“The Pirates of Penzance,” was first presented in 1879 at the 5th Avenue Theatre in New York. It was the first time a Gilbert & Sullivan production made its world premiere in the United States, the composers having learned their lesson from HMS Pinafore, which, due to the lack of American protection for British copyrights at the time, saw more piracy on the American stage than anything we see in “Penzance.” And so, this show had its official premiere in New York the day after a small performance at the Bijou Theatre in Devon, attended by about 50 people. It has been a favorite with theater audiences ever since.
Opera Pasadena gave their second performance of “Pirates of Penzance” on Sunday, September 1st. They presented the operetta “in concert,” which meant there was a single spare set and minimal staging for the principals, with the chorus flanking them on either side, a plant or two to hide behind (an important consideration in a farce, where overhearing and sneaking-up-on are essential traditions) and flats in back, with entrances side and center.
Franz Stary played Frederic, singing and acting effectively as the bright-eyed apprentice pirate who, as the show opens, is just now reaching his 21st birthday and, therefore, his emancipation from the Pirate crew. His maid, Ruth (Cynthia Nitrini Stary), informs the crew that Frederic’s apprenticeship was all an unfortunate misunderstanding, as his parents had asked her to apprentice him to a pilot, but Ruth, being hard of hearing, apprenticed him to a pirate. Frederic, who is a good fellow but a slave of duty, is anxious to leave the band and lead an upright life. Yet, as much as it pains him, his profound sense of honor requires him to hunt down and capture his former crewmates.
The Pirate King, well and broadly acted by Mark Goodman, is disappointed but understanding, this being a rather enlightened band of Pirates and in fact, a rather ineffectual one as well. As Frederic points out, they routinely lose to stronger enemies and, on principle, all being orphans themselves, they will never capture or kill an orphan because they “know what it is like to be an orphan boy.” Frederic explains that this information has gotten about and everyone they accost now seems, invariably, to be an orphan.
As he and Ruth prepare to depart, he asks her whether (and she assures him that, “yes”) she is beautiful, when suddenly young womens’ voices are heard and Major General Stanley’s daughters show up for some seaside bathing. After much silliness, Frederic falls for the genuinely beautiful and quite interested Mabel; then the pirates fall on them and capture all her sisters, only to release them a patter song and a conversation later, when the Very Model of a Modern Major General Stanley, drily played and well-sung by Donald Caldwell, informs them that, in fact, he too is an orphan.
Well, that’s the setup. The zany twists and turns in the story are driven by Frederic’s unquestioning but flip-flopping sense of duty and by revelations which come fast and furious, until all ends well for all concerned. And, as long as you can believe that a 21-year-old man who was born on leap year is actually 5 years and a bit, and men who have lived the bulk of their lives as pirates are actually noblemen “who have gone astray” and, having been so identified, can now go right back to their rightful places in the House of Lords, then it all makes perfect sense.
Cynthia Nitrini Stary played Ruth with a good heart and loyalty to Frederic – even if it was for her own motives. She represented the archetypical spurned mezzo/contralto of opera, who knows all and conveys Deep, Dark Secrets (as do Erda in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, Azucena in Il Trovatore, Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore), dropping her bombs of information with great timing and delivery. The Pirate King’s lieutenant, Samuel, was sung by Mark Nudelman, who also doubled as the Police Sergeant, making a good third low-voiced lead male. His consternation, as Mabel sent the police into battle, emphasizing their certain death at the hands of the pirates, was entertaining in itself. Brooke deRosa played Mabel straightforwardly as the ingénue she is, with excellent command of the role’s coloratura demands, her ornamentation suitably excessive and her high notes clear and ringing. Christa Stevens sang attractively in her solo turns, speaking for her sisters when they weren’t speaking for themselves.
The chorus is essential to Gibert & Sullivan, and both men and women were well-rehearsed and sang very well. They were (with the exception of the pirates and policemen, when they were part of the action) seated through the performance and had only their voices and faces with which to act. To their credit and to that of Carol Lande, their director, they were quite expressive under those circumstances, especially the women, when Frederic, in his quest for a mate, asks: “Is there not one maiden here whose homely face and bad complexion has already caused you to abandon all hope of winning a man’s affection?”
Opera Pasadena gave the show a spirited effort and succeeded in bringing it to life. They pared down the staging to just the principals in “concert” staging, but it was effective theatre, nonetheless. “Gilbert… sought realism in acting, just as he strove for realistic visual elements. He deprecated self-conscious interaction with the audience and insisted on a style of portrayal in which the characters were never aware of their own absurdity, but were coherent internal wholes.” Opera Pasadena took that directive to heart and the performers delivered their lines straightforwardly, without winking affectation, and the performance was the stronger for it.
The Music Director, Barbara Ebert, who furnished the solid piano accompaniment, was sensitive to the singers and propelled the show forward; the conductor, F. Scott Thomas, kept it all together. The Community Room of the South Pasadena Library was capable of handling the large audience, though the sound was not ideal – a bit muffled and occasionally the chorus’ lines were hard to decipher. In the interests of full disclosure, excellent cookies were available at intermission.
All in all, Opera Pasadena made the most of what they had, including a strong cast and a cohesive production crew, giving a creditable and entertaining “Pirates,” well worth the modest suggested donation.