Live Review – The Pirates of Penzance (Vancouver Opera)

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this opera. To me, Gilbert and Sullivan always seemed like archaic museum pieces – pretty if unmemorable music, and nice vignettes of life in Victorian England. Although G&S still play a role in contemporary British culture, what relevance could this opera have to me, an audience member born 115 years after its premiere and living nearly halfway across the world? It ended up being an evening that was both thought-provoking in its (shockingly relevant!) satire and also highly entertaining.

(c) Tim Matheson

Although Gilbert is famed for his witty yet biting mockery of Victorian society, I had no idea that Sullivan was equally skilled as a musical satirist. The men’s choruses were rather Verdian, Major-General Stanley’s famous aria could rival any Donizetti patter song, and Mabel’s entrance aria came somewhere between the perkiness of Juliette’s “Je veux vivre” and the sheer vocal exhibitions of Marguerite de Valois’ “O Beau Pays”. More brilliant still was how Gilbert and Sullivan combined music and text to evoke popular operatic conventions of the time – Stanley’s second act ballad was basically an exaggerated German lied, and it was absolutely hysterical to hear Mabel and Frederic singing their big love duet to the words of “Fa la la la”. Though the music never sounds simply derivative or plagiarized, the score is absolutely littered with tiny little musical references, and I have no doubt I will discover more of them as I get older.

None of this would have come through, however, if the cast wasn’t uniformly so strong. It’s always tricky to find the right balance between operatic voices and excellent actors – too much emphasis on the former, and the performance becomes overly serious. Too much emphasis on the latter, and the singing becomes vaguely embarrassing. Thankfully, Vancouver Opera carefully picked a cast of young, attractive singers who where nevertheless up to the demands of the very physical production. The two exceptions were, of course, the venerable Judith Forst as Ruth and the Shakesperean actor Christopher Gaze as Major-General Stanley. After Suzuki with Renata Scotto, the secondary role of Ruth might seem like a bit of an anticlimax (although the program noted that she will be returning to the Met next season in Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’), but she clearly enjoyed herself in the part. For a singer in her late 60s, her voice is very well preserved, with only a slight wobble in the highest notes. Otherwise, she was subtle but effective Ruth, resisting the urge to overdo it and presenting a well-rounded, touching character. Similarly, Christopher Gaze turned Stanley from a doddering old relic into a sympathetic man who is slowly losing his daughters. His acting skill was not surprising, given his recent brilliant performances in roles as diverse as King Lear and Falstaff, but also showed considerable musical skill. Although he is not an operatic singer and often resorted to a sort of speech-singing, he clearly knew the music well and had no issues in the rather complex ensembles.

The rest of the cast was very comfortable with the understated style and clear diction required for Gilbert and Sullivan, something which is unfortunately not true for many opera singers. As the main character, tenor Roger Honeywell struck a fine balance between Frederic’s attractive romantic personality and his seemingly idiotic sense of duty. His singing was always sensitive, although he did allow himself a few ringing high notes – I was not at all surprised to find that his repertoire also includes Cavaradossi and Don Jose. As his love interest Mabel, soprano Rachel Fenlon was ideal for the ingenue qualities of the role. Like any good soubrette, Mabel has to twirl and prance relentlessly while singing exclusively in coloratura, and Fenlon thankfully brought a startlingly rich voice to a rather twittery role. As the pirate king and his second-in-command, baritones Aaron St. Clair Nicholson and Aaron Durand were wonderful both as singers and actors and brought a wonderful physicality to their roles, and bass Giles Tomkins was hilarious as the incompetent police sergeant. Jonathan Darlington conducted the orchestra with sensitivity as well as great virtuosity, and the chorus and orchestra always sounded fully involved in what can’t be their most challenging assignments of the season.

Although I’ve often said that I’m not a fan of overly traditional productions, I think Vancouver Opera made the right choice. Of course, this was helped by Christopher Gaze’s detailed and sophisticated direction – any production should be about people, not sets or costumes. Although there were many elements of slapstick, the whole production was genuinely funny and I never once had that sinking feeling associated with a gag gone embarrassingly wrong. Upon entering the auditorium and seeing the red curtain with projections of the original poster and old-fashioned footlights, the audience knew exactly what the physical production would be like. The cardboard sets were almost ironically flimsy, wobbling and shaking every time somebody walked past. However, the costumes and sets were appropriate to period performance aesthetics, and seemed like an impertinent nod to the many traditionalists among opera fans. Still, the set was unexpectedly beautiful at times – the foggy silhouette of the gothic ruins against the starry sky was a stunning effect.

So much of Gilbert and Sullivan is based in the past – this character was based on that real-life person, and that line was a reference to this famous political speech, and so on. However, for every reference that a modern audience no longer understands, another achieves new levels of relevance that would not have been present 100 years ago. The general themes of duty, hypocrisy, class, and incompetent police still remain applicable to modern society, and the opera will no doubt remain as relevant and entertaining to the next generations of operagoers.

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