December 01, 2007


Gilbert and Sullivan: The Pirates of Penzance. Virginia Opera production conducted by Joseph Walsh. Stage Director: William Theisen. Presented at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia, November 30, 2007.

To be a music critic in the one-and-20th century
Requires pluck and valor, and you’ve got to be adventure-y
And learn complex equations, both the simple and quadratical
To analyze the ups and down of matters most piratical.

      The rhythm of Major-General Stanley’s self-introductory patter song from The Pirates of Penzance is well-nigh irresistible to imitate. One of Tom Lehrer’s most famous songs, “The Elements,” used it, starting out:

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium…

      And a marvelous parody by Anna Russell, featuring the machinations of rich-but-boorish Clodbelly Bunion in his plot to marry poor-but-aristocratic Pneumonia Vanderfeller, was equally clever:

To found a Bunion dynasty of very great pomposity
Pneu-mo-ni-a shall wed me though she finds me a monstrosity
And has a feeling for me of the wildest animosity:
The nuptials shall be solemnized this afternoon…

      And this ditty is but one of the charms of Pirates, whose joys range from the delightful “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One” to an absolutely perfect parody of coloraturas’ hyped-up entrance lines, Mabel’s opening: “It’s Ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-bel.” Virginia Opera’s new production was often great fun and always very well staged, getting a lot of the operetta’s sheer zest right; but it was a trifle ragged and lacking in exuberance in spots.

      This was a traditional staging, thank goodness: Pirates needs no updating and invariably suffers when given one. William Theisen designed plenty of nooks and crannies for both acts, enabling smooth entries and exits both at the Cornwall shore and at the Stanley estate. Neat and elegant lighting nicely highlighted a variety of moods, being used especially effectively in Major-General Stanley’s asides to the audience. Stanley was sung, unusually, by a tenor, Gary Briggle, rather than by a baritone. Briggle strutted well and overacted just as much as the role requires, and he handled that famed patter song with good speed and fine pronunciation.

      But he was not the strongest singer on stage: two others were even better. One was Alicia Berneche as Mabel, who absolutely nailed the role, and whose flitting changes of expression and emphatic foot-stamping were as much fun to watch as her voice was to hear. The other was bass Jonathan Kimple as the Sergeant of Police: his strong voice and spot-on delivery of his lines were delightful, and he managed to sound dignified and silly at the same time.

      A pre-performance announcement noted that tenor William Ferguson (Frederic) was suffering from a cold, and that surely explained some tightness and lack of force in his singing in Act I. But he must have been holding something in reserve, because his voice was altogether fuller in Act II – although it was a bit disconcerting to realize that this Frederic seemed more effective as a pirate than as a lover and reformed evildoer.

      Other voices were less compelling. Baritone Dominic M. Aquilino, as the Pirate King, seemed to be channeling his inner Johnny Depp in some of his speech and action mannerisms; but this operetta is, thank goodness, not Pirates of the Caribbean, and the role-playing did not quite work. It also seemed to come at the expense of Aquilino’s voice: his singing often seemed strained. Contralto Myrna Paris as Ruth had a different problem: she was frequently off the beat, entering too late and then rushing to catch up. She sounded as Ruth should and acted well, but her failure to stay with the orchestra was quite distracting.

Part of the problem may have been the conducting of Joseph Walsh. He is quite capable of evoking sweep and drama, as he did in Virginia Opera’s production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, but in Pirates things were too often ragged and sometimes disconcertingly off-kilter. For example, the famous Act II chorus in which the pirates approach “with cat-like tread” while singing at the top of their voices needs a great burst of orchestral sound, but here Walsh seemed to keep the Virginia Symphony members overly restrained.

There were plenty of high points in this production, such as the maidens’ Act I chorus (carried over by G&S from their very first collaboration, Thespis, and the only music now remaining from that work) and the a cappella paean to poetry that is so wonderfully incongruous near the end of the act. But other forms of incongruity were much less welcome. The insertion of the patter trio from Ruddigore into Act II made it sound as if Virginia Opera were paying homage to the fairly dreadful William Leach film of Pirates, which made the same interpolation in 1983. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. And some of the dialogue modifications were either unnecessary (changing “cutting out a P&O” to “cutting out a Whitestar”) or just plain silly (having the Pirate King exclaim “Liar, liar, pants on fire” in Act II).

It is almost impossible not to have fun at a Gilbert and Sullivan performance, and Virginia Opera’s Pirates certainly offered fun aplenty. As it turned out, the enjoyment was not entirely unalloyed. But it was still a great deal better than fool’s gold.

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