Ken Russell opera and theatre
English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 1992. Ken tackles Gilbert and Sullivan light opera this time. His London debut. Russell's staging was highly original in this story which he set in 2002 (then 10 years in the future) outside Buck´n´yen Palace (Buckingham Palace). Ken was invited to stage the Gilbert and Sullivan opera when the ENO's production of Tannhäuser was withdrawn as being too costly.
Ken says "Princess Ida was not musically as strong as other Gilbert and Sullivan operas... Princess Ida leant itself to a real update - it was an extremely contemporary original" (quote from The Gilbert and Sullivan Project here and here). The women in the opera, premiered in 1884, set up a college for women where men are excluded. This liberated start is soon back into cliché territory as the males dress as women and enter the college.
Princess Ida was performed by Rosemary Joshua. Richard Van Allan played Hildebrand, Mark Curtis was Hilarion and Richard Suart was Gama. The designer was James Merifield, who says "...'The director Ken Russell was in the audience of my first West End play 20 years ago. And I got a call the next day from his producer, saying that he’d like to do an opera, Princess Aida, with me [Iain: it was Princess Ida]. I was delighted but it was panned by the critics." Quote from interview by Duncan Farmer from here . Merifield would also work on the opera Salome and has worked on various television films with Ken.
Predictably the audience were split between those who booed and those who cheered at the end (what's new with Ken!!). The Times of 16 Nov 1992 says "Ken Russell's Princess Ida opened this weekend at the Coliseum to less than rapturous critical reaction. Hemmed in by a posse of transvestites crowding the circle bar during the interval, a nervous Russell was clearly hankering after royal approval for the production "It is the Prince of Wales birthday today", he said, "and rumour is he is going in to slip in for the third act." One suspects the prince, who is lampooned with impunity throughout the operetta, had other matters on his mind... the new PRINCESS IDA is concept–driven and is energized chiefly by the cartoon–like exuberance of James Merrifield's scenery and costumes. The royal Buck 'n 'Yen Palace offering fairground rides, the descent of the litter–scattering Sushi–Fast–Food tycoon on a monstrous fish, the Tower of London turned over to "feminist" studies including torture of males – such strokes of comic imagination are a joy."
Sadly for the ENO "Audience figures overall have fallen by 6 per cent, with some of the most adventurous productions doing among the worst: 60 per cent for Ken Russell's Princess Ida, and 41 per cent for Berg's Wozzeck" (The Independent, David Lister, 18 April 1993 here).