Gilbert & Sullivan — Princess Ida at Yerba Buena Center

Cross dressing princes and Ida

The San Francisco based theater group known as The Lamplighters has been producing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan for over 60 years, and it shows. Saturday’s matinee performance of “Princess Ida” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts directed by Barbara Heroux was a sheer delight from start to finish. The production was sumptuous to behold, with a simple but effective set as a backdrop to the lavish and colorful costumes designed by John Gilkerson and Melissa Wortman.

The story is a classic battle of the sexes. It is a “respectful perversion” (Gilbert’s words) of an epic poem by Tennyson called “The Princess.” Gilbert gives a nod to the poetic origin by writing in blank verse, which gives the dialogue a bit of a Shakespearean feel. It opens in the castle of King Hildebrand, where the courtiers are awaiting the arrival of Princess Ida who was married to the king’s son, Prince Hilarion in infancy as a political alliance. She does not show up, as she has forsworn the company of men in order to lead a college for women. Hilarion and his friends decide to infiltrate the college dressed as women to try to persuade her to honor the union with hilarious results.

Sullivan was a master of orchestral color. This was quite apparent in the exquisite performance of the pit orchestra under the baton of Baker Peeples. If you have never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan production in a full production with an orchestra, you have not really experienced the operettas the way they were intended to be heard. The blend and balance were excellent, and the intonation and phrasing were just right. Oboist Kathleen Conner was given a chance to shine with an extended solo in the overture that was nuanced and soulful.

Choruses in Gilbert and Sullivan are extremely important, as they are crucial to the action. The Lamplighters provide supertitles, but they are hardly necessary with this group, as every word could be clearly understood. Even though the choruses were quite active in their movement around the stage, they maintained a blend and a remarkable ability to start and stop singing together with precision. Sullivan is known for his innovative use of the double chorus, with the men singing one set of words while the women are performing another to a contrasting melody. There are two of these in “Princess Ida,” and the singers were spot on both times.

There is an incredible variety of music in this work, and Sullivan shows his expertise in writing for different combinations. Sullivan gives us solos, duets, trios, quartets and quintets in a variety of configurations. There is the contrast of two male trios. Ida’s dimwitted, “mustachioed” brothers are low basses, and were hilarious each time they sang, led by Charles Martin as Arac. These parts are the equivalent of the “dumb jock” stereotype, although in this case they are soldiers. They enter to “We are warriors three” in which they note they are, like most sons, “masculine in sex.” They eschew politics as, on the whole, they are “not intelligent. No, no, no, not intelligent.” Arac’s aria in the third act “This helmet, I suppose” was very amusing as he discards each bit of his armor, one by one to Sullivan’s delightful parody of Handel.

The counterpart to the bellicose brothers is the trio of two tenors and a baritone consisting of Hilarion (Robert Vann) and his buddies Cyril (Michael Desnoyers) and Florian (Chris Uzelac). They all have clear, resonant voices that well suited the more lofty aspirations of the courtiers. Their two trio offerings “Gently, gently” and “I am a maiden” were a deft combination of Gilbertian comedy with Sullivan’s lyricism. Of course, the audience enjoyment was heightened by the fact that they were in drag and prancing around the stage.

Jennifer Ashworth’s Princess Ida was incredible. She was able to move the audience emotionally with delicacy and feeling in her opening aria “Oh goddess wise.” At the other end of the spectrum, she was thrilling with her strong high notes that rang out over the entire chorus and orchestra during the second act finale. It was no surprise that she has been featured in many operatic roles around the bay area. Her performance alone was worth the price of admission.

The contralto role is the scheming Lady Blanche, deliciously played by Cary Ann Rosko in this performance. Ms. Rosko’s comic timing was impeccable, and she was always good for a laugh. Blanche’s one solo aria was cut by Sullivan early on, but her strength of character and voice came through despite this. Particularly noteworthy was her duet with her daughter Melissa “Now wouldn’t you like to rule the roast?” The soprano alto blend was so lovely that you might think the actresses were in fact mother and daughter.

Melissa (Michele Schroeder) had a few of her own moments to shine, most notably in the opening chorus to the third act “Death to the invader.” The female college students are putting on a brave face as Hildebrand’s troops are storming the castle, and Ms. Schroder pulled out a few ringing high notes of her own. She was also very amusing yet believable as the young girl who gets excited by seeing men for the first time.

One of the iconic songs from “Princess Ida” is “A maiden fair,” sung beautifully yet comically, by Rose Frazier as Lady Psyche. The operetta was written a mere 25 years after Darwin’s initial publication of “The Origin of Species,” and Gilbert pokes fun at this in this aria by suggesting men (but not women) descended from apes, closing with the classic line “While Darwinian Man, though well-behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved!”

Finally, there is the contrast between the two Kings. Hildebrand, well played by bass baritone William McNeely, is a strong leader who gets what he wants, using force if necessary. He has a couple of rollicking numbers that have rapid fire lyrics worthy of a patter man. King Gama, Ida’s father, fills that niche. It is the smallest comic baritone part in the GIlbert and Sullivan canon, but still leaves quite an impression. Rick Williams did fine comic work with his characterization of the deformed, sardonic old man who knows “everybody’s income and what everybody earns” and who “carefully compares it to the income tax returns.” Some think that Gilbert was poking gentle fun at himself as “a disagreeable man.” Gama’s description of “tortures” he has been underdoing in “When’er I spoke sarcastic joke” is laugh-out-loud funny, as his only complaint is that he is given “nothing whatever to grumble at.”

The Lamplighters have recently added Mountain View as a venue for certain productions. “Princess Ida” will be presented at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts on February 16 and 17. It is a wonderful theater in the heart of Mountain View, and an easy drive for residents of the Monterey Peninsula. For those in the east bay, this production will be staged at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore next weekend.


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