Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri, is a comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It is one of the Savoy Operas and the seventh collaboration of the fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan. It was first produced in London at the Savoy Theatre, on 25 November 1882, three days after Patience closed, and ran for 398 performances.
Although titled Iolanthe all along in Gilbert's plot book (Tillet et al 1982, p. 5), for a time the piece was advertised as Perola. According to an often-repeated story, Gilbert and Sullivan didn't change the name to Iolanthe until just before the première:
In fact, the title was advertised as Iolanthe as early as November 13, 1882 – eleven days before the opening – so the cast had at least that much time to learn the name. It is also clear that Sullivan's musical setting was written to match the cadence of the word "Iolanthe," and could only accommodate the word "Perola" by preceding it (awkwardly) with "O", "Come" or "Ah". (Tillett et al 1982, pp. 6–7).
Iolanthe was an occasion for what must have seemed a truly magical event in 1882. The Savoy Theatre was the first theatre in the world to be wired for electricity, and such stunning special effects as sparkling fairy wands were possible. Captain (later Sir) Eyre Massey Shaw, to whom the Fairy Queen refers in the second act ("Oh, Captain Shaw/Type of true love kept under/Could thy brigade with cold cascade/Quench my great love, I wonder"), was head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. He was present at the first night of Iolanthe, and the words were directed at him by Alice Barnett as the Fairy Queen, to the great delight of the audience.
Much of Sullivan's "fairy" music pays deliberate homage to the incidental music written by Felix Mendelssohn for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The music for the fairies also makes references to the music of other composers, including Richard Wagner.
Iolanthe is, of course, more than just a fairy tale. Several of Gilbert's themes are continued from Patience: The war between the sexes, as well as satire on legal and political themes. Gilbert had taken potshots at the aristocracy before, but in this "fairy opera," the House of Lords is lampooned as a bastion of the ineffective, privileged and dim-witted. The political party system and other institutions also come in for a dose of satire. Yet, both author and composer managed to couch the criticism among such bouncy, amiable absurdities that it is all received as good humour.
At the time of writing Iolanthe, both Gilbert and Sullivan were in their peak creative years, and many G&S fans feel that Iolanthe, their seventh work together, is the best balanced, if not simply the best, of their collaborations. "[Sullivan] had composed a brilliant new score (his most subtle yet) to a scintillating libretto.... Iolanthe is the work in which Sullivan's operetta style takes a definite step forward, and metamorphosis of musical themes is its characteristic new feature.... By recurrence and metamorphosis of themes Sullivan made the score more fluid...." (Jacobs 1984, pp. 176-179).
Twenty-five years prior to the beginning of the opera, Iolanthe, the mistress of fairy revels, who arranged all the fairy dances and songs, committed the capital crime (under fairy law) of marrying a mortal human. The Queen of the fairies commuted Iolanthe's sentence of death to banishment for life on the condition that Iolanthe left her husband and never communicated with him again. After the passage of 25 years, the fairies, still missing Iolanthe deeply, plead with the Queen to pardon Iolanthe and to restore her place in fairyland.
Summoned by the Fairy Queen, Iolanthe rises from the frog-infested stream that has been her home in exile. The Queen, unable to bear punishing her any longer, pardons Iolanthe, and she is warmly greeted by the other fairies. Iolanthe tells her sisters that she has a son, a half-fairy, half-human named Strephon ("He's a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal"). The fairies laugh that Iolanthe appears too young to have a grown son, as one of the advantages of a fairy's immortality is that they never grow old. Strephon, a handsome Arcadian shepherd, arrives and meets his aunts. He tells Iolanthe joyously of his love for the Lord Chancellor's ward of court, the beautiful Phyllis. Phyllis does not know of Strephon's mixed origin. Strephon is despondent, however, as the Lord Chancellor has forbidden them to marry – partly because he feels that a shepherd is unsuitable for Phyllis, but partly because he wishes to marry Phyllis himself, although he is hesitant to do so. In fact, so do half the members of the House of Lords. The Fairy Queen promises her assistance. Soon Phyllis arrives, and she and Strephon share a moment of tenderness as they plan their future and possible elopement.
A cadre of the peers of the realm arrive. They are all smitten with Phyllis, and they have appealed to the Lord Chancellor to decide who will have her hand. They send for Phyllis to choose one of their number, but she declares that she won't marry any of them, as virtue is found only in a "lowly" cottage. The peers are unhappy at her rejection and beg her not to scorn them simply because their blood is too blue. Strephon approaches the Lord Chancellor, pleading that Nature bids him marry Phyllis. But the Lord Chancellor wryly notes that Strephon has not presented sufficient evidence that Nature has interested herself in the matter. He refuses his consent to the marriage between Strephon and Phyllis.
Disappointed, Strephon calls on Iolanthe for help. She appears and promises to support him in every way. Spying on the two, the peers — led by the brainless and stuffy Earls Tolloller and Mountararat — together with Phyllis, see Iolanthe and Strephon in a warm embrace. All three jump to the obvious conclusion, since the centuries-old Iolanthe appears to be a girl of seventeen. The Peers scoff at the seemingly-absurd claim that Iolanthe is Strephon's mother ("She is, has been, my mother from my birth"). Phyllis angrily rejects Strephon for his supposed infidelity and declares that she will marry either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat ("...and I don't care which!"). Strephon at last calls for help from the fairies. They appear on cue, but are mistaken by the Peers for a girls' school on an outing. Offended, the Fairy Queen pronounces a magical "sentence" upon the Peers: Strephon shall not only become a Member of Parliament, but will have the power to pass any bill he proposes, including throwing the peerage open to competitive examination. The curtain closes with the fairies threatening the peers.
The fairies have come to Westminster and tease the unhappy Peers with the success and pronouncements of M.P. Strephon. As the Fairy Queen threatened in Act I, Strephon is advancing a bill to open the peerage to competitive examination. The peers ask the fairies to stop Strephon's mischief, stating that the House of Peers is not susceptible of any improvement. Although the fairies say that they cannot stop Strephon, they have become very much attracted to the peers, whom they find handsome and delightful. The fairy Queen is dismayed by this. Pointing to Private Willis of the First Grenadier Guards, who is the sentry on duty, the Queen claims that she is able to subdue her response to the effects of manly beauty.
Phyllis cannot decide which of the two selected Peers, Tololler or Mountararat, she ought to marry, and so she leaves the choice up to them. However, Tololler tells Mountararat that his family's tradition would require the two Earls to duel to the death if latter were to claim Phyllis. The two decide that their friendship is more important than love, and renounce their claims to her. Meanwhile, the Lord Chancellor has a nightmare due to his unrequited love for Phyllis. The two Peers try to cheer him up. At their urging, the Lord Chancellor determines to make another effort to convince himself to award Phyllis to himself.
Although Strephon now leads both parties in Parliament, he is miserable at losing Phyllis. Seeing Phyllis, he finally explains to her that his mother is a fairy, which accounts for a good many things! Phyllis and Strephon ask Iolanthe to go to the Lord Chancellor and plead for him to allow their marriage, for "none can resist your fairy eloquence." Impossible, she replies, for the Lord Chancellor is her husband. The Lord Chancellor believes Iolanthe to have died childless, and she is bound not to "undeceive" him, under penalty of death. However, to save Strephon from losing his love, Iolanthe relents and decides to break her word to the Fairy Queen and reveal to the Lord Chancellor that she is his long lost wife, and that Strephon is his son.
The Lord Chancellor is amazed to discover that his beloved wife alive once again. Iolanthe, however, has betrayed the conditions of her pardon, and the Fairy Queen is now left with no choice but to punish Iolanthe with death. As she prepares to execute Iolanthe, the Queen learns that the rest of the fairies have all now chosen husbands from among the Peers. The Lord Chancellor suggests a solution: change the law with one simple word, so that fairies, instead of being forbidden to marry mortals, are instead required to do so. The Fairy Queen cheerfully agrees and, to save her life, the dutiful soldier, Private Willis, agrees to marry her. Likewise, seeing no reason to stay in the mortal realm if peers are to be recruited from persons of intelligence, the peers agree to join the fairy ranks. They all sprout wings and leave together to live in fairyland.
Iolanthe, the first opera to premiere at the new Savoy Theatre, had a successful initial run in London of 398 performances, spanning the holiday seasons of both 1882 and 1883. In an unprecedented first, the New York premiere was given on the same date — November 25, 1882, with the composer's assistant, Alfred Cellier, conducting. Iolanthe was not revived in London until 1901, making it the first of the operas to be revived after the composer's death the year before. It was also included in two Savoy repertory seasons, in 1906–07 and 1908–09.
In the British provinces, Iolanthe played — either by itself, or in repertory — continuously from February 1882 through 1885, then not again until late 1891. From then on, it was always present in the D'Oyly Carte touring repertory, being included in some part of every season until the company's closure in 1982.
Iolanthe had the distinction of being the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera performed professionally in London by a non-D'Oyly Carte company. It was produced at the Sadler's Wells Theatre on January 24, 1962 at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, less than one month after the Gilbert copyrights expired.
The following table shows the history of the D'Oyly Carte productions in Gilbert's lifetime:
The following tables show the casts of the principal original productions and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company touring repertory at various times through to the company's 1982 closure:
Impact upon Chief Justice Rehnquist
William H. Rehnquist, then Chief Justice of the United States, was inspired to add four golden stripes to the sleeves of his judicial robes after seeing the costume of the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe. The current Chief Justice, John G. Roberts Jr., has not continued the practice.