A Lady fair, of lineage high,
Was loved by an Ape, in the days gone by.
The Maid was radiant as the sun,
The Ape was a most unsightly one –
So it would not do; his scheme fell through –
For the Maid, when his love took formal shape,
Expressed such terror, at his monstrous error,
That he stammered an apology and made his ‘scape,
The picture of a disconcerted Ape.

With a view to rise in the social scale,
He shaved his bristles, and he docked his tail,
He grew moustachios, and he took his tub,
And he paid a guinea to a toilet club –
But it would not do; the scheme fell through –
For the Maid was Beauty’s fairest Queen,
With golden tresses, like a real princess’s,
While the Ape, despite his razor keen,
Was the apiest Ape that ever was seen!

He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,
He crammed his feet into bright tight boots –
And to start in life on a brand-new plan,
He christen’d himself Darwinian Man!
But it would not do; the scheme fell through –
For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey craved,
Was a radiant Being, with brain far-seeing –
While Darwinian Man, however well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved!
—“A Lady fair, of lineage high,” Princess Ida

The ensemble of Princess Ida declares "Death to the Invader!"

The women of Castle Adamant declare “Death to the Invader!”

This past weekend I saw my seventh Lamplighters production of a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Coincidentally, the production, Princess Ida, is also Gilbert & Sullivan’s seventh extant opera. I was a bit dubious about the work going in; after all, according to my Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, it was a much more serious work than any of the operas which preceded it. Well, I don’t know what they were smoking, because I found it ranks right up with The Gondoliers in terms of sheer enjoyment factor.

True, the plot is based on a Tennyson poem and is more straightforward than Gilbert & Sullivan’s usual topsy-turvy antics, but I found that, as in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, there is much fun to be had with the idea of three young men cross-dressing to break into the all-female university run by Princess Ida, daughter of King Gama and promised bride of Prince Hilarion. Most of the humor comes from poking fun at the women’s movement, but there are a couple of digs in at Darwinism as well, as in the song above. Another resemblance to Shakespeare is the fact that the dialogue of Princess Ida is written entirely in blank verse, the only Gilbert & Sullivan work to do so.

While the dialogue is impressive, the music is even more so. This is one of the few Gilbert & Sullivan operas that I didn’t know at all, beyond the patter song found in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (“If you give me your attention I will tell you what I am”). Yet, I will now try to procure myself a copy, as there are gorgeous melodies throughout, particularly in Act II, where there are a number of trios and quartets with beautiful harmonies. While there are fewer “upbeat” songs than in some of their other operas, many songs are full of humor and wit, especially those given to the three sons of King Gama (“We are warriors three” and “This helmet I suppose”) as well as “Death to the invader!” pictured above.

In general, the cast acquitted themselves quite well. Of particular note were the understudy for Princess Ida, Alexandra Sessler, and Rose Frazier, who played Lady Psyche, professor of Humanities, and sister to Florian, one of Prince Hilarion’s co-conspirators, played with great verve by Chris Uzelac. At times, Rick Williams, who played King Gama, sounded a bit gravelly and was hard to understand, but the only real disappointment was Prince Hilarion, played by David Sasse. His voice had a lovely tone, but he just didn’t seem right for the part, and seemed awkward on stage.

Despite this one casting misstep, I highly recommend this production. If you can catch a performance this coming weekend in Livermore, or February 16-17 in Mountain View, you will be glad you did.

Note: Princess Ida is the Lamplighters’ second production of the 2012-2013 season. They will close out the season with a semi-staged production of The Sorcerer in March.