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Review: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” gets a rousing debut with the Atlanta Opera

The Pirates of Penzance is a light-hearted production of a classic story. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The Pirates of Penzance is a light-hearted production of a classic story. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The Pirates of Penzance is a light-hearted production of a classic story. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The Pirates of Penzance is a light-hearted production of the classic story. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

On Saturday evening the Atlanta Opera presented the opening night performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s two-act comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance. It is the company’s second main stage production of the 2015-16 season, the first time it has ever mounted Pirates, and the first Gilbert and Sullivan show to be performed at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Upcoming repeat performances are scheduled for tonight (Tuesday) and Friday evening, with afternoon matinees on both Saturday and Sunday.

Whether you call them comic operas or operettas, Gilbert and Sullivan’s stage works paved the way for modern musical comedy as we know it. The Pirates of Penzance, which premiered in New York City on New Year’s Eve of 1879, was their fifth collaboration.

The opera’s subtitle, The Slave of Duty, is appropriate, as that overarching Victorian-era British social more of “duty” is the bugaboo which underpins the plot’s premise and multiple twists. While this premise affects all of the opera’s main characters, it centers upon Frederic, who is released from a mistaken apprenticeship to a band of pirates at age 21. 

Once ashore he encounters Mabel, a daughter of Major-General Stanley. Frederic and Mabel fall instantly in love. Ah, but fate: Frederic learns he was born in a leap year, on February 29, the wording of his indenture agreement means he remains in the Pirate King’s until his “twenty-first birthday”– another 63 years. The increasingly tangled plot proceeds until a happy resolution for all is discovered in the end.

The stage of CEPAC’s John A. Williams Theatre, which seats 2,756, has a proscenium that is 50 feet wide and 31 feet high. Instead of using of the entire opening, this production makes use of a false proscenium, set back a few feet, designed to look very late 19th century, replete with its own red curtains. A gilded arch, with a skill and crossed swords at the keystone position, frames the reduced opening, which is about a little more than half the height of the stage’s proscenium proper and not quite as wide. 

Kevin Burdette brings a Johnny Depp vibe to the role of The Pirate King.
Kevin Burdette brings a Johnny Depp vibe to the role of the Pirate King.

Behind the false proscenium are nested several show portals, substituting for border and tab curtains, and groundrow. They are abstractly decorated like wallpaper with large diamond shapes, less like a relevant part of the set and more like endpapers in the binding of a storybook. Behind the final portal were the backdrops for each of the two acts: sun, puffy clouds and blue sky with whimsical cartoonish sea waves for Act I, and a deep, clear night sky filled with stars for Act II.

The non-realistic set works well for this ensemble piece, as does the stage direction by Seán Curran, a dancer-choreographer and artistic director of his own Seán Curran Company. No surprise, as so much of the staging involves dance or movement and occasional tableaux that might as well be dance. Guest conductor David Agler and the Atlanta Opera Orchestra underscore and support the show’s dancing and singing well.

As a whole, this performance of The Pirates of Penzance proves itself an entertaining, light-hearted romp that is not overly self-conscious.

Bass Kevin Burdette, as the Pirate King, is making his Atlanta Opera debut with this production of Pirates. One could easily imagine that Burdette is emulating Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, but without the dreadlocks or Depp’s mannerisms — even wearing a Willy Wonka-ish top hat in the second act. Nevertheless, Burdette brings his own sense of character and comedic range to the swashbuckling role.

Also making his Atlanta Opera debut, baritone Curt Olds portrays the eccentric Major-General Stanley, in a manner that seemed largely inspired by that of the late English actor George Rose in Joseph Papp’s early 1980s Broadway stage adaptation. This was most acutely so, down to the pith helmet and parasol, in the signature patter song, “I am the very model of a modern Major General,” even if a tad slower than Rose’s mitrailleuse delivery. Olds has also performed the role with Nashville Opera. 

Tenor Matthew Newlin, another newcomer to the AO stage, is convincing as the naïve, Candide-ish Frederic, whose devotion to duty is responsible for most of the plot’s twists and turns. Soprano Maureen McKay, who made her AO debut in 2008 as Lightfoot McLendon in Cold Sassy Tree, aptly portrays Frederic’s sympathetic young love interest, Mabel Stanley.

Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood is Ruth, Frederic’s proper English nanny who mistakenly apprentices an 8-year-old Frederic to a pirate then follows him onto the pirate crew. Bass-baritone Kyle Albertson is the bumbling, cowardly Sergeant of Police, who nevertheless does his service to duty and the law, however reluctantly.

Baritone Will Liverman ably portrayed Samuel, the Pirate King’s sincere, earnest lieutenant. Jasmine Habersham, Jessica Wax and Abigail Halon are cast as the minor roles of Edith, Kate and Isabel, three other daughters of Major-General Stanley. 

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