Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Encore! Educational Theatre Company performs Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe"

The most recent production of the Encore! Educational Theatre Company in association with the Jerusalem Gilbert & Sullivan Society was W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” or “The Peer and the Peri”, with stage direction by Robert Binder. Conducting the New Savoy Orchestra was musical director Paul Salter, choreography was by Judy Brown-Davis and set designs by Roxane Goodkin-Levy. Established in 2006, Encore! has been presenting classics of the musical stage as well as lesser-known and original works, programs on the lives of prominent Jewish composers and entertainers and more.  This writer attended the performance on January 6th 2016 at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit  Shmuel, Jerusalem.

“Iolanthe” originally opened at the Savoy Theatre, London, on November 25th 1882 and ran for 398 performances. The “fairy opera” is a surprisingly topical satire on love and the British House of Lords as home to the ineffective, the privileged and dim-witted; it is a satire on  the political party system, with other institutions coming under criticism.  Librettist and composer, however, managed to keep out of trouble as the opera pleased London audiences with its wonderful melodies and appealing absurdities. With Gilbert and Sullivan at the height of their creative activity in 1892, “Iolanthe”, their seventh collaboration, is considered by some to be their best crafted work.

In a nutshell, Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, wants to marry Phyllis, a ward of the Chancery. Phyllis is not aware that Strephon is half-fairy (his upper half; his legs are mortal). When she sees him kissing a young-looking woman, she jumps to the obvious conclusion. This woman, however, turns out to be his mother Iolanthe, a fairy banished 25 years earlier for having married a peer of the House of Lords but now pardoned. As to her youthful appearance, it turns out that fairies never grow old. Phyllis’ guardian, the Lord Chancellor, and several peers of the House of Lords are head-over-heels about Phyllis. The peers and fairies declare war. Things are eventually put right, thanks to the “subtleties of the legal mind” and Phyllis and Strephon are reunited.

In the Encore! performance -  energetic, fast-flowing, polished and characterized by good diction - the stage filled with people  of a huge range of ages; those singing in the women’s choir and the men’s (fairies and peers), all well trained, sang with taste and blended beautifully.  Of the many people on stage – both soloists and chorus, there was a good mix of English speakers and native Israelis, all engaging in British-accented English, as should be in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan. Judy Brown-Davis invested much work and invention in movement routines, with artists all knowing what they were doing. Playing Phyllis was soprano Aviella Trapido, highly experienced in musical theatre and no newcomer to Encore!  productions, the company’s patrons once again enjoying her warm, creamy voice, her vocal ease and natural stage ability, her expressive face and appealing manner. Making his debut with Encore! Israeli-born Lior Inbar, a voice student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, played Strephon. His voice still in need of some refinement, he showed competence in the British English theatre environment.  Mezzo-soprano Amit Hemo, a recent M.Mus. graduate from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and another new face to the company, played a convincing and vehement Iolanthe, her diction a little unclear at times. Highlighting the daft and comical characteristics of the Lord Chancellor, Mordechai Buxner won the audience over with his droll and entertaining performance, his meaningless self-important monologues, his charisma, physical flexibility and stage manner. As Queen of the Fairies, Claire Greenfield’s richly endowed contralto voice and majestic stage presence gave substance and authority to the character. The role of Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards suited bass Steven Liron Timoner splendidly. In Israel since 2005, Timoner is a professional opera singer.

Once again, Encore! , with its huge team of helpers and participants, has proved that months of demanding training, dedication and teamwork (on- and off stage) can result in productions of a high standard and that English-language amateur theatre is thriving in Jerusalem.  Children taking part worked as hard as their adult counterparts. Young Shalem Goldstein, as the Lord Chancellor’s train-bearer, did not miss a step or gesture as he mirrored each of those of his master.  Costumes were attractive as were both stage settings – the lush opening set of Fairyland and that of Westminster – offering a feast to the eye and enhancing the general effect of the opera itself. Under the baton of Paul Salter, the New Savoy Orchestra’s exhilarating and tasteful playing added much to the performance. The fact remains that, 140 years after the inauguration of their collaboration, Gilbert and Sullivan still have much to say that remains relevant to our lives, that little has changed in society, politics and love…and Gilbert and Sullivan say it with the wink of an eye and some wonderful music!  Encore!'s next venture will be “Intrepid”, written by Robert Binder, with music by Paul Salter. Depicting the romance and intrigue of the NILI spy ring, the new opera will be performed April 3rd as part of the Jerusalem Festival of the Arts.


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