The last time Knoxville Opera performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, in March 2010, it was a different time for the opera company. After several years of austerity measures and financial rebuilding, Pirates was a midseason addition to the schedule. The last-minute production faced challenges—the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra wasn’t available, for instance—but Knoxville Opera turned out an admirable production that indicated the worst was over.
Six years later, Knoxville Opera’s financial situation has improved. And the company’s current production of Pirates, which ran for two performances last weekend at the Tennessee Theater, vastly improved on the previous production, both musically and theatrically. Simultaneously beguiling and satisfying, it was the perfect introduction to the more serious part of the season, which continues in 2017 with La Bohemè and Donizetti’s Mary, Queen of Scots.
Entering the topsy-turvy world of W.S. Gilbert’s plot twists and wordplay, armed only with Arthur Sullivan’s infectiously tuneful music, presents potential pitfalls for contemporary opera companies and audiences. Stage director Brian Deedrick avoided the trap of inserting current comic references and local shtick; he trusted that a modern audience, schooled in upper-crust British peculiarities by TV dramas, would embrace the Victorian-era humor. Ample whimsy and comedy abounded in the richness of the 1879 original, and in this production.
Victorian audiences would have instantly recognized the comic irony in the title. Penzance is a small resort town on the Cornwall coast—not an ideal location for pirates. When it is revealed that the pirates are actually members of the British peerage who have “gone bad,” the joke is complete.
The plot centers on Frederic, a young pirate apprentice. Frederic comes upon the many daughters of Major-General Stanley on the beach and falls in love with one of them, the lovely Mabel. Although Frederic is nearing the supposed end of his indenture to the pirates on his 21st birthday, he learns that he was born on Feb. 29, in a leap year, binding him for another 63 years and ruining his life with Mabel.
The roles of Frederic and Mabel were sung by tenor Joshua Kohl and soprano Claire Coolen. Both had those endearing qualities necessary for Gilbert and Sullivan: crisp English diction accompanying a strong, gorgeous voice. Sean Anderson, a familiar face and voice for Knoxville Opera audiences (Die Fledermaus, Elixir of Love, and H.M.S. Pinafore) sang a bold and luscious Pirate King.
In the role of Major-General Stanley, the father of an uncountable number of beautiful daughters, was Robert Orth, a veteran of four decades in opera. Orth brought a wealth of comic timing and a marvelous understanding of dramatic irony on the stage. His introductory song, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,” is the essence of a rapid-fire patter number; Orth delivered it beautifully. But this is a number that probably needs amplification in the Tennessee Theatre, no matter the singer.
A vocal and comedic standout was Jenni Bank as Ruth, Frederic’s nursemaid, who makes a miraculous and sudden adjustment to pirate life. The named daughters of Stanley—Edith (Allison Deady), Kate (Brynn Johnson), and Isabel (Leslie Ostransky)—needed a bit more staging separation from the ensemble of other daughters in order to dramatically make their point.
Also a standout was bass—and Knoxville Opera regular—Andrew Wentzel, in the role of the police sergeant. With face contorted, arms flapping, and his billy club waving, Wentzel’s vocal and comic performance was a textbook example of how to perform a comprimario role. Likewise, the ensemble of bumbling policemen following their sergeant was a joy to watch.
The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was in the pit, led by Knoxville Opera music director and conductor Brian Salesky. Salesky and his staff also deserve kudos for attracting a lot of first-time operagoers to the production, something that is necessary for opera’s viable future.
Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.
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