Verse writer William S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan were to late 19th century British and American audiences as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were to mid 20th century ones of both countries. The former pair produced operettas and the latter American musicals, the genre name being rather arbitrary. Both sets of stage works involve action, hijinks, love, romance and implied sex - with musical numbers and much spoken dialogue blended. For present-day sensibilities, Gilbert and Sullivan's hijinks may seem a bit over the top, but their parodies on British mores struck home, big time, with their audiences.
Nowadays, Gilbert and Sullivan's work has evolved into a distinct musical-theater art. And it is the art patrons who continue to be strongly attracted to it - no better example existing than the pair's 1879-written The Pirates of Penzance
, just given its second Indianapolis Opera production, 19 years after its first one, last Friday and Sunday. Surprisingly, America (New York City) hosted the work's official world premiere.
Making his IO debut, stage director Bill Fabris must be hailed foremost as the person who put this production together nearly flawlessly. He choreographed the respective choruses of pirates, young maidens and policemen to the last farthing - as the British would say. They each, or all, entered, did their thing and exited like parts of a well-oiled machine. Guest conductor William Boggs led the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra as another part of that machine, the players mostly spot on with the singers/dancers.
Young Frederic, the Slave of Duty (the work's alternate title), was well sung by IO newcomer Matthew Chellis, the pirate apprentice. Sheltered from young women till his 21st year, Frederick knew only Ruth, his considerable elder, as the embodiment of womanhood. Sung by Jennifer Roderer, she was more a vocal actor than a pure singer.
When Major-General Stanley's daughters and the young ladies attendant to them made their entrance, Frederic realized what he had been missing, and he was at once attracted to daughter Mabel, very well sung by soprano Heather Buck. Their several duets served as the best examples of Sullivan's lyric prowess. Mezzo Joanne Um, singing the role of sister Edith, also impressed.
IO veteran Robert Orth sang the Major-General, getting as deep into the character as he has in previous appearances (e.g. the title role in The Barber of Seville
), in addition to revealing some physical prowess (i.e. doing the splits) we may not have expected. His well known patter song, "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," was deftly handled. Sean David Anderson provided another strong character as the Pirate King, defined as much by his elaborate costume as other aspects of his persona. Tyler Oliphant as the Sergeant of Police sang with a small but insouciant voice; it barely projecting off the stage.
The IO chorus had their share of well managed tunes, certainly the most popular being "Come friends, who plow the sea," much better known to Americans as "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" - first hinted at during the Pirates' Overture.
Set designer Chris Clapp did a splendid job with a rocky cove in Act 1 and the Major-General's ancestral tomb in Act 2. Vividness defined the colors of both costumes and sets.