The RPG this week was cancelled, so no news on that front. Things have been kind of quiet at work getting ready for Christmas and working on my designs for TEAMGOLD. So instead of fight scenes, this week you get to hear my thoughts on English comic opera.

Abe sent me a copy of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Iolanthe recently and I’ve been enjoying it. Some time ago I spent a while on Wikipedia reading up on the librettist and composer duo, learning how dissatisfied Arthur Sullivan was with the silly lyrics he always had to work around. After listening to Iolanthe I can really see why!

For example, the song “If you go in, you’re sure to win” (youtube video of some random live performance) has very silly text consisting mostly of rhyming adaptations of common English sayings:

“Every journey has an end
When at the worst, affairs will mend
Dark the dawn when day is nigh
Hustle your horse and don’t say ‘die’…
Faint heart never won fair lady!
While the sun shines make your hay,
Where a will is, there’s a way
Beard the lion in his lair –
None but the brave deserve the fair…
Nothing venture, nothing win
Blood is thick, but water’s thin
In for a penny, in for a pound
It’s love that makes the world go round!”

The music takes on a skipping, sprightly melody with a dance meter to match the shallow lyrics, and yet it has depth and harmony that I like, and it makes a very good trio. The orchestra provides a good accompaniment that feels kind of simple but also fills in with piping, trumpeting phrases that make me think of people leaping on hilltops, as a reminder of just how silly this is. I mean, all three men would like to marry the same woman, and yet they have spent the past few songs politely deferring to each other over who will get to marry the soprano love interest, and here they are encouraging the third guy to convince himself to marry his own ward. The following song is equally silly, featuring a fourth guy and the soprano herself singing about how they have to hurry and get married before they change their minds about being in love. I think these descriptions give you a good sense of the rest of the operetta…

I like listening to the separate voice parts of the lords (the same actors did Nanki-Poo/Frederic and The Mikado/The Pirate King for the tenor and bass voices, and the third voice is that of the ruler of the Queen’s navy from HMS Pinafore; they sound really great together, but it’s a bit distracting to recognize their voices), but by the end of the short little song, I find myself much agreeing with Tom Lehrer: “To end on a happy note, one can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale, full of words and music and signifying nothing.”

Growing up with “the Mikado” and “the Pirates of Penzance” (and my dad’s rendition of the ruler of the Queen’s navy’s song from Pinafore) but not really knowing their other pieces, I’ve generally felt like Tom Lehrer might be a little too hard on G&S due to their excellent satire of the system in Victorian England. After listening to “Iolanthe,” which is about fairies vs English Peers with more than G&S’s usual dash of absurd romance, and which ends with the entire cast and going off to fairyland, I see what Tom Lehrer meant in spite of the clever satire.

One Response to “Iolanthe”

  1. Abe
    | Reply

    I think that, although, the satire of G&S still carries over, we lose some of the sense of how they were also, in some ways, the subversives of their era.

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