The likes of HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance are never away from the stage for long. Charles Court Opera have set the standard for chamber productions and the fashion for all-male interpretations still seems to be going strong. Princess Ida (1884) is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser performed operettas, though the tunes are just as earworm-ish and the plot no more preposterous than those of the pair’s better known works.
Phil Willmott has taken the liberty of releasing it from the shackles of a ‘cumbersome’ book and reducing the number of characters in order to make it more performable for a smaller company. Unfamiliarity with the original makes me unsuited to comment on the nature of these changes but, under Willmott’s sprightly direction, the material is certainly presented as a carefree romp rather than any kind of pointed satire.
I am no G&S completist and approached the piece through my interest in the education of girls in Victorian society. Based on Tennyson’s 1847 poem The Princess, this epic of sorts was inspired by his friend F.D. Maurice’s unprecedented plan for a ladies’ college (Queen’s College, Harley Street). This enterprise offered proper teaching and certifications, in which the emphasis was on cultivating the students’ minds and sense of social responsibility, rather than ‘finishing’ them for the marriage market. Contrary to Tennyson’s vision of an all-female enclave in secluded bower, the enterprise was based in central London and led by male King’s College professors. Is Willmott’s production likely to deepen anyone’s understanding about such reform? Not in the slightest. But a show that involves gorilla costumes to illustrate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is always going to have a certain wacky charm.
Prince Hilarion and Princess Ida were married in infancy but have been separated ever since, leaving Ida in the care of the leery Lord Gama (certainly a departure from Tennyson’s poem). Like Sweeney Todd’s Judge Turpin, Gama seeks to change the nature of their relationship by making an offer to which his ward responds with a certain reluctance. Sending her off to an isolated women’s college seems the best method of keeping her out of harm’s way, not counting on Hilarion and his brawny but brainless cronies to break in, culminating in a battle of hockey sticks at dawn.
A mix of young opera and musical theatre performers approach the material with vigour. Bridget Costello takes top vocal honours as the warmly idealistic heroine and Zac Wancke’s sweet-natured Hilarion provides credible support. The male chorus give it all they’ve got but produce a vocal quality that is somewhat more boy band than operetta; the ladies (resembling nymphs rather than viragoes) boast a more formidable vocal prowess. G&S stalwart Simon Butteriss is sneering and superiority personified as Lord Gama.
The score is played with gusto by Richard Baker and Nick Barstow on twin pianos, reflecting the symmetry that brings everything to its rightful conclusion – including two same-sex couples in this production. Taking liberties can sometimes be a delightful thing.