The operettas of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan might not be the kind of touchstone they once were in American culture, but that fact gives professional opera companies room to do the works as they should be done: With thorough fealty to scripts and their often underrated scores.
This past weekend, Palm Beach Opera closed its season by fulfilling that mission, presenting a crisp, swift, funny, well-sung and well-played reading of The Pirates of Penzance. Epic star power was present in the person of mezzo Stephanie Blythe, whose performance of Ruth, the maid-of-all-work to a group of tender-hearted Cornish pirates, was a model of a memorable cameo.
For its show, Palm Beach Opera rented the production of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which has wonderfully cartoony sets by James Schuette in which bright oranges and blues set a Saturday-morning kids-TV kind of vibe that was delightful to look at. In keeping with that idea, stage director Alan Paul of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., made sure things moved along smartly, with nice bits of business like Ruth’s sudden panic-attack call for “Cake! Cake!” at the end of “When Fred’ric Was a Little Lad.”
Choreographer Deanna Dys did a good job of letting that energy inhabit her dance steps, which were many and varied, but also quite doable by male and female chorus members who are not dancers but need to break into it persuasively. Paul and Dys both gave the look of the performance bustle without mania, which worked admirably well.
Blythe, who has a major international career and decided to do Pirates after a South Florida appearance last season at the Society of the Four Arts in which she brought her touring Kate Smith tribute show town, sang this small role as well as it could be sung, with impeccable diction and a big, resonant sound. Her acting also was quite good, and she would probably do well as a comedic actor in a prose play; she has good instincts and she knows how to focus an audience’s attention on her.
The two romantic leads here were tenor Andrew Stenson as Frederic and soprano Sarah Joy Miller as Mabel. Stenson has a very attractive, smooth voice that could sound suitably ardent when needed but that was also slightly underpowered compared to the larger voices on stage. Miller, who has been singing a lot of lyric roles, particularly as Juliette in Gounod’s opera, sang with strength and agility, particularly in the all the Italian-opera clowning Sullivan writes for the part.
Two of the extra-high interpolated notes at the end of “Poor Wand’ring One” didn’t come through Sunday afternoon at the first hearing of the song, but the climactic one was there for the very end of the operetta. She and Stenson sounded good together, particularly in the lovely “Oh Leave Me Not to Pine.”
Michael Todd Simpson was an excellent Pirate King, with a powerful baritone voice and an exciting stage presence; he’s tall, young, thin and energetic, and his singing and acting were positive and hugely engaging. Canadian baritone Hugh Russell was equally as good as Major-General Stanley, foppish but not a dummy, and the famous patter song, “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” won warm applause Sunday afternoon from the Kravis Center crowd after his performance, which was stellar.
Mark Schnaible as the Sergeant of Police, also demonstrated a big voice and fine comedic skills, as did Tobias Greenhalgh as Samuel, the Pirate King’s lieutenant. Three minor female roles, Edith, Kate and Isabel, sung by Danielle MacMillan, Tara Curtis and Kasia Borowiec, respectively, were effectively sung; Curtis made the strongest impression with the size of her voice and clarity in telling a story.
As fine as all these singers were, this is in some ways a choral show, with lots of stuff for men (as pirates and policeman) and women (as the many daughters of the Major-General) to do, much of it with martial precision. This chorus, led by Greg Ritchey, sang beautifully throughout, especially in the “Hail, Poetry!” a capella outburst in “Thou Heav’n Born Maid,” and in the expertly managed quiet dynamic with which the pirates introduced “Come, Friends Who Plough the Sea,” still familiar outside the operetta as “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here.”
This chorus also looked sharp, with distinctive costumes by Sona Amroyan. The women, some 14 of them, looked particularly lovely as they came on in high-Victorian couture that was immensely flattering.
The other important element Sunday was the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra, which was terrific, and brilliantly led by David Stern. Sullivan’s scoring is light in the tradition of Mendelssohn, but no less effective for that; he knew how to get the most out of each instrument in a small pit orchestra. But it’s also difficult music from the standpoint of balance and exactitude, and Stern and the orchestra came through splendidly.
This was one of the company’s few excursions into English-language opera, though it has done abridged workshop versions of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, Copland’s The Tender Land and Britten’s Albert Herring, and a Young Artists version of the same composer’s The Turn of the Screw. Next year, to mark the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, the company will present his Candide (Feb. 23-25, 2018), which is finally coming into its own at the nation’s opera companies, and is to be welcomed at Palm Beach Opera.