Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company offer witty, whimsical “Iolanthe”

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, Inc. has become one of Hyde Park’s premier institutions for offering quality performances that are thoroughly entertaining and feature splendid singer-actors. The organization was founded in 1960 (and incorporated in 1964), and annually presents one of the operettas by a duo whose charm and wit is unrivaled.

This year they presented three performances of “Iolanthe,” a work which has technical historical significance because in 1882 it was the first original theatrical production to be entirely lit by electricity. This offered many advantages over gaslights and the original producers at the Savoy Theatre in London took advantage of this in many clever ways, including electric fairy wands.

The Mandel Hall production was clever too, and offered continuous enjoyment and silly merriment from start to finish. Because of the care and polish put into its performances, the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company has, in recent years, found that it attracts very talented singers who have recently graduated and are on the verge of professional careers.

This year the stage was stuffed from front to back with great performers who clearly reveled in the Victorian antics. The result was a marvelous evening of song and laughter.

“Iolanthe” or “The Peer and the Peri” is the story of a fairy (the title character) who breaks fairy law by marrying a mortal. She’s banished, but after 25 years is forgiven by the Queen of the fairies and is allowed to re-join them. Her son from that marriage, Strephon, is half fairy and half mortal (a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal), which naturally introduces much humor. He wants to marry Phyllis, a Ward in Chancery, but so do a large passel of peers. Hijinks ensue.

When the curtain opened, a bewitching fairyland was revealed, highlighted by a large tree with magical-looking lights. The second act featured a lovely backdrop of the Palace of Westminster done in the style of Monet. Scenic designer Victoria Granacki did the group proud along with lighting designer Jessica Doyle.

Costume designer Rachel Sypniewski created gorgeous fairy dresses primarily in greens and blues to harmonize with the fairy forest. Because the skirts were made of numerous panels, they had a floating quality as the women moved.

Director Shane Valenti ably kept the action moving and evoked both the fairy and mortal worlds with the right amount of whimsy and good, solid singing.

The singing was excellent, led by Teaira Burge as Phyllis, who displayed sweet tone and nimble acting. Claire DiVizio as the Fairy Queen was powerful of voice and particularly adept in her many comic moments. Marissa Simmons created a highly sympathetic Iolanthe.

There were many fine performances in the men’s roles as well. Matthan Black knew just how to make us laugh at his teddy bear in the scene where the Lord Chancellor can’t sleep. Dennis Kalup and Aaron Wardell, as Earl Tolloller and the Earl of Mountararat, sang well throughout and had a particularly amusing scene arguing over which was to marry Phyllis yet full of gay innuendo.

The group performed a real coup in getting David Govertsen, a graduate of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center, for the role of Private Willis. His glorious singing was perfectly punctuated with the right doses of humor. He also performed above and beyond the call of duty by standing at attention in full regalia plus theatrical rifle at the back of Mandel Hall before the performance began. Folks took advantage of this by having their photos taken next to him, as if the were at Buckingham Palace. Fun stuff!

Music director Matthew Sheppard led the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra with an appropriately light hand, coaxing out a bubbly performance.

Director Valenzi did doubly duty, serving also as choreographer. There were visually appealing dances as well as well-timed walking movements throughout the production. It was particularly grand when the peers entered via the back of the hall and marched onto the stage in their grand ermine cloaks.

This was yet another great success by the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, and the net proceeds will benefit the University of Chicago’s Department of Music.

Next year’s production has already been announced: “Patience.” Auditions will be held in November (visit gilbertandsullivanoperacompany.org for information) and performances will be Mar. 9, 10, and 11 of next year in Mandel Hall.