The women of Castle Adamant preparing for war in the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s new production of Princess Ida. Photo by Stephen Hage.
Some of the jokes in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas have stood the test of time better than others. This is one of the reasons that many reviews of Princess Ida contain apologies for the plot mocking women’s education and women’s liberation. It’s rather akin to how some productions of Kiss Me Kate add a wink to “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” – short of ditching the fundamental plot, there’s a point where you need to acknowledge problems and move on. We make allowances for the works of the past, and from Saturday’s show it was clear that many people were amused by the ridiculousness of some elements to modern ears.
The sense of ridiculousness and freedom to laugh is accented by this production’s steampunk theme, which goes to delicious excess with the arsenals packed by much of the cast. Far from raiding the prop stockpile, props designer Katie Phillips and costume designer Barb Portinga appear to have mobilized a small army to make steampunk jewelry and transform plastic waterguns into retrofuturistic cannons. Perhaps some of the freedom to laugh comes from the sense of an alternate world, like a Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow onstage.
The basic plot of Princess Ida involves enforcing the childhood betrothal of the titular princess to Hilarion (Anthony Rohr). To the distress and incarceration of King Gama (Scott Benson), Ida is thoroughly uninterested in marrying someone she was engaged to at the tender age of 1 – and is, at any rate, busy administering a women’s college that men can only enter on pain of death. Naturally, Hilarion’s father, King Hildebrand (Waldyn Benbenek) imprisons Gama and his sons, while Hilarion decides to enter the women’s college anyway. The course of love never did run smooth, etc, etc.
At the reviewed performance, Princess Ida was played by Claudia Finsaas; the role is regularly performed by Sarah Wind Richens. Finsaas brought a dark vocal timbre and a commanding stage presence to Ida, with a distinguished rendition of songs such as “To yield at once to such a foe”. Her counterpart Prince Hilarion (Anthony Rohr) brings a sweet tenor voice to the many amorous and convivial interludes. Some of the other vocal highlights include the comically contrasting trios performed by Ida’s three brothers (Joe Allen, Doug Freeman, Alessio Tranchell), the so-called “string of pearls” sequence of music in Act II, and the ladies’ “Death to the invader!” at the start of Act III. Waldyn Benbenek and Scott Benson (Kings Hildebrand and Gama) play off each other with deft comic acting and singing in numerous sequences, but most especially “P’raps if you address the lady”/”Most politely”.
Director Joe Andrews’ production of Princess Ida is whimsical, its humor light, and the orchestra sound is full. As for the sexism in the plot, well – you didn’t go into this expecting Gilbert & Sullivan to be too serious, did you?
Princess Ida plays through March 25 at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Minneapolis, MN.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017. He was previously the Regional Governor for the National Opera Association's North Central Region.
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