By Robert J. Croan
The piquant and perceptive, witty and profound comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan rely for their effect as much on William S. Gilbert’s brilliant words as on the sparkling scores of Arthur Sullivan.
Broward Center’s 2,658-seat Au-Rene Theater worked against clarity in the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ production of The Pirates of Penzance on Feb. 9 – part of the Center’s Classical Series that will present the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 16), Black Violin (Feb. 21) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (March 22).
Palm Beach Opera made Pirates work in Kravis Center’s nearly-as-large Dreyfoos Hall in 2017, with full-scale operatic treatment and the crucial use of projected supertitles. Pirates spoofs British society of its time, with soft pirates, an unmilitary major general, and cowardly police. The music parodies the Italian operas of Rossini and Verdi, along with the then-popular French operettes of Offenbach. But most of the humor is as cogent today, with minimal updating required, as it was when Pirates was premiered in 1879.
The praiseworthy but modest lower-budget effort by NYGASP (the company’s own acronym) had little brilliance or sparkle, and for lack of intelligibility fell flat despite a lively, often slapstick staging, and some accomplished singing among the principal players. I know this work – not quite by heart but pretty thoroughly – and was nonetheless unable to catch the all-important lyrics, even after changing my seat to a closer location for the second act. In the interval, many novices to the work were overheard saying that they just don’t get Gilbert and Sullivan. Sad to say, there was little in the present production to get them hooked.
NYGASP artistic director/general manager Albert Bergeret, who is also listed as director and conductor, led the 17-piece orchestra in an accurate if not crisp rendition of the overture, notable for a lovely extended oboe solo by Rachel Maczko. Once the curtain rose on Lou Anne Gilleland’s colorful set, the enthusiastic opening chorus gave way to the delightfully cavernous contralto of Angela Christine Smith, whose low Gs might well saw down a giant California redwood.
Unfortunately, despite her best efforts at enunciation and visual description, the word play on which the plot hinges – as a nursery maid she apprenticed the young Frederic to a pirate rather than a pilot – did not come through, along with most of Gilbert’s other ingenious rhymes and puns. Similarly in Act 2, the exquisite paradox trio in which Frederic finds that his stint as a pirate is not up because he was born on leap day and will not turn 21 until 1940, might as well have been gibberish in some unknown foreign language.
Most severely affected by the acoustical issue was James Mills as Major-General Stanley, whose famous solo, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,” stands or falls on the audience’s comprehension of the fast patter. When it came across, he seemed to be doing what Gilbert might have described as Yeoman’s work, but anyone unfamiliar with the lyrics in advance would have missed almost all the fun (or pun). Lack of verbal clarity also marred David Auxier’s otherwise expert delivery of the Police Sergeant’s “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment.”
As Frederic, Christopher Robin Sapp looked handsome and sang smoothly with a light tenor sound, managing some silky high notes but also a real clunker when he reached for an optional high B-flat at the end of “Oh, is there not one maiden breast.” His Mabel, a delightful ingénue type with a promising coloratura technique, offered glittering staccato notes in “Poor wandering one!” (a spoof on “Sempre libera” from La Traviata). Her only flaw was her failure to project the spoken dialogue. Her duet with Sapp, sprinkled with honeyed in-tandem pianissimo lines, was a musical highlight.
Matthew Wages showed off a pleasant baritone sound in the Pirate King’s song, early on, while the male chorus shone late in the show, with a rousing rendition of “With cat-like tread” – a take-off on the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore and the inspiration for the American pop song, “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.” The female chorus was quite engaging throughout, offering small individual comic cameos, and freezing into lovely tableaux at appropriate brief moments of stillness.