In a world where entire companies are created to perform Gilbert and Sullivan operas, where every little school and suburb in Commonwealth countries seem to have their own yearly productions and Britain’s D’Oyly Carte company has been producing G&S almost non-stop since the 1870s, it’s hard to believe that Tacoma Opera’s current production of “The Pirates of Penzance” marks the first time the 45-year-old company has ever done one of these hilariously silly English comic operas (though others in Tacoma have done them).
But after director Noel Koran announced this onstage at Friday night’s opening in the Rialto, it was clear that this omission had nothing to do with either performing ability or audience reaction – the two-and-a-half hours of strong singing and excellent theatrics that followed were greeted with stamps and cheers from a thoroughly delighted audience.
The only quibble – and it’s a big one – is that if you haven’t seen much G&S, you possibly don’t realize that it doesn’t need two-and-a-half hours of over-the-top campy choreography to be funny.
Against an elegant but rather bland set by Erin Guinup, the opera was impressive in a number of ways both technical and musical (if not ‘vegetable, animal and mineral’). Despite the orchestra hiding behind a pirate ship at the back of the stage they played with a tight, clear sound, sweet in the strings and full in the tuttis. Thanks to a large-screen projection of conductor Bernard Kwiram hanging from the audience balcony, the singers kept near-perfect ensemble with the musicians, even in this opera’s many tempo traps and patter songs.
And the singing was excellent. In both their roles as the dreaded (but tender-hearted) pirates and the goofy policemen who try to avoid catching them the men’s chorus shone with strong harmonies and acting; the women’s chorus, as the ditzy Victorian girls who fall in love with the pirates, were a little less clear but twice as energetic. Ryan Bede channeled a geeky John Cleese for his Pirate King, his bass resonant and his diction marvelously clear; Brandon Higa’s sweet tenor and clowning made a good foil as his second-in-command, Samuel. Dawn Padula, as the aging nurse Ruth, sang with a rich, burnished mezzo that was unfortunately (for the plot) rather difficult to understand.
But the highlights were the leads. Newcomer Eric Neuville sang the hero Frederic, who escapes his piratical apprenticeship only to discover a dreadful irony, with a golden, Mozartean tenor and a perfect command of both nuance and melodrama, channeling Kenneth Branagh in a wonderfully hair-sweeping, aren’t-I-marvellous way. Megan Chenovick sang his beloved Mabel with both rounded mid-range and stunning high register; though missing some of Mabel’s usual egotistical sauciness, Chenovick more than made up with brilliantly spoofed cadenzas. Stealing the show (and most of the applause) was TO veteran Barry Johnson, imbuing the Major General who saves his silly daughters from piratical matrimony with all the pompous ridiculousness (and powerful baritone) the character deserves – and then adding a little-boy glee to the mix.
The only problem was the choreography. Manically structured by director Maggie McClellan, the endless parade of stylized hand-gestures, cutesy dance shuffles, Broadway riffs and campy hip-juts was fun for the first few minutes and tiring for the rest. The music – and this cast – has more than enough humor without this, and the dumbing-down (Don’t understand the word ‘matrimony’? We’re going to point at our ring fingers all together!!) got old quickly.
Yet the hilarity of this quintessentially silly masterpiece couldn’t be dampened: highlights were the foot-stomping of “With Cat-Like Tread,” the bumbling policemen (kudos to Deac Guidi, a very fruity Sergeant), Johnson’s antics in “I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General” and the combined chorus scenes. Equally well-done were the delicious ensemble singing of the “Parodox” song, and Frederic and Mabel’s sorrowful duet.
First Gilbert and Sullivan in 45 years? Much too long to wait, Tacoma Opera. Bring on some more.
IF YOU GO
What: “The Pirates of Penzance” by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Who: Tacoma Opera
When: 2 p.m. Oct. 27
Where: Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com