Friday, May 31, 2013

Opera Theater St. Louis Presents "Pirates of Penzance"

     Well, OTSL - St. Louis' professional opera company has opened its brief season with a wonderful production of the Gilbert and Sullivan staple "Pirates of Penzance or the Slave of Duty."  I arrived at the theater kind of early so I went to the pre-performance lecture given by the rehearsal accompanist.  She did a nice job, she covered all the basics about the story of the creation of Pirates.  She left out that "Climbing Over the Rocky Mountain" was lifted from "Thespis" but I can't really criticize her for that.  Only the "inner brethern and sistern" of G&S fans really know that "Thespis" was written at all.  Much less that one great chorus was lifted by Sullivan and there are some who think that Sullivan may have lifted more than just the one chorus.  Well, I am not among those - but I digress as this is besides the point anyway. But, at some point during the talk she referred to G&S "fanatics" who "know all the shows by heart."  Guilty!  I proudly identify myself, since I am a proud member of savoynet and have been a G&S "fantatic since I was 10!
     One of the characteristics of G&S lovers (a better word than fanatic) is a deep love and respect for the text as written by Gilbert, the structure of the opera itself and the integrity of Sullivan's music and orchestrations.  I am happy to report that with one exception this production got A plusses all around on all of these issues.  The production was very traditional, not a word is cut or altered and all the songs are there.  The only disappointing exception was a cut at the very beginning as the overture - no "With Catlike Tread," no oboe cadenza and no "O Leave Me Not To Pine."  It was too bad.  I would have liked to have heard the SLSO's wonderful oboist Philip Roth play that cadenza and the following solo. I am not sure I get the point of the cut.  It's not like it takes a long time to play the whole overture. And they don't cut Mozart or Rossini overttures.  Besides, how often does one get to hear a great orchestra like the SLSO perform Sullivan?  Not very often!   Oh well.  I am happy to report, however, that they got the biggest dissapointment over with within the first 10 minutes and once the show started it was a terrific and completely traditional production.  There were lots of funny bits, some borrowed from other productions - but the choreography was fresh and fun.  
     But by far, the best thing about this production is the singing.  These singers are terrific - every single one of them - the smaller parts, like Samuel, Edith, Kate and Isabel, the chorus and all of the principals! The cast and chorus are top notch.  There is not a weak link among them.  For me I have to make special mention of Maria Zifchak as Ruth.  She is a regular compromaria at the Met in NYC and she is simply wonderful, both as a singer and actor.  Paired with Bradley Smoak as a wonderfully sonorous voiced Pirate King and heroic tenor Matthew Plenk as Frederick this trio was spectacular.  For me the highlight of the entire show was the "Paradox" scene because of these three. Deanna Breiwick was equally glorious as Mabel, and the slight improvisations to the cadenza of "Poor Wandering Ones" were clever and fun (think - flute - "Lucia di Lammermore").  Hugh Russell was acceptable as the Major General.  The tempo for the patter song was moderately fast, but the encore was a disappointment.  It seemed to me that they just returned to the regular tempo for the repetition of verse 3 for the encore.  I don't understand why they didn't double the tempo on it.  Anyway, for a G&S "Fanatic" it just wasn't quite patter enough. By the way - note to the costume designer - a Major-General has TWO stars not one!  Also the St. Louis Post-Dispatch complained about the uniform, they wanted the red dress uniform (which is traditional).  The khaki uniform, they said, seemed too informal.  Well, maybe, (how many real Major-Generals would go walking on the beach with their families wearing their dress uniforms? But this is Gilbert's Topsy-Turvy world after all!)  I do agree that the red might have made the entire entrance scene much flashier and helped him to make more of an impact on his entrance!
     Jason Eck was a good Sergeant of Police though he seemed to me to be more of a high baritone than a bass (what a beautiful upper register he has!)  But his lowest notes seemed a bit strained and difficult for him. He was funny enough in the role.  The chorus is glorious and the orchestra is - well - the orchestra is the St. Louis Symphony - what can you say - they are terrific.  The show was well paced and funny.  All around it was a great evening of Gilbert and Sullivan.  
     One last comment, in an earlier interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the director, Se├ín Curran, is quoted as saying that he had never seen a production of Pirates before he took on this project for OTSL. And so he came at the show fresh without any baggage from other productions.  Maybe that is true - certainly his choreography is fresh and fun.  But to be quite honest there were a lot of traditional bits in this show.  And that is ok - we G&S "fanatics" like to see certain bits - probably put in my George Grossmith - continued and we miss them when they are not there.  But if he had never seen the show before how did he know about these bits? Did he consult the Martyn Green commentary? Ok, but what about the all of the bits that came right out of the Papp production - and there were many! They were funny in Papp and they were funny here.  But how can he claim to have no knowledge of Papp yet use so much of Papp in the show?  Even the big surprise at the end (which I won't give away) - which was not in Papp - but if you have seen even a few other productions you will have seen this before. I have probably seen the bit maybe 2 or 3 other times.  It was funny and fun - but not new.  So, I wasn't sure what to make of the claim that was in the paper.  Maybe the cast put all these bits in - I don't know. 
     Ultimately I suppose it is not important.  For this Pirates is a great and fun show and I wholeheartedly encourage you to plan a trip to St. Louis to see it, if for no other reason than just to hear the score sung by these glorious voices.
     A final word: I noticed in the program that over the years OTSL has done Mikado, Pinafore, Gondoliers, Cox & Box and Trial as well as Pirates.  Maybe it is time for them to think out of the box and consider doing Yeoman, Ruddigore or Iolanthe!
     Anyway - GO SEE THIS - IT IS GREAT!
Martyn Green as Major-General Stanley - D'Oyly Carte Company - See what I mean about the red dress uniform!