Chicago Lyric Opera Company

Music by Arthur Sullivan and Book by William S. Gilbert

The Pirates of Penzance

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Last night, Elaine and I went to see “The Pirates of Penzance” at the Chicago Lyric Opera.  No, “Pirates” isn’t an opera, and no, the Lyric doesn’t generally perform light opera (this may have been the first time in its 48-year history).  However, plans to present an opera by Berliosz fell through and they decided to end the season on a lighter and different note…and it worked.

The reason it worked, aside from the ability of the performers, was the fact that the Lyric presented the operetta in a straight manner.  The characters (and actors) took everything they said and did with the utmost seriousness, eschewing the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” aspect of Gilbert and Sullivan which is frequently added by amateur company’s which feel, wrongly, that it is necessary to let the audience know either when Gilbert is being clever (which Gilbert does well enough on his own) or when the company is being clever (usually not nearly half as clever as they think they’re being).

Michael Yeargan’s sets were a mix of minimal and extravagant in a manner which worked quite well.  A painted backdrop and the frame of a building formed the basis for the scenery in both acts, with additional pieces…rocks, beach tents, walls, curtains…added as appropriate for the different scenes.  These pieces not only added to the feel of the stage but were also quite useful as props in a variety of scenes.

Similarly, Dona Granata’s costumes were quite well done, from the ramshackle look of the pirates to the uniform appearance of the police force.  The costumes served to identify the actors and catch the eye without detracting from either the action or the libretto.  If the costumes of the leads could have been designed to stand out a little more, it is only a minor quibble.

The cast, led by Roger Honeywell as Frederic and Neal Davies (in his Lyric Opera debut) as Major General Stanley, had an excellent handle on their parts, both musically and dramatically.  The Lyric’s Frederic and Mabel (Elizabeth Futral) gave the appearance that despite the silly circumstances of their meeting, they would actually make a good married couple who respected and supported each other’s goals.  Ruth, portrayed by D’Oyly Carte veteran Gillian Knight, has the anticipated excellent understanding of her role and its importance as a lynchpin to the entire work.  If Kevin Langan’s Pirate King wasn’t quite the swashbuckler the character is often portrayed as, he did provide a much more nuanced interpretation of the role.  At times, especially during spoken dialogue, it was slightly difficult to hear the cast, but it was more an irritation than a problem.

In addition to the principals, the Lyric filled the stage with chorus.  Major General Stanley had no fewer than twenty-five daughters and at its height, the pirate band consisted of at least twenty brigands.  Supernumeries were used sparingly, but effectively in the finales to both acts.  The chorus was used to excellent effect not only when they were singing, but also during solos, when they added to the scene rather than detracted from the soloists, perhaps most notably while hiding in the shadows during Stanley’s ballad “Sighing Softly to the River” in the second act.

The only other difficulty with the production was the inclusion of super titles, although Elaine disagrees with me on this.  I know the operetta by heart and can recite and sing the entire thing, so I ignored the super titles.  Elaine commented that they were nice because during some of the more complex songs, they enabled her to actually understand the words, not an inconsequential issue given how much of the plot of “The Pirates of Penzance” moves forward in song.   Similarly, it permitted the audience less familiar with the work to get all of Gilbert’s humorous references.  In many cases, because of the super titles, a laugh raced through the audience before the singer actually delivered the humorous line, nevertheless, it was nice to hear the audience laughing out loud at Gilbert and Sullivan.

If all Gilbert and Sullivan plays were produced in the manner of the Lyric Opera’s production, not necessarily with the same lavish production qualities, but with the same respect for the material, Gilbert and Sullivan’s works would have a much higher level of respectability than they currently have.

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