By Harry Forbes
It’s only May, but I’m betting dollars to donuts that this starry production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s seventh comic opera will be reckoned New York’s G&S event of the year.
Director/conductor Ted Sperling continued his winning streak of superlative musicals and operettas for this latest annual MasterVoices spring event. He had previously mounted “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance” with felicitous results, but this was arguably the best of all.
What a pleasure to hear Arthur Sullivan’s overture, melancholy and sprightly by turns, played so superbly and with such seriousness of purpose. And the action that followed was not in any way camped up.
For non-Savoyard readers, W.S. Gilbert’s plot concerns Strephon (Schyler Vargas), an Arcadian shepherd, who loves shepherdess Phyllis (Ashley Fabian), ward of The Lord Chancellor (David Garrison). She, in turn, is being wooed by the upper crust twits, Earls Mountararat (Santino Fontana) and Tolloller (Jason Danieley). What Phyllis doesn’t know is that her betrothed is the son of the fairy Iolanthe (Shereen Ahmed), sent into exile years before (under fairy law) for marrying a mortal. (Spoiler: her husband was the Lord Chancellor, who believes Iolanthe died years earlier). Strephon is thus a fairy (but only down to the waist).
The Queen of the Fairies (Christine Ebersole) is stern but softhearted and allows Iolanthe to come back from her banishment. This causes all sorts of complications with Phyllis when Strephon is spied speaking to his mother who, as fairies are immortal, appears to be a woman younger than he. All this was played absolutely straight, with no cheap gags, or audience snickering, about being “half a fairy.”
The large MasterVoices chorus was positioned upstage behind the MasterVoices Orchestra, except for the March of the Peers, that number spine-tinglingly positioned in the score after the quiet and bucolic tunes which precede it. With a burst of brass, Sperling had the huge tenor/bass contingent enter dramatically from the wings and parade around the stage.
The sopranos and altos (as fairies) were upstage all evening, except for the principals including Nicole Eve Goldstein (Celia), Kaitlin LeBaron (Leila), and Emy Zener (Fleta), all excellent. And there was the delightful addition of Tiler Peck from the New York City Ballet as a Dancing Fairy who flitted in and out most attractively, and contributed to the magical atmosphere. And it was such a relief Sperling eschewed the frequent vulgarization of having the fairies stomp about to the beat of the music.
The cast was a deft mixture of Broadway and opera performers and, as with past MasterVoices productions, the blend worked seamlessly. From the former, Ebersole wasn’t a traditional Fairy Queen, normally cast with a deep contralto, but she made her well trained, light soprano work beautifully for the part and she didn’t miss a comic beat. Her second act ballad “Oh, foolish fay” was her vocal highlight.
Garrison, on book mostly but ironically not the tongue-twisting bravura “Nightmare Song,” adapted his persona well to the crusty Lord Chancellor, though his English accent was a bit hit or miss, also true of some of the others.
Danieley and Fontana made a highly amusing pair of stuck-up peers, and their dialogue about which of them should make the sacrifice not to marry Phyllis, a comic highlight. They sang beautifully: Danieley’s big moment was “Spurn Not the Nobly Born” in the first act; Fontana’s “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” in the second.
The young lovers were vocally and dramatically strong. As Strephon is only a fairy down to the waist, Vargas was outfitted (by costume designer Tracy Christensen) in shorts, which visualized this dichotomy and made a droll picture. His comic timing and delivery were as impressive as his strong baritone. Fabian also sang strongly and conveyed Phyllis’ cool ambition and self-awareness.
Ahmed, like Ebersole, was cast counter to the traditional voice type. Iolanthe is usually a mezzo but the part suited Ahmed’s sweet soprano, and her poignant plea for Strephon near the end was as moving as I’ve ever heard it.
And I mustn’t forget Phillip Boykin’s Private Willis which was really outstanding and his second act opener, “When all night long a chap remains,” got one of the biggest ovations of the evening, along with Garrison's "Nightmare Song."
Christensen’s designs for the fairies and peers was just right for this semi-staged concert. And there were clear white supertitles for the lyrics, and even green footnotes for some of the arcane references.
Sperling’s directorial decisions every step of the way seemed absolutely apt, and his musical leadership impeccable. I look forward to his next foray into G&S whenever that may be.
(Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, 881 Seventh Avenue; carnegiehall.org; May 3 only)
Photos by Toby Tenenbaum: Top: Cast
Below: (l.-r.) Ebersole, Ahmed
(l.-r.) Fabian, Vargas, Ahmed
(l.-r.) Garrison, Fabian, Danieley, Fontana
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