Just as people are breaking out the Battenberg cakes and Victoria sponge to celebrate the royal wedding, Toronto Operetta Theatre has whipped up the perfect musical confection to add to the festivities. What better way to celebrate the monarchy than Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance where the villains of the title are vanquished “Because, with all their faults, they love their Queen?”
As the TOT demonstrated with its production of The Mikado in 2008, the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas gain immeasurably when sung by operatic voices. While we can easily recognize the topsy-turveydom of Gilbert’s humour, operatic voices help reveal Sullivan’s abundant musical humour. In Pirates, Mabel’s coloratura runs and attraction to echoing the flute parody Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, while Frederic’s declaration “I love you” at the end of “Oh, is there not one maiden breast” alludes to Wagner’s Tannhäuser--with the further joke that the murderous Lucia and sex-crazed Tannhäuser would hardly make an ideal couple.
Director Guillermo Silva-Marin and his excellent cast and the TOT Orchestra under Robert Cooper bring out all the humour of the piece--both verbal and musical--making the operetta a delight from beginning to end. In fact, I haven’t heard a Pirates this well sung and played since the New D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s production at the Savoy in London in 1989.
Chief among Silva-Marin’s discoveries for this production are Ryan Harper as Frederic and Jessica Cheung as his beloved Mabel. Harper has the pure rounded tone of a classic English tenor and is the most expert in the cast of delivering Gilbert dialogue with the clear diction and artificial naïveté so characteristic of young lovers in G&S. It’s wonderful to hear a real coloratura soprano sing Mabel. Cheung tosses off the many runs Sullivan giver--plus the many more that Silva-Marin adds--with accuracy and aplomb. The interpolation of music from Lucia only makes clear Sullivan’s point of reference. Cheung humorously acquired a glazed look as the flute attracts her into ever more daring vocal acrobatics and Mabel forgets that anyone else is about. Together their voices blended perfectly for the duet “Ah, leave me not to pine.”
The most famous member of the cast is Jean Stilwell playing Frederic’s addled nursery maid Ruth. Given the beauty of Stilwell’s voice it’s a pity that G&S don’t give Ruth a showier song, as they would later do for the contralto character of the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe or Katisha in The Mikado. The main problem is that Stilwell looks nothing like a plain and aged woman for whom Frederic should conceive such an aversion. In fact, Stilwell is quite glamorous in her pirate gear.
Baritone David Ludwig gives us an unusual take on Major-General Stanley. Instead of being proud and pompous, Ludwig’s Major-General seems to have his head in the clouds as much as his daughter, Mabel. He sings that he’s “teeming with a lot o’ news” about binomial theorem, so his portrayal as a retiring, trivial-gathering academic does make sense. It also finally makes sense of the theoretical shame he feels in Act 2 vis-à-vis his acquired ancestors that rarely works. Under Silva-Marin’s direction the well-known “orphan/often” misunderstanding between Stanley and the Pirate King that so often falls flat not only works but is hilarious.
Bass-baritone Christopher Wilson makes an enthusiastic and full-voiced Pirate King and shows a real knack for comedy. Two TOT regulars--Lise Maher as Mabel’s friend Edith and Jeffrey Saunders as a young tap-dancing Sergeant of Police--both enhance the evening's fun.
Silva-Marin has become an expert in staging operetta. He give the Major-General an extra stanza concerning the upcoming election and makes Ruth long for a royal wedding, but otherwise leaves the text alone. His set of artfully draped, sail-like fabrics suggest the sea, trees on the beach or the cobwebs of Stanley’s ruined chapel depending on his lighting. He brings out swaths of green cloth to rise and falls like waves about the Major-General in “Sighing softly to the river” and turns a song that seems too often an unnecessary delay in the action into one of the show’s highlights.
Conductor and chorus director Robert Cooper also deserves much credit for the show’s success. Under his baton the 12-member TOT Orchestra plays with delightful crispness and sounds like a palm court orchestra of the highest order. The chorus sings with great precision and really shines in the wonderful a cappella exclamation “Hail, Poetry”. In Sullivan’s favourite device of contrapuntal choruses the singers’ diction is so clear you can actually make out the both sets of words sung simultaneously. By putting the music first, the TOT yet again shows off not just Gilbert and Sullivan, but operetta itself, in the best possible light.