Sunday, 31 July 2011

G&S Opera Co: Pirates of Penzance

Gallery seats are quite a bit more expensive this time around than they were on our previous trips, but we know now that the G&S Opera Co shows are worth seeing. To ensure that we'd get good seats every time, I booked our entire season's worth of tickets at once; good seats are available in the gallery for all the shows at the moment, but that might well change as the weeks pass. And now, sitting here in the house, I can't see many empty seats - there's a few here in the gallery, and in the restricted-viewing seats on the sides, but the rest is mostly full. I wish we could get houses like this back home!

So here we are once more on the scene of everyone's former triumphs. The very first show of the festival, a matinee of the pro Pirates of Penzance. According to the programme, this show is directed by Gary Slavin, so I have some fairly high expectations (will he have the principals downstage center to sing?). He did not disappoint. Musical direction by Timothy Henty was similarly expert, as he kept the cast and orchestra together with only a couple of strayings (such as in Beautifully Blue The Sky, with the girls all the way upstage and less able to see him). Pace was maintained throughout the show, with rapid-fire dialogue never losing its crisp audibility.

Owing to an unfortunate loss of voice, Rebecca Bottone was unable to play Mabel, but as Ian Smith announced in front of the curtain, all the cast are excellent performers in their own right, and one of the chorus (Rebecca Moon) stepped up to take the role. I have no idea where she came from for her entrance - perhaps she was already in the chorus - very skilfully handled. She was a little weak in the "chook bit" and final cadenza in Poor Wandring One, but was otherwise excellent. Her place in the chorus was filled by an uncredited Rachel Middle, who at extremely short notice played the part smoothly - a highly competent stand-in.

The technical aspects of this show were well handled, although a few things had the feeling of the beginning of the season (there was a sudden and unexpected flash from one of the follow spots at the end of Cat-Like Tread). Lighting states mostly worked, but there were some persistent shadows downstage, and sometimes people were in shadow up on the rostra as well. But apart from that, everything was visible as it ought to be, and the second act starfield background was quite effective.

Act I opened with the pirates celebrating Freddy's birthday... by singing Happy Birthday quite flat. From there the show rollicked along as Pirates generally does, the pace being maintained through good tempi and machine-gun dialogue; we hardly got a chance to applaud after several numbers as the show just kept right on going. Diction was excellent all round, with special commendations going to Frederic (Jeremy Finch), the Pirate King (James Cleverton), and Samuel (Alastair McCall). In the audience were quite a few people who'd never seen Pirates of Penzance before, and they were laughing at all the jokes - every one of them was delivered audibly and with an excellent sense of comedic timing. Every ensemble number demonstrated an enviable precision and synchronization with the entire chorus moving exactly on the beat.

A number of the "classic" gags were abandoned (the Major-General having trouble with his rhymes was cut back severely), and new ones brought in to replace them. The Pirate King ascertained that it was half past eleven by gauging the direction of the wind, and when Samuel invited his compatriot to seize his dark lantern, the item in question was rolling down towards the orchestra pit - I don't know if that was deliberate or not, but it certainly made a lot of sense! Frederic and Ruth maintained their amusing byplay through all their scenes, but no matter what, they still managed to face the audience to sing - as did everyone.

Every member of the cast demonstrated excellent stagecraft and singing. I can't single out anyone in the chorus, as they all remained focused on the action, energetic, and enthusiastic (even gleeful, as the Stanley girls donned black armbands while singing "Go ye heroes, go and DIE!"); the harmonic balance was carefully maintained, with all parts audible in such as "Help! Oh, a tree!" and the counterpoint double chorus in Foeman's Steel. The stage was fully utilized, although there were occasions in the second act where things looked a little cramped downstage left; the cast had no trouble getting on and off stage in good time, avoiding the sloppiness of having three choristers still on stage when the dialogue implies that everyone's gone. Singers were downstage enough to be heard, even all the way up in the gallery.

The star-studded lineup of leads bears some noting. As mentioned above, Rebecca Bottone did not perform Mabel as listed in the programme, but Rebecca Moon gave an excellent rendition of the part. If we had not been told of the substitution, we would not have known that she hadn't been originally cast for the role; her top notes were ample for the part, and managed to break, if not the glass windows, then at least the nearby Frederic (Jeremy Finch); and his top notes were enough to break one of the girls, who swooned upstage while he sang downstage. Edith (Angela Simkin) and Kate (Melanie Lodge) carried their lines beautifully, holding harmonies and maintaining characters throughout their solos and the ensemble work; Edith and Mabel sang the "thirds apart chook bit" in the second act finale without a hint of rivalry. At the other extreme of vocal range, the Sergeant of Police (Bruce Graham) gave us a superb bass, backed by his half-dozen good basses, all of whom were crisp and accurate in their sung responses to Mabel's speech about Frederic. Comedic timing was in evidence everywhere but nowhere better than Simon Butteriss's Major-General Stanley during the Orphan/Often exchange with the Pirate King (James Cleverton). Again, rapid-fire dialogue kept the show from dragging, even through the dramatic-effect pauses. Ruth (Louise Crane) moved around the stage at a stride, able to get to exactly where she wanted to be at exactly the right time ("Let me tell you who they are" downstage center, immediately after entering stage right), and Samuel (Alastair McCall) didn't even need to move around the stage if he didn't want to - he could be heard just fine from anywhere. Excellent diction (oh, I already said that didn't I).

This is an excellent show; I am right glad to see it, and so's Michael. At the risk of sounding like an advert, I'll point out that there are several more performances coming up - tonight (as in, right about now), tomorrow, and a couple more in the coming weeks. Tickets are more expensive than they have been in previous years, but the show is well worth seeing. My heartiest congratulations to all involved.

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