Some may question what on earth could possess an opera company to want to venture into that decidedly lowbrow domain of music theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. But hold your breath. State Opera South Australia’s Pirates of Penzance is a complete hoot, and brilliantly done.
A prodigious amount of thought, work and care has gone into this production, which is cleverly conceived and brilliantly performed under the direction of Stuart Maunder. It absolutely zings along, the cast are great, and opening night went flawlessly.
It is perfectly true that G&S lies at the complete infra dig end of the spectrum from Wagner and Verdi, but for a night of pure theatrical enjoyment, it cannot really be topped. From the moment Ben Mingay trudges onto the stage like a tramp, only to reveal himself as the pirate king with a mighty, guttural “Argh!”, all eyes are glued to the stage. As his ruffian band of fellow pirates sweep in with their sharp choreography and belting singing, one is immediately hooked.
Gilbert’s rhyming lines might be on the puerile side, but they are colourful nonetheless, and much the same could be said of Sullivan’s airy tunes. More than 100 years since Pirates of Penzance first appeared, they still have a unique way of lodging themselves into the mind.
The story itself is unimaginably trite and basically consists of a series of silly, non-sequitur scenes that centre on a pirate apprentice named Frederick, and how he is unable to marry his sweetheart, Mabel, on account of a technicality concerning his age. Because he was born on a leap year, he must serve his apprenticeship another 63 years before he turns 21 and is able to wed. There is just enough seriousness to hold the narrative together: the two lovebirds’ duet, ‘Ah, leave me not to pine’, does contain some genuine pathos. Otherwise Pirates of Penzance is about utter frivolity.
One begins to appreciate just how much it depends on theatrical skill when it is done this well. Maunder’s conception is exceptionally funny and possesses as much honed detail as a top-rated film production. There are plenty of scuffles and sword fights, but there is superb parody as well. With a distinct eye to tradition, the pirates are a dim-witted bunch of pudding-heads, only quick enough to draw their swords at the merest whiff of trouble. The brigade of London bobbies who turn up later are right duffers, and the maidens are straight out of Anne of the Green Gables in their white dresses, straw hats and parasols.
Any casting holes tend to show up glaringly in G&S, but State Opera has chosen singers who are copybook for the stereotypic roles they play. So excellent is Mingay as the pirate king that one feels anyone else simply would not do. With his big presence and beefsteak baritone, he is able to crank things up marvellously. John Longmuir has just the right tenor voice and greenstick innocence to cut through as Frederick, while Douglas McNicol is incomparable as Major General Stanley. Sporting a Scottish kilt and acting the part to a tee, his resonant bass has tremendous clout. One is unlikely to ever witness the tongue-twister song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”, done better.
Desiree Frahn is all peaches and cream as Mabel, and her coloratura is right up to the mark in her arias. Antoinette Halloran makes a wonderful Ruth, unfortunately downtrodden and continually insulted for her lack of beauty (her Cockney really hits the mark: think Ruthie Henshall in Les Misérables). Nicholas Cannon as the pirate lieutenant and Jeremy Kleeman as the wonderfully batty police sergeant contribute other sterling performances.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under conductor Anthony Hunt is sharp as a pin and bright as a button. Sullivan’s score is an easy gig for them, but they are responsive and right on the ball.
Tight choreography throughout, directed by Elizabeth Hall-Cooper, is another real highlight, and the sets by Richard Roberts, which are deliberately underdone and consist of cut-outs shapes of sailing ships against a blue sky, help give a raw theatrical look.
Some welcome contemporary touches add flair, too, such as when Frederick hears the maidens from afar and asks cheekily, “Can it be Uber Eats?”.
The production breezes along with a speed that belies the considerable effort that has gone into it. Do try to get your hands on one of the booklets, as it covers the whole G&S Fest run of events, and the essays are worth reading to see the lengths the personnel have gone to in each of the many shows.
Bravo three times over for this first one. It is riotous entertainment and thoroughly worth seeing. The G&S Fest looks poised to swamp the city in fun.
Pirates of Penzance continues until May 20 at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Full details of the 10-day G&S Fest program can be found here.
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