Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe (originally produced 1882) presents a conflict between two very different worlds. On one hand, we have the world of the immortal fairies – all female, somewhat trippy and chaotic, and ruled by a queen; on the other, we have the world of British parliamentary peers – all male, stodgy and precise, and subject to the law as interpreted by the Lord Chancellor. The opera presents a political satire wrapped around a love story: the fairy Iolanthe’s half-human son Strephon loves the Lord Chancellor’s ward Phyllis, but the Lord Chancellor wishes to marry her to a peer. The fairies come to Strephon’s aid, install him in parliament, and cast a spell on the other members of parliament to make them pass any law Strephon proposes. The plot winds up as you’d expect, with the lovers reunited, and along the way we get any number of satirical digs at the British system of law and government (lampooning, among other things, the intellectual fitness of members of the House of Lords and the honesty and honorableness of lawyers).
Gilbert and Sullivan’s music is always a lot of fun, and Iolanthe gets a spirited production by the Pittsburgh Savoyards, a company that has been presenting Gilbert & Sullivan operettas since 1938. Where original audiences might have taken great amusement from the witty satirical pokes at the British parliamentary system circa 1882, much of that humor is rather out of reach to an audience of today. In its stead, director Robert Hockenberry teases out the gender politics of the play: both the fairies and the peers are equally absurd in their embodiment of stereotype. The show has a veritable cast of thousands (kudos to costume designer Jeannie Caffro on the Herculean task of wardrobing); vocal standouts include Mia Bonnewell as Phyllis, Zach Luchetti as the Earl of Mountararat, John Teresi as the Earl of Tolloller, and Brian Primack as the Lord Chancellor; Guy Russo conducts the solid orchestra with precision and flair.