“Profoundly trivial” – a most ingenious paradox - certainly applies to The Pirates of Penzance. Librettist William S. Gilbert was drawn to the idea of sea-faring characters (his father was a Naval surgeon), whether the pirates of Penzance or sailors of H.M.S. Pinafore, his previous operetta.
Perhaps he found it easier to poke fun at Victorian institutions through characters presumed to flout society's rules. But the pirates of Penzance are no ordinary pirates. Their rough exterior belies the fact that they are too tender-hearted to make piracy pay. Poor fellows! Their code of honor forbids the capture of orphans. Aware of this loophole, many of their victims claim to be orphans to avoid captivity. Furthermore, as a matter of policy, the pirates never attack a weaker enemy. That just wouldn't be cricket. In short, these brash buccaneers prove more honorable than members of polite society. That is the point.
In Act I, the Pirate King (baritone Todd von Felker), rejects an offer to return to “civilization”. “I don't think much of our profession,” he explains, “but contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest.” Gilbert, a victim of literary piracy, may have devised this barb with certain American theatrical producers in mind, those who profited handsomely from mounting purloined versions of his previous hit, H.M.S. Pinafore in the States without paying royalties due to lax international copyright laws.
The Pirate King's comment is followed by “Oh Better Far to Live and Die” (I am a Pirate King), a rollicking, toe-tapping romp. Who could condemn these free spirits? Von Felker shines as the bewhiskered King with rich baritone delivery and infectious joie de vivre.
Victorian society isn't the only source of mockery in Penzance. As Union Avenue Opera's production demonstrates, Gilbert and Sullivan also lampoon quaint conventions of opera. In their romantic aria, “Poor Wandering One,” the soprano eagerly offers her heart to one who is forced to wait in agony for some gesture of affection while she persists in trilling with elaborate embellishment. Naturally, he is too courteous to shout, “Shut up and kiss me!”
The two lovers are Mabel (Victoria Botero), the boldest daughter of Major-General Stanley (Andrew Papas), and Frederic (Robert Boldin), a likable young pirate's apprentice, accidentally indentured to the aforesaid crew. Botero and Boldin enunciate clearly. Their voices merge with pleasing musical effect.
UAO's supertitles make it easy to follow the songs and recitatives. Despite my familiarity with the libretto, I find the supertitles valuable, considering Gilbert's elaborate rhetoric. Sometimes it's difficult to determine when his language is purposely overblown. It clearly is inflated in Stanley's “Sighing Softly to the River,” a spoof of pastoral odes. The dialogue in UAO's production is difficult to hear in the balcony. Supertitles are not used for unaccompanied dialogue, which I find unfortunate.
Here's the synopsis: Act I opens with the pirate ship approaching a rocky seashore near Cornwall. Frederic's indenture is set to expire on his forthcoming 21st birthday. At that time, he intends to abandon his shipmates and, as a loyal British subject, destroy them completely.
Once aground, Frederic encounters “a bevy of beautiful maidens,” seven dainty sisters. He desperately wants to marry, well Ä¶ any of them and pleads accordingly. There are no takers. He revises his entreaty to encourage any sister “whose homely face and bad complexion / Have caused all hopes to disappear / Of ever winning man's affection.” Still not takers until sister Mabel, a real looker, appears out of the blue and claims Frederic. Presently, the pirates sneak ashore and snatch the other sisters for brides. Catastrophe appalling!
Major-General Stanley suddenly emerges. When he spies his virginal daughters surrounded by a scruffy group of strange men, he responds, as any father would Ä¶ by singing a rapid-fire patter song for his own amusement: “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”. In this production, the famous song is fraught with needless stage business, designed, presumably to illuminate some of the more obscure references, but patter songs favor style over substance. In any case, the substance of this song is largely irrelevant.
When Stanley completes his divertissement, he investigates the plight of his girls with respect to the legendary pirates of Penzance. He claims to be an “orphan boy” to dissuade them from making off with his beloved daughters. The trickery works until Stanley's deceit is discovered and the pirates vow revenge on the Major and his daughters.
The daughters are clad in exquisite pastel confections when we meet them, each wearing a different color, thanks to costume designer Teresa Doggett. It helps distinguish every girl. Doggett's choice is wise, aesthetically appealing and not as obvious as you may imagine.
Frederic summons the local authorities to apprehend the pirates. In a memorable stage entrance, the police march in formation and singing the delightful “When the Foeman Bares His Steel”(Tarantara). They beat their chests and continue tarantara-ing in perfect military cadence. What they lack is courage, but who cares when they can sing with such conviction?
The Stanley sisters stand ready to encourage the force, melodically urging them on to battle. Their rousing song begins, “Go ye, heroes, go to glory / Though you die in combat gory” and proceeds in a similar vein. Their enthusiasm serves only to intensify the trepidation of the men.
This superb scene is one of my favorites. It is satisfying on multiple levels. Gilbert's innate sense of theatricality provides a visual juxtaposition (sturdy uniformed men and dainty young ladies) to enhance the extraordinary lyrical and musical counterpoint of the two groups. It is perfectly staged and the expertise of conductor Scott Schoonover is evident.
A similar visual effect is achieved in “With Catlike Tread,” contrasting the swaggering ragtag pirates with the cowering, yet well-groomed police force.
Both scenes demonstrate Gilbert's sophisticated use of chorus members who function as dramatic characters rather than detached choristers.
Absurd twists of plot ensue while ludicrous characters cavort – yes, cavort - and warble for our amusement. New revelations lead to a happy ending which conveniently skirts pertinent moral issues, but let's leave the moralizing and gloom to Gilbert's contemporary playwright Henrik Ibsen in Norway.
The Pirates of Penzance runs through a July 18, 2010 matinee at Union Avenue Christian Church, located at 733 Union Blvd 63108. Information is available on http://unionavenueopera.org/ or by calling 314-361-2881.