Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic operetta, “Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant,” is now appearing through June 16 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. Staged by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company, the production is directed with both wit and keen attention to detail and stylistics by Helen Aberger.
The character of Prince Hilarion (amusingly portrayed as a fop by James Carpenter, alternating with Billy Binion in some performances) summarizes the plot: “Princess Ida has forsworn the world, and, with a band of women, shut herself within a lonely country house, and there devotes herself to stern philosophies!”
To wit, Princess Ida has decided to create a sort of women’s college where the ladies study sanitized versions of the classic works of Aristophanes, Juvenal and Ovid; their goal is not to reject the world at large, but rather the male sex, for “their hearts are dead to men.” And Princess Ida’s university is most definitely a refuge behind stone castle turrets, at least as portrayed in this production.
Meanwhile, a pair of suitors of Princess Ida, Hildebrand and Hilarion, have two different approaches to winning her hand. Hildebrand, perhaps a reference to the Germanic war hero of Old High German literature, wants to do so through conquering her kingdom; Hilarion, to whom Ida was betrothed as an infant, is of gentler disposition and seeks to win the princess through romance.
The singing in the production is excellent. Erica Ferguson (Princess Ida) sung the stunning aria “Minerva! Oh, hear me” with grace, beauty and operatic power.
Indeed, her performance demonstrates that composer Sir Arthur Sullivan was capable of creating grand operatic moments beyond the operetta genre. Carpenter as Prince Hilarion sung “Today we meet” with flair as he highlights the wit of the lyrics. Blair Eig, as King Hildebrand, gives a powerful, manly rendition (befitting his character) of “Now hearken to my strict command.” The chorus is similarly in excellent form throughout the production.
The staging is wonderful and fanciful, with medieval heraldic banners, marble steps leading up to three thrones and costumes in Renaissance fashion. Middle Ages, Neo-Classical, and Renaissance?
In this case, it hardly matters, as comic opera is the order of the day, and this comic opera is a panorama of Gilbert and Sullivan: over-the-top caricatures, tuneful melodies and witty lyrics. A sample of the rhymed humor found in the women’s chorus:
Man is coarse and Man is plain—
Man is more or less insane—
Man’s a ribald — Man’s a rake,
Man is Nature’s sole mistake!
It should also be noted that this mocking of the male sex occurs in a play which is sometimes thought to be harsh on women and their educational aspirations.
In truth, this production mocks the pretensions of men and women alike, though in slightly different ways. Doubtless, this has something to do with the time in which the play was written; it first appeared on stage in 1884, when the notion of advanced education for women, at least women outside of religious orders, was a novel notion. Yet, the different viewpoints of men towards women and women towards men may help shine light on some of the political controversies over the respective social roles of men and women which appear in the news during our own era.
This reviewer noted that some audience members commented that some of the music in the production, particularly the overture, comes across as a little more severe as is usual in Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. Perhaps part of the reason is that the show is based in part on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem “The Princess: A Medley,” and also that the show consists of three acts, rather than the usual Gilbert and Sullivan two. The score is, however, played with excellence by the orchestra, directed by Joseph Sorge, and is a delight for the ear.
Prince George’s County readers will be happy to note that this production includes many people with connections to the University of Maryland at College Park. Assistant Music Director Amy Nicole Broadbent holds music degrees from UMCP, and Chuck Howell in the chorus is UM’s librarian for Journalism and Communication Studies.
The playbill also amusingly notes that Rick DuPuy (playing the character of Cyril) prepared for the show by spending the fall “teaching Latin at a girls’ school (undisguised).” In addition to interesting things about the cast, the playbill gives us a glossary for some of the words in the show which have fallen out of common English usage.
We close this review with a witty portion of the play, the Parable of the Elephant, a lesson taught by Princess Ida:
Women of Adamant, fair Neophytes—
Who thirst for such instruction as we give,
Attend, while I unfold a parable.
The elephant is mightier than Man,
Yet Man subdues him. Why? The elephant
Is elephantine everywhere but here (tapping her
And Man, whose brain is to the elephant’s
As Woman’s brain to Man’s.
Yet, the true message of “Princess Ida” may not be the folly of women or the folly of man, but the folly of all humankind. This worthy sentiment, combined with the excellent acting, vocal and musical performances, makes this a show worth seeing!