Gilbert & Sullivan have their day with a marvelous “Iolanthe” from MasterVoices

Thu May 04, 2023 at 6:40 pm
By Rick Perdian
Schyler Vargas, Tiler Peck, Christine Ebersole, Kaitlyn LaBaron, Nicole Eve Goldstein and Emy Zener in MasterVoices’ “Iolanthe” on Wednesday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Toby Tenenbaum

Iolanthe was a perfect way to celebrate International Gilbert & Sullivan Day, even if the timing of this MasterVoices presentation of the beloved comic opera was purely serendipitous, as the choir’s director, Ted Sperling, told the audience at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday evening.

The annual commemoration on May 3 celebrates a creative partnership that has delivered joy to audiences for well over a century. The date falls on the birthday of impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who brought librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Andrew Sullivan together and produced their works in his theatres. Iolanthe was Gilbert and Sullivan’s forth hit in a row, and opened simultaneously in London and New York in 1882.

The operetta’s characters and themes are evergreen: dimwitted, vainglorious politicians; privilege and entitlement; calculating, self-interested judges. In Iolanthe, however, the British parliamentarians and jurists alike find themslves beguiled by immortal fairies, whose beauty and charms never fade. 

There is a hitch, though: Fairies are forbidden — upon pain of death — to marry mortals. But in this tale a shrewd legal mind fixes that technicality, and to the joyous strains of the final chorus, ”Soon as we may, off and away,” all are eager to wed.

Sperling, the Tony-winning artistic chief of the MasterVoices chorus, directed and conducted Wednesday’s semi-staged performance — and shook the cobwebs from one of Gilbert and Sullivans’s best works. The cast of Broadway stars and rising young singers he assembled for this perforamnce captured the wit, humor and joy in Iolanthe. Every double entendre fell trippingly from the actors’ tongues; every singing performance made the operetta’s melodies sparkle.

Iolanthe, portrayed by Shereen Ahmed, has been spared death for daring to marry a mortal, and sent into exile by Christine Ebersole’s regal and glamorous Queen of the Fairies. Unbeknownst to anyone, Iolanthe also has a son by that forbidden union, Strephon, who bears the burden of being a fairy from the waist up and mortal otherwise. To be near her son, Iolanthe has had to live in a frog-infested stream for the past 25 years.

Ebersole’s priceless enunciation of the word “frogs” manifested her disgust and amazement that anyone would choose such a fate. Obliged to enforce the ancient fairly laws, the (mostly) benevolent Queen has done so — up to a point, by waving the death penalty and, after 25 years, granting a conditional pardon and end to exile for Iolanthe. 

More than any other character on Wednesday, it was Ebersole’s Queen that broke with this opera’s traditional portrayals. She was no booming contralto with stature to match, but a glamorous Queen with voice enough to do justice to an aria such as “Oh, foolish fay”.

Ebersole’s queenly resolve begins to weaken, however, at her first sight of bass-baritone Phillip Boykin’s imposing and deep-voiced but impish Private Willis, who sets her heart aflutter. Boykin’s performance of “When all night long a chap remains” — with its wonderful line that every boy and girl is born either a little Conservative or a Liberal — was a showstopper. 

As Iolanthe, Ahmed moved with the grace of a dancer and sang with equal style. The mortal whom she enchanted all those years earlier is now the Lord High Chancellor, portrayed here by David Garrison. The veteran actor, bewigged and clad in judicial robes, was a marvelous, fastidious, crotchety old judge, weighing the ethics of another union — this one to his (mortal) ward, Phyllis, who he covets for her youth and beauty.

Ashley Fabian’s Phyllis was a vision of sunshine and joy, smitten with the dashing half-fairy Strephon as played by an equally, radiantly positive Schyler Vargas. Fabian’s lovely lyric soprano blended with Vargas’s robust baritone as they sang of their love and frustration that if they wed, pursuant to fairy law Strephon must die. Phyllis has consigned herself to marrying either Lord Mountararat or Lord Tolloller. They were both the same to her, and was up to them to decide who got the prize.

Jason Danieley’s Lord Tolloller was a fuss-budget, but not immune to the charms of a beautiful fairy. As Tolloller’s friend, Mountararat, Santino Fontana sported a ridiculous page-boy wig and had the audience in stitches as he tossed off double entendres. In one nod to Iolanthe directorial tradition, Garrison, Danieley, and Fontana tripped across the stage and exited arm-in-arm after their trio, “If you go in you’re sure to win”.

Facing competitive exams in order to qualify for seats in the House of Lords, Tolloller and Mountararat — fully aware of their lightweight intellects — decide they have nothing to lose and yield to the charms of two fairies, Nicole Eve Goldstein’s Celia and Kailyn le Baron’s Leila. Emy Zener, a member of MasterVoices, was an eager, winning Fleta, similarly intent on snagging a lord. Their mute counterpart was Tiler Peck’s Dancing Fairy, whose every appearance foretold that something magical was about to occur. 

Sperling led the MasterVoices orchestra in a superb reading of Gilbert & Sullivan’s melodious, bouyant score. He and his players underpinned the comedy and the pathos with transparent sound and rhythmic vitality. The overture was especially notable for the fine playing of the strings and flutes. 

As fairies and lords, the chorus also sang with exceptional attention to text and diction, and a  polished sound. A highlight was the men joining Fontana’s Mountararat in a rousing chorus of “When Britain really ruled the waves.” 

It is the members of MasterVoices, a volunteer chorus, and their supporters who make a production like this possible. With this performance of Iolanthe, they and their director again proved what an invaluable asset they are to New York’s artistic life.

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