New York City Opera – The Pirates of Penzance

Gilbert & Sullivan
The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty – A comic operetta in two acts by Sir W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, sung in English with supertitles by John Kubiniec

Samuel – Scott Guinn
The Pirate King – Marc Kudisch
Frederic – Matt Morgan
Ruth – Myrna Paris
Edith – Erin Elizabeth Smith
Kate – Heather Johnson
Isabel – Shannon Carson
Mabel – Sarah Jane McMahon
Major-General Stanley – Mark Jacoby
Sergeant of Police – Kevin Burdette
Queen Victoria – Fran Barnes

New York City Opera Chorus & OrchestraGerald Steichen

Lillian Groag – Director
Lynne Hockney – Choreographer
John Conklin – Set designer
Jess Goldstein – Costume designer
Pat Collins – Lighting designer
Abe Jacob – Sound designer

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 29 March, 2007
Venue: New York State Theater, New York City

The works of Gilbert & Sullivan have long had a place in the repertory of New York City Opera, but it has been 30 years since its last production of “The Pirates of Penzance”. This is a co-production with Glimmerglass Opera, where it was first presented in the summer of 2006 as part of an ongoing partnership between the two opera companies.

Director Lillian Groag’s production does not fit neatly within the dichotomy of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ productions of Gilbert & Sullivan, as it is really both at once. The singers gave a fairly traditional performance of ‘Pirates’ – costumed appropriately for the period, and taking only minimal liberties with the score and libretto – which, like all G & S, is already well into the realm of ‘topsy-turvy’. However, at the same time, another, even more absurd, performance was going on, featuring whimsical visual references to “Alice in Wonderland” and ‘Monty Python’, and a succession of allusions to Victorian and post-Victorian literary and historical figures and events. Additional performers – a crew of workmen with “D’Oyly Carte” written on their jackets and who serve as janitors, vendors and stage-hands, among other things, and Queen Victoria herself – take part in this second performance, interacting only occasionally with the singers. Unfortunately, this second performance both distracted and detracted from what was an otherwise creditable ‘Pirates’.

This arrangement is somewhat reminiscent of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos”, in which a commedia dell’arte troupe is required to perform simultaneously with an opera seria. There, however, Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal interwove new comedic material into the previously-composed Opera to influence, enlighten and transform its title character – not just to gain a few cheap laughs, which is all that most of Groag’s interpolated and superimposed comic business manages to achieve. “The Pirates of Penzance” is an extremely resilient vehicle, however, and the beauty of Sullivan’s score, the cleverness of Gilbert’s wit, and the efforts of an able cast overcame these distractions sufficiently to make for an enjoyable evening.

The City Opera cast combined operatic voices from the company’s roster with two stars from the Broadway musical world, both of whom had appeared in prior City Opera productions. Marc Kudisch, fresh from his leading role in the Broadway revival of “The Apple Tree”, brought flawless comic delivery, hilarious physical comedy, and a strong, pleasing baritone to the role of the Pirate King, and Mark Jacoby, best known for the title role in “Phantom of the Opera”, made an excellent Major-General, flawlessly negotiating at breakneck speed the daunting patter of ‘I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’. Their perfect timing did full justice to Gilbert’s witty dialogue in their ‘orphan-often’ exchange and elsewhere throughout the performance. Sound designer Abe Jacob succeeded in achieving a seamless balance between these Broadway voices and the more operatic ones.

The role of Frederic, the pirates’ young apprentice, is the longest and one of the most challenging in the entire G & S canon. He is on the stage almost all of the time, and most of the plot revolves around him: the anomaly of his February 29 birth date, his absurdly fastidious sense of duty, and his romance with Mabel. Matt Morgan played the part with winning charm. His fine tenor voice was fiery in confronting his former nursemaid, Ruth, ably sung and acted by contralto Myrna Paris, a veteran of City Opera G & S productions, sweet in his love duet with Mabel in the first act, and plaintive in their parting duet in Act Two. Soprano Sarah Jane McMahon was a spirited Mabel, from her coloratura turns in ‘Poor Wandering One’ to her steadfast adherence to her own sense of duty when Frederic rejoins the pirates.

Bass Kevin Burdette’s Sergeant of Police was vocally resonant, but some of his physical comedy – perhaps intended as an homage to Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ – went a bit too far over the top. And when this comic business diverted the Sergeant from paying attention to Mabel’s tribute to the policemen, his reaction to her unexpected prediction of their imminent doom lacked the appropriate humorous effect.

There were solid performances from the supporting cast, including baritone Scott Guinn as Samuel, soprano Erin Elizabeth Smith as Edith, and mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson as Kate. Gerald Steichen did a fine job leading the 53-piece orchestra – an ensemble considerably larger than the one that Sullivan used for the original production, but which seemed quite appropriate given that the New York State Theater has more than twice the capacity of the theatres in which the G & S operas were originally performed. The similarly oversized City Opera Chorus also excelled, particularly in Sullivan’s second act double chorus.

Jess Goldstein’s costumes were quite attractive and appropriate to the period and plot of the opera, but John Conklin’s sets were almost completely disconnected from ‘Pirates’, focusing instead on extraneous allusions and interpolated commentary. There was never a coherent plot-related reason for placing double-tiered theatre boxes at stage right or for other backstage trappings. The boxes served mainly as locations for some of the many cardboard cut-outs that appeared throughout the show, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice wearing an eye patch. Mabel’s initial entrance from the lower box just seemed incongruous. It also made no sense to substitute the crowded beach resort of Penzance, bustling with vendors, for Gilbert’s “rocky sea-shore”, the isolation of which is specifically referenced in the dialogue and is material to the plot, much less to have Queen Victoria herself pour tea for the Major-General’s daughters. In the second act, gratuitous set changes confused the locale of the action. Was it backstage or on-stage in a theatre, in a graveyard, or, as Gilbert prescribed, in a “ruined chapel by moonlight”? (Moonlight was provided in the form of a cardboard cut-out of the moon, ensconced in the upper tier theatre box.)

Time after time, Groag’s production reflected both a condescending attitude toward the audience and a lack of confidence in the work and the artists. As the entire company sang “Hail, Poetry”, a large representation of Poet’s Corner was drawn across the stage behind the singers. This served only to distract the attention of the audience – which surely understood what poetry is without this visual display – from the beauty of the song. Similarly, the impact of the Pirate King’s explanation of the “most ingenious paradox” on which the plot turns was diminished by a slide show that illustrated his narrative with pictures of Isaac Newton, a calendar, the number 29 and Oscar Wilde (the lattermost accompanying the King’s reference to “an ill-natured fairy”). And the unexplained appearance in that scene of a half-dozen ‘workmen’ to form a sort of chorus line behind the three principals dulled one of the opera’s show-stopping moments.

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