It’s long been the Durham Savoyard’s lovably eccentric (and by now, nearly 50-year-old) mission to present the complete comic operas of Mssrs. Gilbert and Sullivan in installments, once per year.
Regrettably, their 2011 production, PRINCESS IDA, calls into question the wisdom of their quest.
To start with, director Derrick Ivey’s game sci-fi reframing of this 1884 work hardly hides the fact that Sir Gilbert’s libretto is an open mockery of what was the nascent women’s rights movement of his time. Theater-goers will not be able to ignore that the work's central premise ridicules the whole notion of the higher education of women.
But equally damning, at least from a theatrical standpoint, is that, one century later, the way in which Princess Ida does this is no longer novel, to say the least.
Second-act songs including "Toward the Empyrean Heights," "Gently, Gently," "A Lady Fair of Lineage High" and "The Woman of the Wisest Wit" set up and cut down the same rhetorical straw men—and women—that have been assaulted repeatedly throughout earlier episodes of the culture wars. By now these lyrics add little insight and less savor to well-worn views on gender roles.
But if feminists would likely find little entertainment in this production, a lesser version of that verdict likely goes for music lovers as well. Where we lauded the unified musicianship of the soloists, chorus and orchestra in last year’s production of The Mikado, the Savoyards’ 2011 efforts were considerably more fragmented on opening night. The results raise, again, the unwelcome question of what levels of competence are to be expected from a community-based opera company—or at least one producing work in the same community that also produces the Long Leaf Opera and the North Carolina Opera.
Yes, we should praise Lee Galbreath’s robust—and unamplified—soprano in the title role, while admiring supporting work by Emily Byrne as a sparkling Lady Psyche and Evelyn McCauley’s dour Lady Blanche.
But they sang over an orchestra that sounded conspicuously thinner than last year’s ensemble, its rough attacks and occasionally skidding upper strings marring a sound that seemed all but completely unsupported by bass.
From the first number forward, balance between even this reduced assembly and the vocalists remained a concern, with not only soloists but entire groups of vocalists at times struggling to be heard over the orchestra. Clearly, the wit of Gilbert’s wordplay is one of the chief attractions of this genre; when it can’t be understood, the opera's raison d’etre has largely gone missing.
Muffled miking—a technical glitch—made Jim Burnette’s King Hildebrand and Ben Neufang’s tender Cyril unintelligible more than once on opening night, while foregrounding the necessity of technical intervention. We enjoyed Carl Johnson's Hilarion and Steve Dobbins' snarky Florian when we could hear them, but even a trio playing the sons of gnarled King Gama (an articulate, irascible John Adams, one of the few men we had no trouble hearing) dipped below audibility in the low notes of the Act One number, "We Are Warriors Three."
These difficulties reduced the achievements in songs including "Minerva! Minerva!," "With Joy Abiding" and the almost incongruous tenderness of "The World is But a Broken Toy."
The wit that informed Ivey’s earlier direction and choreography in this series seemed abridged here. A stiff chorus clumped on and off, as needed, and occasionally pointed toward various momentary heroes or villains. Occasional flashes — in which hip shots punctuated lyrics like “Hip hip, hooray!” — enlivened blocking that was otherwise largely staid.
Technical and design elements calculated to put this work on some other world went awry as well. With a few notable exceptions, Karen Guidry and Diane Woodard’s costumes seemed an ragtag arrangement of ren faire mixed with the low-rent trappings the BBC used during its mid-70s Doctor Who, while Pam Guidry-Vollers’ bizarre hair and makeup stylings suggested a transporter malfunction somewhere between first-generation Star Trek and The Seussical. (For that matter, the transporter effect conveying characters into and out of scenes recalled I Dream of Jeannie — down to the sound it made — more than it ever did the starship Enterprise, before it obscured a crucial rescue-scene plot point in the second act.)
Yes, bad things can happen to good shows on their way to opening night. But when a company presents one production per year, the stakes are considerably heightened in terms of getting things right. Any way you slice it, Princess Ida wasn’t fully ready to go on Thursday. Its flaws leave us to question the company’s technical and musical abilities and management, just as its script interrogates the parties that chose it.
Was it appropriate to have a group of artists pour thousands of labor hours and dollars into a show whose main point remains just how laughable it is for women to aspire to individual independence and a decent education? Does this level of musical and theatrical achievement truly reflect what this region is capable of? Do Gilbert and Sullivan—or the area's audiences and artists—deserve more?
Most of those questions will now remain open for an entire year. That’s a very long period for a community to consider if a company’s work remains worthwhile. But in this case, a time-out like that for all of the parties involved is probably a good idea.