30 November 2009: Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

Valley Light Opera, Amherst Regional High School. Music director: Joseph Sabol; stage director and choreographer: Graham Christian

One of the strongest and most pleasurable and joyful productions ever mounted by the Valley Light Opera. A uniformly strong singing cast, skillfully and imaginatively directed and choreographed, and musically very well prepared. This was opening night, and one expects a little unevenness, a few glitches here and there, and perhaps even some noticeable flaws or problems with timing. There was virtually none of this, much to my amazement and delight. I have known the Valley Light Opera from its very beginnings in 1975, and should mention that I have myself performed with this company many times. (Full disclosure: I tried out for the part of the police sergeant, but was beaten out by another long-term company veteran, Steve Morgan, who had a better low E.) The casting of principals was almost uniformly strong. The most difficult role to cast in any G. & S. show is the leading tenor role. Tenors, everywhere you look, are in notoriously short supply. The one they found to play Frederic, Michael Holt, was a less than perfect fit: his higher register was there, admittedly, but a bit on the thin side; and his acting in Act I was rather wooden and unexpressive (perhaps he was just nervous) — but, somewhat to my surprise, he came alive in Act II. In particular he held up his part in the trio, simply yet very effectively staged by Graham Christian in a series of three-part lateral movements across the stage, two characters moving backwards and propelled by the third character moving forwards — a refreshingly apt way of emulating in movement the three verses of the musical piece, in which each principal takes a turn.

The stage was nearly flooded with people, and initially I had some doubt that the total absence of risers would make it difficult to see people behind other people; moreover, the director tended to bring people whether chorus or principals well downstage and even onto the apron outside the proscenium wall (in the case of the bumbling police constables during the hilarious conflicts of police and pirates in Act II). Somehow, the absence of risers posed no problems at all, and from my vantage point in the middle of row J I had no trouble seeing anyone and everyone. Nor did I have trouble hearing anyone and everyone, partly thanks to the two microphones standing in the orchestra pit at the edge of the stage, and partly to the placing of the choruses so close to the downstage edge. It was even true that problems with diction, perennial with this company, were less in evidence than in any show of recent memory.

The setting was evocative of the Victorian toy theater, and succeeded well, particularly in the setting for Act II, outdoors among the wooded ruins of the estate Major General Stanley has purchased. Because this is a night scene through the entire act, the scenery, consisting of tall wings in parallel left and right, was painted in a greenish hue, outlined in black, in such a way as to be instantly familiar and authentic-looking for anyone who knows about the visual delights of toy theater. The setting for Act I, a daytime scene on the coast of Penzance, also looked authentic but was, I thought, a little thin on substance. One major addition was an air balloon (complete with the sound effect of heating air) which, in Act I, delivered Major General Stanley to the remote location where his numerous daughters are taking a holiday, and, in Act II, comes in once again at the end to take Mabel and Frederic off toward their much-wished-for connubial bliss. The balloon was fully two-dimensional, a lively seeming-cutout, gaily painted. Its arrival in Act I drew audible gasps of pleasure from the audience, even while the chorus was a little behind in clearing the sight-line we needed to view the arrival of the Major General on the stage. I tend to notice such things, having had my own difficulties with sightlines on this smallish stage, usually overcrowded with singers, as a director of more than one previous Valley Light Opera show. But, I must add, I noticed very little in the way of such glitches and was generally feeling very appreciative and just plain pleased with the high, almost professional polish that this production had in its first public performance. It was joy writ large.

Let me add a comment on the magnificent costumes worn by the daughters and their custodians. Evidently there was such a wealth of good voices in the tryouts that the stage and music directors decided to make both a cohort of daughters and a cohort of more elderly or otherwise secondary female personages. The result was that Elaine Walker and her fellow costumers must have worked like Trojans from Elaine’s wonderful designs of 1870’s dresses, with full bustles, to generate highly individualized yet stylishly consistent full-length dresses with an authentic look and yet flexible enough to allow the kind of brisk choreography and swift movement, circular or otherwise, that Graham Christian happily devised for them. The one costume I liked a little less well was Mabel’s, which featured a kind of apron-length over-skirt, which may have been quite authentic but which looked a little too much like an actual apron.

In short, I cannot say enough good about this production and its intelligent, highly competent, and yet totally unpedantic reading of what the director calls in his program note “a perennially popular effervescent romp.” He understood Gilbert’s book and libretto and Sullivan’s joyful music perfectly well, to the extent of appreciating its generic complexity as a parody of all that is ludicrous and patently artificial, yet totally enjoyable and satisfying, in Italian grand opera. There is nothing so very British about this kind of warmhearted mockery, which loves best the very thing it most pointedly mocks. A fine, well rehearsed orchestra, capably led by the music director, who after participating in the casting, came back in late in the game, taking over for two veterans, Susanne Anderson and Theodore Blaisdell, billed as assistant music directors in the program, who made it their business to prepare the singers. This system, new to Valley Light Opera with this production, appears to work very well and should be invoked again next year.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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