to Gilbert's early drafts to know if Willis's part was ever planned to be larger than it finished up.

"Now, THAT's the kind of Queen for me.."

Updated 28 November 1997