Deformed Princess Ida

18 Apr

I went to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida at the Finborough Theatre on 15th April. I am angry. I offer apologies in advance for a long post that may not make much sense to those of you who don’t like G&S or don’t know Princess Ida. You don’t have to read it.

Princess Ida is one of the least performed of their operas – it hasn’t been done professionally in London since the ENO asked Ken Russell to do his worst to it in 1992 (he obliged, in spades). It contains some of the very finest music Sullivan ever wrote, including some heart-stoppingly beautiful numbers.. The problems are that it is ambitious, expensive to stage, has a difficult plot and is written in rather poor blank verse – all Gilbert’s fault. The ambition lies in its three act structure, multiple roles for the chorus and among the highest number of named roles in any of their operas. Hence the expense: it’s not designed for a cast of thirteen to put on in a space the size of your living room.

Let me try not to bore you more than necessary. The plot of Ida goes that there are two kingdoms ruled respectively by Hildebrand and Gama. Their children, Hilarion and Ida were betrothed in infancy. Ida, however, has decided to eschew all men and found a women’s. She certainly won’t marry Hilarion. Gama and his three warlike sons are held captive whilst Hilarion and his friends go to find Ida. They arrive, disguise themselves in women’s clothing and are discovered. Hildebrand’s forces arrive to rescue them and Ida hurls defiance. This defiance looks a bit silly as her maidens go all girlish and decide that, actually, they’re not that keen on fighting. Ida’s brothers decide to fight for her and lose. Ida gives herself up to Hilarion who, she decides, she loves anyway. It’s not exactly politically correct and many will find the premise quite offensive.

Philip Willmott has made a new version of the piece and in his introduction he refers to a confusing libretto. Ida actually has one of the simplest plots to follow of the operas and relies less than most on whimsy or topsy turvy. And the dialogue is manageable with a bit of care.

His adaptation is a mish-mash. I wasn’t clear whether his aim was to clarify the plot, to find a way of reducing the cast or whether he wanted to give Simon Butteriss, the most experienced performer of the team by a long way, more to do. He retains the basic premise – of a satire on women’s ambitions and so fails to address the plot problem. He retains many of the best bits of the opera, but he makes some crucial and, frankly, pointless changes. We lose one of the KIngs, Ida’s three brothers and the teachers at the university. The changes to the scenario don’t add anything and crucially change relationships.  You don’t get the power struggle at the university and you don’t really get the sense of bullying by the men that is one of the more interesting things about the original.  If, as here, Gama persuades Ida to found her university (so he can marry her himself) it blunts the sense of this being about Ida herself having to change her ideas. – and she is one of Gilbert’s most human heroines.

The changes necessitate changes to the lyrics some of which were understandable, others pointless and none coming close to Gilbert’s best. Coime Mighty Must, however, is probably Gilbert’s poorest lyric ever and, not unexpectedly, Sullivan’s poorest number. There is nothing wrong with cutting it. Here it was rewritten but in a way that was only marginally better than the original.  The new dialogue mixed uneasily with Gilbert’s and managed to be in even poorer blank verse.  And the need for change wasn’t carried through.  You’d think that a version which eschewed fighting and armour might have re-written  This Helmet, I suppose.  This splendid aria involves one of the characters stripping the various part of his armour in mock Handel. But no, the aria is too good for that, so you have Gama stripping out of his usual clothes while singing about helmets, etc. So much ffor clarifying the plot.

Even worse was the reattribution of the songs.  Is it really acceptable for Gama, the light baritone role to be given pieces written for mezzo, contralto and bass? The world is but a broken toy is proobably Sullivan’s most gorgeous quartet. Here it was, for no obvious reason, turned into a duet for Ida and Hilarion which reduces the musical pleasure.

One of Gilbert’s great strengths is that he doesn’t hang about. The plot gets resolved, there’s a nice reprise of one of the best numbers as a finale and that’s it. Here we had ten minutes at least of padding after Ida had succumbed as the various characters decided that they would marry, there were reprises of a number of earlier pieces (Including the rewritten Come Might Must, for Christ’s sake) and you felt as though you;re being kept in for bad behaviour. I’m not sure why two gay weddings suddenly were thought appropriate particularly since they were sprung on you in that last, interminable ten minutes.

I could go on. However, the fact is that every change detracted from the original without offering any discernible improvement.  It made you realise how skilful Gilbert was and that, even in one of his more problematic works, you meddle with him at your peril.  There must be better ways of doing Ida on a shoestring.  End of rant.  Those in the audience who didn’t know the piece didn’t seem worried.  I expect they thought that Gilbert and Sullivan is silly anyway.

The evening got off to a bad start with the two electric pianos massacring the introduction. It started looking up when the young and very enthusiastic cast arrived. There were no great voices and, in an auditorium seating about 50 you don’t need them. Nor did it particularly worry me that the style was the more short, breathy style that singers use in musicals these days. It took a massive leap when Simon Butteriss arrrived delivering the first unchanged number, If you give me your attention, with aplomb, style and complete success. This was probably the best rendition of the aria I’ve ever heard. Sadly, Butteriss wore off. His rather creepy, mincing interpretation didn’t really convince you that he was that interested in Ida from a sexual point of view. There is no way that he should have been allowed to sing This Helmet – it’s as wrong as Domingo singing Iago. I got very tired of him by the end.

The rest were actually rather good, at least in a space the size of the Finborough – Buttereiss apart, I can’t imagine any of them surviving in a larger space without amplification or being taken seriously as singers.  Bridget Costello.was a fine Ida who had the measure of the numbers and showed a nice personality. Zac Wangke as Hilarion sang his numbers well and had a nicely innocent look. Simeon Oakes was a very randy Cyril, one of the best and funniest of the roles and siezed his opportunities really well even if this version allowed him to duck the high notes.  The rest of the young cast earning, one suspects, almost nothing, put their all into it.

Willmott’s direction had plenty of pace and style and was at its best when dealing with pure Gilbert – the cross-dressing scenes shouldn’t fail and they were funny here.  I liked Ida’s maidens wielding hockey sticks in defence and there were a couple of very nice visual jokes.

If you don’t know the original but quite like G&S, you will have had a pretty good time here.  If you do know it and, particularly, if you love it, you will find the pleasure of seeing the piece done by a talented team wrecked by your sheer fury at the incompetent, tin-eared meddling with the original.

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