'Iolanthe' - the Comic Opera Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Iolanthe' - the Comic Opera

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The Comic Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan | William Schwenk Gilbert - Dramatist | Sir Arthur Sullivan - Composer | 'HMS Pinafore'
'The Pirates of Penzance' | 'Patience' | 'Iolanthe' | 'The Mikado' | 'Ruddigore' | 'The Yeoman of the Guard' | 'The Gondoliers'
The D'Oyly Carte Company

A poster of 'Iolanthe'.  Image in the Public Domain

Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri opened on November 25, 1882, at the Savoy Theatre in London. It was the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera to actually open at D'Oyly Carte's new theatre, although Patience had transferred there part way through its run. In order to protect against pirate versions of the opera, Iolanthe was rehearsed under the title Periola. At the same time, another production of the work was being prepared in America.

Iolanthe opened only three days after the long run of Patience ended - mainly due to Gilbert's strictness in preparing rehearsals. The majority of first night critics presented favourable reviews of Iolanthe, although some hit out at Gilbert for attacking the House of Lords, and at Sullivan for writing unmelodious music.

The seventh of Gilbert and Sullivan's Comic Operas, Iolanthe is a stinging satire on the House of Lords and the Victorian system of government. It is as relevant now as it was then; a part-staged production of Iolanthe, with a narration by Ian Hislop, was one of the highlights of the BBC Proms 2000 season. The Lord Chancellor is one of Gilbert's most corrupt characters, his decisions made solely with regard to his own benefit, and yet since the character is given some of the best songs the duo ever wrote, he remains somewhat endearing. The roles of Phyllis and the eponymous Iolanthe are two of the greatest female roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire; strong, complex characters.

As for the House of Lords, it is doubtful whether any of New Labour's1 reasons for abolishing hereditary peers in parliament were as good as those Gilbert displays in Iolanthe. These Lords are in many ways kindly and well meaning, yet at the same time arrogant and unintelligent, more concerned with wooing Phyllis than with the workings of parliament. However, Gilbert also mocks the idea of removing hereditary peers with Lord Mountararat's comment on Strephon's policy of making entry to the House of Lords open to 'competitive examination':

I don't want to say a word against brains, I've a great respect for brains - I often wish I had some myself, but with a House of Peers composed exclusively of people of intellect, what's to become of the House of Commons?

It is of course typical of Gilbert that he resolves this conflict swiftly and neatly, with the peers deciding that they would much rather be a part of fairy-land than members of the House of Lords.

The Plot

Iolanthe is the story of the eponymous fairy and her son Strephon who is half-fairy, Iolanthe having married a mortal. For this, a violation of fairy laws, Iolanthe was sentenced to live in exile forever (the Fairy Queen having loved Iolanthe so much that she couldn't pass the death sentence). Therefore Iolanthe has spent the last 25 years living at the bottom of a stream with the frogs.

Act I

The opera opens in Arcadia (fairyland), where the fairies continue to mourn the loss of Iolanthe and persuade their Queen to pardon her. On being questioned, Iolanthe tells her fairy-sisters that she chose her place of exile in order to be near her son, Strephon, who is a shepherd and in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess and ward in chancery. Strephon himself elaborates on his problems: firstly, he finds no benefit in being half-fairy, for as he says, what is the point of being able to become invisible only down to the waist? Secondly, the Lord Chancellor will not permit him to marry Phyllis as the Chancellor himself, as well as most of the House of Peers, are also in love with the girl.

The fairies are touched by Strephon's story and offer to help him - an idea Strephon turns down because he is hiding his fairy-hood from Phyllis. There follows a touching meeting between Phyllis and Strephon, until the members of the House of Peers arrive in a scene of pomp and ceremony. Strephon once again asks the Lord Chancellor for permission to marry Phyllis and is refused. He seeks comfort from his mother, but unfortunately they are seen by Phyllis and the Peers. Iolanthe, being a fairy, looks eternally young and so is mistaken for a 17-year-old mortal. Phyllis promptly breaks off her engagement to Strephon and declares she will marry either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat, and she doesn't care which.

Taking this as a huge insult, the fairies reveal themselves and declare their support for Strephon, although Iolanthe hides away. The Peers do not take the fairies seriously, but the Queen still passes her decree: Strephon shall go into Parliament as an MP (she just happens to have control of a pocket borough2), every bill he proposes shall be passed and the House of Peers shall be opened to competitive examination.

Act II

The second act takes place at the Houses of Parliament in London, and opens with Private Willis, the officer on guard, musing on the nature of British politics. The Peers then appear lamenting the state of affairs now that Strephon is an MP. The fairies who are in a fever of emotion follow them, both thrilled by Strephon's achievements and also curiously affected by the Peers themselves. The Queen of the fairies is shocked by this, and reminds them that it is death to marry a mortal and that although she finds Private Willis peculiarly attractive she resists this feeling out of duty to fairyhood.

Lord Tolloller and Lord Mountararat must now face the problem of which of them should marry Phyllis. There follows a perfectly Gilbertian debate in which each of them tries very politely to explain why the other should not marry her. Eventually they decide that their long friendship must come before their love of Phyllis and that the Lord Chancellor must be persuaded to appeal to himself again for permission to marry his ward.

Phyllis, meanwhile, is in a state of depression; engaged to two Peers at once, she realises that she loves neither of them, but still declares that she detests Strephon for his infidelity. When Strephon himself appears, however, Phyllis has to restrain her joy. Strephon, believing everything between him and Phyllis to be over, informs her that his mother looks 17 because she is a fairy. Phyllis accepts this as a perfectly reasonable explanation, and wants to know if Strephon is also a fairy. She is reassured by his being only a fairy down to the waist, and promptly restores their engagement.

All this happiness is nearly ended by the Lord Chancellor, who announces that he has pleaded with himself successfully and given himself permission to marry Phyllis. Strephon begs Iolanthe to plead on his behalf claiming no one can refuse her anything. Iolanthe originally refuses in panic, for the Lord Chancellor is in fact her husband and believes her to have died in childbirth, and if she reveals herself to him she must die. However, for the sake of her son Iolanthe decides to see her husband, hiding her face from him. When all her pleas are rejected, Iolanthe finally reveals herself as the reason he cannot marry Phyllis.

The couple are tearfully reunited, but then the Queen of the fairies appears and pronounces the death sentence on Iolanthe. At this point the rest of the fairies rush in to save the day. They too have committed the capital crime of marrying mortals, having all since married members of the House of Peers. As the Queen cannot possibly execute all the fairies she has to rethink the situation.

The Lord Chancellor, as an old legal hand, suggests a solution: a slight rewording of the fairy law: 'death to any fairy who does not marry a mortal.' Yet again this leaves the fairy Queen in a quandary, since she will now have to execute herself. Therefore she summons Private Willis and enquires whether he will marry her. He agrees promptly as he would not think himself a gentleman if he refused to help a lady in a difficult situation. All is resolved happily, and since the House of Lords is now populated by men of intelligence, the Peers resign their positions in government and retire to Arcadia.

The Songs

The songs in Iolanthe are among the best and most enduringly popular in Sullivan's canon. Among the numbers are songs satirising the House of Lords and the British aristocracy. Sullivan's music sets the scene for the action perfectly. Arcadia is full of delicate tunes and rural themes reflecting the sprightly fairies and the simplicity of Phyllis and Strephon's love, while Westminster and the Peers opening chorus 'Loudly let the Trumpets Bray' resound with pomp and fanfares.

The Lord Chancellor's two solos: 'Said I to myself, said I' and 'Love Unrequited' are probably Iolanthe's most popular numbers, although the opening of the first is often drowned out by the level of applause the Lord Chancellor's entrance occasions. The Lord Chancellor is also involved in the enormously catchy trio 'Nothing Venture, Nothing Win' with Lord Tolloller and Lord Mountararat, in which the three peers discuss the risks of the Lord Chancellor applying to himself for Phyllis' hand in marriage, while executing various dances.

One of the more topical moments in the opera at the time of performance was a verse in the Fairy Queen's stately number 'Oh Foolish Fay'. In this Captain Shaw, the head of the Metropolitan fire brigade, is referred to when the Queen wonders whether a dousing in cold water could quench her 'great love'. This caused mirth on the first night as Shaw, later Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, who was one of the most popular men in London Society, was seated in the stalls of the theatre.

As usual with his music Sullivan had left it late, and he had to write to Alfred Cellier in America asking him to compose an overture for the American production of Iolanthe. Whilst Gilbert had been writing the libretto for the opera, Sullivan had been spending his salary (by now over £10,000 a year - twice as much as the Prime Minister) travelling Europe. He had therefore only scored a tiny amount of the first act by the time Gilbert was rehearsing the company in the second act at the end of September 1882. The overture for the London production was ready just three days before the opening performance.

The Original Production

Iolanthe was based on the Bab Ballad 'The Fairy Curate', Gilbert once again showing his ability to recycle his ideas. The first night cast were concerned about Gilbert's sudden change of the opera's name from Periola to Iolanthe and protested to Sullivan that mistakes would occur. Sullivan was never noted for his tact, and on this occasion he said: 'Never mind, so long as you sing the music. Use any name that happens to come first to you. Nobody in the audience will be any the wiser, except Mr. Gilbert and he won't be there3.'

Gilbert always tended to be highly involved in the staging of his works, not being content simply to hand his creation over to the stage manager. On this occasion he insisted that his peers be clean-shaven, forcing his cast to relinquish the moustaches they treasured as a symbol of manly pride. Only one refused, and George Grossmith (who played the Lord Chancellor) recalled: 'In this case the moustache stayed on, but he did not'.

Gilbert also seized on the fact that Wagner's Ring Cycle had just been performed in London, and created the Fairy Queen in caricature of Brünnhilde with breastplate, spear and winged helmet. The peers' costumes for the original performances were made by Ravenscroft, who still make robes for the peerage and royalty. For many critics however the most impressive aspect of the production was the use of electricity. The Savoy's electric lights, made by the Swan United Electric Light Company had been the talk of London when the theatre opened. This wonderment was increased when battery-operated small lights were incorporated into the fairy costumes, including in the hairstyles of the principle members of the troupe. This is the origin of the term 'fairy lights'.

Besides being his biggest success to date, the first night of Iolanthe must have been memorable for Sullivan for a less pleasant reason. On the morning of the premiere he received news that the stockbroker to whom he had entrusted all his securities had gone bankrupt and that his savings, totalling more than £7,000, had been lost. Sullivan was remarkably stoical about this, giving no sign of the disaster throughout the evening, and only writing in his diary that he felt 'very low'.

Character Inspiration

It seems probable that Gilbert had John Scott, Lord Eldon in mind when he created the character of the Lord Chancellor. Eldon was Lord Chancellor for 25 years, at a time where there were no Lords of Appeal (legal peers appointed for life to sit and hear cases in the House of Lords) to help him with his work. As a result a Lord Chancellor could only look to former Chancellors for assistance, and due to Lord Eldon's long tenure he outlived all his predecessors. This often led to his sitting in the House of Lords alone to hear appeals against the judgements he had passed in the Court of Chancery, then, if he thought it right, he would quite cheerfully overturn his own original judgements.

Iolanthe remains one of the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, particularly among amateur dramatics societies, since it provides several good roles for both men and women. It is also the last of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas that satirises the British political system, as Gilbert preferred in future to focus his attentions on society itself, rather than its rulers.

1Labour is a leading UK political party, the 'New' prefix indicative of its attempts in the mid-1990s at modernisation.2A pocket borough was a political constituency controlled by a single person or family as a result of ownership of the land.3Gilbert rarely attended first performances of his work due to his extreme nervousness.

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