PRINCESS Ida was the eighth comic opera of the fourteen that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote together and of which I have seen about half. This was a new one to me, and I was intrigued to hear from an aficionado at Milborne Port Opera that it is written in blank verse, in three acts, about a matriarchal society where the Princess of the title founds a women’s university in a castle and claims that women are superior to men.
It seems the verse aspect is directly from a Tennyson poem about a similar subject, and is Gilbert’s only attempt at a complete work written in Iambic pentameter. The themes of the piece were extremely relevant when it premiered in 1884, not long after Darwin’s theory had been published, and when there were already at least three all-female colleges established, most notably Girton at Cambridge and Queen’s and Westfield in London. The themes are as relevant today, and will always be so until the seemingly unattainable ideal of complete equality is reached, with certain golf clubs hardly helping.
Princess Ida is a delightful work, with men dressing up as women to break into the university, Ida’s three brothers in chains, and looking like Welsh rugby forwards, colourfully robed female students, a full scale battle, and plenty of opportunity for comedy as well as drama.
This society clearly knows what it is doing, with clever choreography and a wonderfully sympathetic orchestra, under the suave, sophisticated Kerry Bishop. There were some particularly memorable counter melodies from oboe, clarinet, flute and horn, scored against or with soloists on the stage, and they were beautifully blended.
Acting honours in this show must go to the male lead, Hilarion, acted and sung with great timing, accuracy, comedy, pathos and feeling by Philip Styles, whose lyrical tenor voice is a delight to listen to, as is the beautiful, clear, powerful soprano of Ruth McKibbin in the title role of Ida. Both have highly trained voices, but manage to keep them light and honest, without too much vibrato.
It was disappointing that these two did not have a huge duet, but another couple did, mother and daughter Blanche and Melissa, played respectively by Sarah Nash and Juliette Coad. They not only sang wonderfully together, with strong harmonies, but each played their character to perfection. Blanche is the wordy teacher of philosophy, as confident drawing on a blackboard as preaching about the five subjunctive possibilities, and Melissa, probably the most feminine of the females, not really wanting to be hurt in battle, and immediately falling for one of the three men dressed as women.
These three, Hilarion, Cyril and Florian, (Jonny Scaramanga and John Ditcham), had great fun in their dresses and heels, a couple of lovely trios, and plenty of well choreographed routines. The two kings, parents of Ida and Hilarion, were also strong, Paul Dyson as Hildebrand more formal and uptight and Roger Taylor as Gama more relaxed, and with a couple of well-delivered songs too.
The choruses of men and ladies, inside and outside the castle, worked well, sounded well, and were choreographed well by Delia Lee. They made a particularly powerful sound in the finale of act two, with soloists soaring above, banners waving, soldiers along the front of the stage, and female students ready for the battle.
The scenery was good, given that this is a school theatre available only a few days before the run, although there was little difference between the gardens and the courtyard of Castle Adamant for acts two and three. The programme, a work of art designed by Sarah Nash as a brochure for the Adamant College of Higher Education, eased the possible confusion.
Had I not known in advance, I would hardly have noticed that the spoken parts are in blank verse, with a few exceptions in speeches by Gama, Blanche and Ida. Perhaps director David Key-Pugh decided to ignore the natural verse rhythm, perhaps Gilbert’s writing does not give much scope for it, but having heard so much wonderful verse speaking on the TV and radio as part of the recent BBC Shakespeare festival, perhaps this was a missed opportunity.
Whatever the case, this is a minor criticism, and one which did not detract from a great evening’s entertainment.