Resistant to the charms of Gilbert and Sullivan, I tend to look forward to the next Mikado, Pinafore or Iolanthe in the way convicted murderers look forward to the gallows. But occasionally a new production comes along with the imagination and energy to make me wonder if I haven’t got that all wrong; and the Iolanthe playing now at ENO is an example.
Directed by Cal McCrystal, who specialises in knockabout comedy routines for stage and screen, it’s not sophisticated comedy; and its relentless efforts to get laughs at all costs can be wearing. But I did laugh, helplessly at times. And the core concept of the staging, as a piece of decorative Victorian theatre done with album-pasted scenery and Peter Pan routines on wires, is wonderful to look at – largely thanks to the set designs of Paul Brown, who sadly died while working on the show.
If it was his idea to have the male chorus arrive by a Victorian train bursting through a painted backdrop in great clouds of steam, it ought to be recorded on his tombstone: it’s the most spectacularly entertaining thing I’ve witnessed on an opera stage in years. And stunned by gestures of that kind, I found myself more sympathetic than usual to the archness of Iolanthe’s faux-political satire – a narrative, for those who don’t know their G&S, about frustrated fairies marrying members of the House of Lords (surely a challengeable union under canon law?).
So far so good. But what isn’t good about the show is that it’s for the most part poorly sung by a cast who don’t project the spoken text. Even the usually reliable Andrew Shore, as the Lord Chancellor, is off form, struggling with his patter songs. All of which makes for a mixed evening: or, as a G&S chorus might say, modified rapture.
Rapture of a different, more New Age sort came to Kings Place last week in a rare performance of Stockhausen’s Stimmung: a 1960s classic that requires six amplified voices to sing variations on an overtone-rich chord of B flat for an hour and a quarter. It sounds dull but isn’t: you can do a lot with overtones. And for someone like me with a secret passion for the sound of the domestic vacuum cleaner (my vices are modest) it’s blissful, because vacuum-cleaner noise works in a comparable way: a single, sustained pitch with overtones mixed in the rush of air.
At Kings Place the performers, called Theatre of Voices, acknowledged Stimmung’s historical context by wearing flower-power clothes and squatting in a circle round a model of the moon. It should have been a lava lamp but never mind. I was transported.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection