San Diego Opera Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (San Diego Opera)

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by Milo Shapiro on October 16, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


San Diego Opera has come a long way since announcing in 2014 that, despite being the only opera company in the nation’s eighth largest city, it would be shutting down to avoid bankruptcy. Between a groundswell of support on crowdfunding, restructure of the organization, and some changes to the production choices, SDO held on and is back with their 2017-18 season.

One of their changes is to include selections and series that might have more popular appeal, with hopes of enticing new audiences to non-conventional opera (such as their next offering, As One, an operatic piece about a transsexual woman). Pirates of Penzance, a comedic opera entirely in modern English, makes opera accessible to those who might not feel ready to delve into heavier, classical operas in foreign languages.

The plot is inane and the satire, so cutting in Victorian days, means little to today’s spectators. Still, Arthur Sullivan’s music is superb and the lyrics delicious, though it takes a sharp ear to follow W.S. Gilbert’s rapid-fire libretto. The score almost feels like it was written recently as a period piece, but the show actually premiered in 1879.

Frederick (Mackenzie Whitney) has spent most of his young life as an apprentice upon a pirate ship. He is turning 21 and can finally leave the ship and its mangy staff, whose morals he abhors as an honest man. He has felt duty-bound, though, to fulfill his work contract to the final day, despite the fact that his indenture to them was a blunder of hearing: Long ago, his nurse Ruth (Luretta Bybee) misheard his late father say he should be a “pirate” rather than correctly as a “pilot.” Finally meeting women other than Ruth, he discovers that they do not find appeal in his having been a pirate. Eager to change his image and find true love with the gentler sex, he undertakes to bring down his former shipmates, showing his noble nature. From there, deceptions, devious plotting, and mockery of social order (including some lively bumbling by cowardly policemen) lead to the chaos that has made this show famous for over a century.

The performances here are excellent with beautiful crooning by Whitney. As Frederick’s love interest, Mabel, Maureen McKay—terrific in both dramatic range and comedic effect—produces pitch-perfect trills. Perhaps most memorable and certainly the most remarkable performance is Patrick Carfizzi as Mabel’s father, Major-General Stanley. In a show where the super-titles are still critical for clarity (despite the show being in English), one can make out every word of his rapid-fire patter in the tongue-twisting “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Even as the music crescendos, Carfizzi articulates with the speed of light.

But that script. Despite its longevity, it’s just ridiculous. Pirates satirizes the music of several opera composers of the day, as well as Victorian stage melodramas, but for today’s audience, it takes the suspension of disbelief for a long drive, taking turns that make no sense, before just careening off the cliff in the final scenes with a misogynist outcome that doesn’t fit a man who supposedly loves his daughters, even given the time period. In the end, it feels like Gilbert and Sullivan had five minutes to find a way to wrap it all up and improvised something ludicrous. Some might find the silliness delightful and perhaps the twists felt more right in their day, but the absurdity of it all kept me from being particularly invested in the characters, and the outcome feels like a throw-away—despite being sung with such passion and fine pitch (and the orchestral support, under conductor Even Rogister, is rich and masterful).

James Schuette’s costumes are a lovely spectacle. From the ragged pirates aboard the impressively staged ship (set also by Schuette) to the glorious fine ladies of the day who appear as if plucked from a Monet painting, Schuette transports us back to the nineteenth century. If you know the show already and love it, SDO’s production will not disappoint, but if this is your introduction to opera, I say don’t worry about the story and concentrate on the more than two dozen beautifully performed songs and an ample supply of comic foolery.

photos by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

The Pirates of Penzance
San Diego Opera
San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave
ends on October 22, 2017
for tickets, call 619.533.7000 or visit SD Opera

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