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Gilbert and Sullivan Society · Exeter · Devon

Written by W S Gilbert

Composed by Arthur Sullivan



    The opera opens with the Chorus of Fairies persuading their Queen to pardon Iolanthe for the crime of marrying a mortal, (a capital sentence which the Queen reduced to lifelong exile, on condition that Iolanthe left her husband and never saw him again).

    Iolanthe is pardoned and introduces her son Strephon, a shepherd. Strephon, half mortal, half fairy, loves Phyllis, a Ward in Chancery (who knows nothing of his fairyhood), and announces his intention to marry her despite the Lord Chancellor’s refusal. The Queen offers Strephon a parliamentary borough to assist his petition. Phyllis and Strephon agree to marry straight away, without the Lord Chancellor’s permission.

    The chorus of Peers enter with much pomp and ceremony, followed by the Lord Chancellor, to discuss the question of a suitable husband for Phyllis. The Lords Mountararat and Tolloller plead their suit, but Phyllis politely refuses their proposals and announces her intention to marry Strephon. The peers are hurt but conduct a dignified exit. The Lord Chancellor questions Strephon’s defiance and underlines his own attention to duty in song (‘When I went to the bar’).

    Iolanthe comforts Strephon with a fond embrace, but is overheard by the peers.  Iolanthe (like all fairies) looks like a girl of seventeen, so Phyllis and the peers misinterpret the scene. Phyllis, horrified at Strephon’s infidelity, decides to give herself to one of the two Earls. Strephon calls upon the Fairy Queen - the fairies trip in and the Queen confirms that Iolanthe is indeed Strephon’s mother, but the Peers ridicule this  she looks younger than her son! Angrily the Queen declares that Strephon will have the power to pass any bill he wishes in the House of Lords, including bestowing peerages on merit rather than birth (never let it be said that G&S is out of date).

    The Peers pooh-pooh the Queen’s threats and the Act ends in a dramatic showdown between Peers and Fairies.

    Act II opens with Private Willis (of the Grenadier Guards) on nocturnal sentry duty in Palace Yard, Westminster, contemplating the world of politics. The Fairies enter, celebrating Strephon’s success in Parliament, whilst the Peers bemoan Strephon’s changes, especially the matter of throwing the peerage open to competitive examination. Lord Mountararat explains that the House of Lords has no need for intellectual capacity. Celia and Leila would like to oblige, (as the fairies have fallen in love with the peers), but cannot due to the Peer’s defiance. The Queen is indignant over the fairies’ weakness and sings of her resilience against her feelings for Private Willis.

    Tolloller and Mountararat discover that if either marries Phyllis, then by family tradition, they must duel to the death and renounce Phyllis in the name of friendship.

    Meanwhile, the Lord Chancellor has had a sleepless night, and eventually decides to marry Phyllis himself.

    Strephon explains his fairy origin (and young looking mother) to Phyllis and they decide to marry as soon as possible. They persuade Iolanthe to appeal to the Lord Chancellor on their behalf but he refuses, wishing to
    marry Phyllis himself. Iolanthe reveals herself to him and the Fairy Queen prepares Iolanthe’s death sentence. The Chorus of Fairies deserve the same punishment as they have all fallen for the Peers. The Lord Chancellor resolves the dilemma using the subtleties of his legal mind and all fly away to Fairyland.


    ACT 1

    Tripping hither, tripping thither
    Celia, Leila & Chorus of Fairies

    Iolanthe! From thy dark exile thou art summoned
    Queen, Iolanthe, Celia, Leila & Chorus of Fairies

    Good-morrow, good mother
    Strephon & Chorus of Fairies

    Fare thee well, attractive stranger
    Queen & Chorus of Fairies

    Good-morrow, good lover
    Phyllis & Strephon

    None shall part us from each other
    Phyllis & Strephon

    Loudly let the trumpet bray
    Chorus of Peers

    The law is the true embodiment
    Lord Chancellor & Chorus of Peers

    My well-loved Lord and Barcarole
    Of all the young ladies I know

    Phyllis, Lord Tolloller, & Lord Mountararat

    Nay, tempt me not

    Spurn not the nobly born 
    Lord Tolloller & Chorus of Peers

    My lords, it may not be
    Phyllis, Lord Tolloller, Lord Mountararat, Strephon, 
    Lord Chancellor & Chorus of Peers

    When I went to the Bar
    Lord Chancellor

    Finale Act I

    When darkly looms the day

    The lady of my love has caught me talking to another

    Go away, madam

    Henceforth Strephon, cast away

    With Strephon for your foe, no doubt /
    Young Strephon is the kind of lout

    ACT 2

    When all night long a chap remains
    Private Willis

    Strephon’s a member of Parliament
    Chorus of Fairies & Peers

    When Britain really ruled the waves
    Lord Mountararat & Chorus

    In vain to us you plead
    Leila, Celia, Chorus of Fairies, Mountararat,  Tolloller
    & Chorus of Peers

    Oh, foolish fay
    Queen with Chorus of Fairies

    Though p’r’aps I may incur thy blame
    Phyllis, Lord Mountararat,  Lord Tolloller & Private Willis

    Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest 
    When you’re lying awake

    Lord Chancellor

    If you go in you’re sure to win
    Lord Tolloller, Lord Mountararat & Lord Chancellor

    If we’re weak enough to tarry
    Phyllis & Strephon

    My lord, a suppliant at your feet

    It may not be
    Lord Chancellor, Iolanthe & Chorus of Fairies

    Soon as we may, off and away


    The Lord Chancellor
    comic (baritone)

    George, Earl of Mountararat

    Thomas, Earl Tolloller

    Private Willis, of the Grenadier Guards

    Strephon, an Arcadian Shepherd


    Queen of the Fairies

    Iolanthe, a Fairy, Strephon’s mother

    Celia, a Fairy

    Leila, a Fairy

    Fleta, a Fairy
    (speaking role/chorus)

    Phyllis, an Arcadian Shepherdess and Ward in Chancery


    Chorus of Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts,
    Barons and Fairies



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      Annotated libretto of Iolanthe containing subsequently discarded material


      Standard libretto


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    Reviews currently included here have been posted by contributor, Ian Bond, and are his personal views, and these may not necessarily represent the views of St David’s Players

    Complete recordings of Iolanthe started to appear comparatively late in the recording history of G & S, the first being in 1923 whereas substantially complete recordings of Pinafore, Mikado and Yeomen appeared as early as 1907/8. This perhaps reflects the fact that although always regarded as one of the top six, this opera has always been slightly less popular than Mikado, Gondoliers, Pirates or Pinafore.

     The 1929 recording along with the 1927 Gondoliers and the 1959 Pinafore is often described as being the ‘perfect’ Iolanthe. I do not say that I would go as far as to endorse such an accolade. However, despite its age, this is a remarkable document, not least for the performances of Derek Oldham as Earl Tolloller and the inimitable Bertha Lewis as the Fairy Queen. Nellie Biercliffe is a most touching Iolanthe and Winifred Lawson a spine-tingling Phyllis.

    George Baker (never a member of D’Oyly Carte) gives his first,
    and very proficient performance of the Lord Chancellor. Sir (then Dr) Malcolm Sargent, who was at this time Musical Director of D’Oyly Carte, gives a sparkling rendition of the score which has probably not been bettered, but which so clearly queers the pitch
    of his 1957 recording.

    The recording is available on 2 discs from Arabesque - Z8066-2 - and includes various recordings from 1902 - 1912 as a filler to the second disc. The most remarkable of these is that of The Mikado’s Song recorded by the role’s creator, Richard Temple.

    Iolanthe was not recorded again until 1951. Now it was DECCA who took up the challenge and this recording was the first of three D’Oyly Carte/DECCA issues.

    Despite the remarkable Isidore Godfrey in charge and the presence of a number of vintage D’Oyly Carte post-war stalwarts in the cast this recording seems to fall somewhat short, certainly compared with other recordings of the same era.

    Martyn Green gives an excellent account of the Lord Chancellor whilst Ann Drummond-Grant, better known as a principal contralto in later years, is absolutely superb as Iolanthe. The rest of the cast is somewhat disappointing and the whole just does not seem to spark into life. However, this is not to say that the performance is any less than an enjoyable evenings entertainment.

    The 1951 recording is currently available in three releases. Firstly from Naxos - 8.110231-32 (pictured) - secondly from Regis - RRC2049 - thirdly from Pearl - GEMS0163 in a three disc set coupled with Patience. It has to be said that the Naxos release is probably the better, the Regis having been transferred at an unpleasantly high modulation. Pearl have chosen to place Act One of the two works on Discs 1 and 3 respectively with both Act Twos on disc two - rather a clumsy arrangement. Both the Naxos and Regis releases are coupled with the 1951 recording of Pineapple Poll.

    What happened between 1929 and 1957 is just not known. Suffice it to say that Sir Malcolm Sargent’s Gilbert and Sullivan ‘Glyndebourne’ series as it has come to be known is, in general, pretty dire. Sir Malcolm, once a brilliant musical director of D’Oyly Carte (as witness his early recordings) turns in some of the most dire, lack lustre performances one could imagine. Sadly Iolanthe is one of these - it is slow, heavy and uninteresting. Such a pity as the cast should have been eminently suited to the opera. This, unless you already own it, really is one to be avoided at all costs.

     The recording has been available on the HMV Classics label - HMVD 5 73675 2, however,
    yet another re-packaging and re-release see
    the recording resurface on the Classics for Pleasure label.

    For most, the 1960 D’Oyly Carte recording has to be the definitive Iolanthe. Isidore Godfrey is on excellent form as are the New Symphony Orchestra of London and the band of the Grenadier Guards.

    The cast, too, comes from that last ‘golden age’ of the post-war D’Oyly Carte. Headed by John Reed as the most delightful of Lord Chancellors, Donald Adams (Mountararat), Thomas Round (Tolloller), Alan Styler (Strephon), Yvonne Newman (Iolanthe) and Mary Samson (Phyllis), all of whom give unforgettable performances of this, the most pastoral and delightful of all the G & S Series. It is a recording that preserves the true style of G & S as had been preserved by D’Oyly Carte (at that point in time) for almost 90 years. Just in case you think I’ve forgotten, there is Gillian Knight as the most formidable of all Fairy Queen’s. Some find the stilted delivery of the dialogue hard to take - but this is how it was - and it is so eminently understandable - modern day performers can learn so much from this remarkable recording.

      Hear Thomas Round perform ‘Spurn not the nobly born’.

    This recording has recently been repackaged and is available from DECCA - 473 641-2.

    In 1962, with the cessation of the copyright in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company (now English National Opera) staged a highly successful production of Iolanthe. So successful that highlights were almost immediately recorded and a television broadcast also took place. It is sad that only highlights were recorded as the quality and freshness of this particular production shine through. The selection is strange - with the exception of the Fairy Queen’s aria and the Quartet, Act Two is complete. The overture is included but only five relatively short numbers from Act One plus the final section of the Act One finale. However, the power and enthusiasm of this company, not hide-bound by the restraints of copyright, is obvious. Of particular mention in an overall superb and vintage Sadler’s Wells cast, must be Patricia Kern as Iolanthe - her plea to the Lord Chancellor in Act Two is totally heart-rending and really was only ever equalled by D’Oyly Carte’s Peggy Ann Jones who, alas, never recorded the role.

    The LP version of this recording was a collectors item for some thirty years and extremely scarce. It returns to the catalogue coupled with the complete Sadler’s Wells Mikado (1962),
    a revelation in itself.

     The recording is available from EMI Classics for Pleasure CD-CFPD 4730.

    It took 13 years for D’Oyly Carte/DECCA to supplant the above recording with a new one. The feeling is very much that they only did so because they had embarked on a third series of recordings and they wanted to preserve the current cast of the day on record. Certainly the 1974 recording is very good, and those who grew up with these casts will go into raptures of nostalgia when they hear these recordings, but it seems odd that as DECCA reissued their G & S recordings the only performances to be chosen from the third series were Utopia and Grand Duke (neither of which had been recorded in full in the earlier series, and Pirates and Mikado and this appeared to be for the continuity of John Reed in the patter roles. A great pity as there is much in the third series to admire, even if the ‘DECCA sound’ had become somewhat dry and reverberant
    at times.

    By the time of this recording of Iolanthe the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had been playing for the D’Oyly Carte recordings for 10 years and this shows. There are some glorious moments, most especially the overture and the contribution of the woodwind throughout. John Reed and Kenneth Sandford repeat their performances of Lord Chancellor and Willis and it is interesting to heard how the roles have developed over the intervening years. Lyndsie Holland is in excellent and commanding voice as the Fairy Queen. Judi Merri is a surprisingly deep and rich-toned Iolanthe, while Pamela Field is a delightfully innocent Phyllis. John Ayldon and Malcolm Williams are well matched as Mountararat and Tolloller whilst Michael Rayner comes over far better on CD as Strephon than he ever did on stage. Majorie Williams, Patricia Leonard and Rosalind Griffiths are exceptionally strong as the three fairies.

    The full dialogue is included again, but it is here 13 years since the expiry of copyright and the delivery is more natural than on the 1960 recording. Whether this is a good thing or not is for the listener to decide, but to me either version is equally acceptable
    and enjoyable.

    This recording is currently only on the private Sounds On CD  and is issued under licence from DECCA themselves. Chris Webster has digitally re-mastered DECCA’s master tape and produced a wonderful, warm two CD set which it is well worth seeking out.

    The glory of the 1991 recording is the musical standard. As far as style is concerned it has nothing to add to the D’Oyly Carte recording of 1960 and, of course, there is no dialogue.

    Richard Suart as the Lord Chancellor is at the beginning
    of his Gilbert and Sullivan
    career, and perhaps all the better for that fact as he does not over-play the part to the extent that he tends to do with later roles in later recordings.

    Jill Pert is an excellent Fairy Queen and displays her original D’Oyly Carte credential with much credit. The rest of the cast are all excellent, but there is not the atmosphere, despite this being the product of a stage production.

    On the credit side, this recording uses a set of orchestral parts created from Sullivan’s original manuscript score and also included the song ‘Fold your flapping wings’ for Strephon.

    The second disc is filled out with the recently re-discovered Act Two ballet from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Opus 1 Thespis.

    The recording is available from
    TER - CDTER2 1188.

    The medium of film allows the director the freedom to move in and out of fairyland, around the palace of Westminster, in and out Iolanthe’s pond and so on. This is one of the notorious Brent Walker series first issued on video in 1982 and prefaced by some ghastly introductions by Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.

    This production is thankfully lacking in the ‘star’ names that spoil some of the other presentations in this series and is certainly one of the better performances overall. The cast is headed by Derek Hammond-Stroud (Sadler’s Wells, English National Opera) as the Lord Chancellor, Anne Collins as the Fairy Queen and Kate Flowers as Phyllis. Alexander Oliver is (unusually) a tenor Strephon. The London Symphony Orchestra is conducted splendidly by Alexander Faris. The video in general is quite delightful and a good evening’s entertainment.

    Douglas Faibanks Jnr. is still present, but then the advantage of DVD is that you can skip him!!

    The set has been reissued in new packaging, with complete production libretto included in each case, by Universal (catalogue number DVD 8228651-11), the rrp is £99.99 although it can be found much cheaper. often retail this set for considerably less and it has been seen on the shelf in W. H. Smith for £69.99. It is also worth checking Each separate disc has its own catalogue number and this DVD is now available separately - 822 870-2.