Utah Arts Review » Blog Archive » Utah Opera wraps up season with exuberant “Pirates of Penzance”

Craig Irvin (center) as the Pirate King in the Utah Opera production of Gilbert & Sullivan The Penzance Pirates. Photo: Douglas Carter

Utah Opera’s current season – its first live operas since the Covid-19 pandemic began two years ago – began with a comedy and ends with a comedy.

Like his goofy production of Rossini Barber of Seville last September, Gilbert & Sullivan’s smart and exuberant Utah Opera staging Pirates of Penzance, which opened on Saturday, filled a common need for a laugh in troubled times. The show also demonstrated that it is possible to be extremely funny while remaining true to the spirit of a classic operetta.

pirate performed by an opera company is a different experience from pirate performed by a theater group. A central pleasure of the show is hearing Sullivan’s refined and often beautiful melodies put to use for a broad farce, and it’s most effective with operatic voices singing those melodies.

Making his debut at the Utah Opera, John Riesen was perfectly chosen to play Frederic, the orphan who is learning to become a pirate. Riesen’s expressive voice was mannered in just the right way to reflect Frederic’s self-satisfaction, and as an actor he was fully committed to being “a slave to duty”. The seriousness he brought to his character’s moral dilemma propelled the show forward and heightened its humor. He also had real chemistry with Madison Leonard, who was gorgeous like his beloved, Mabel.

Leonard’s clear coloratura glided effortlessly over his melismatic entry, and his rendition of “Poor Wandering One” was spellbinding. His natural charisma was matched by his comedic timing; at the end of the second act, when Frédéric asked her to wait another 60 years for her, her little pause before realizing that it was really long, provoked a huge laugh.

Like Riesen, she took to motivating her character with the utmost seriousness. Not only did it make the comedic moments feel more real, but it allowed the actors to employ all the artistry at their disposal for the sublime duet “Oh, don’t let me languish” that was a highlight of the show.

One of the production’s few vocal disappointments was a number that’s usually jaw-dropping: “I’m the very model of the modern major general,” which Hugh Russel, in the eponymous role, performed too quickly and with almost diction. unintelligible. Other than that, Russel put on a delightful performance, capturing his character’s ridiculous smugness and acquitting himself well with his voice elsewhere.

Led by Kevin Nakatani as Police Sergeant, the cops were another charming ensemble, performing charming renditions of “When the Enemy Bares His Steel” and “When a Criminal Isn’t Committed to His Job.” Nakatani delivered the former convincingly, in a clean bass with a slight Scottish accent, with unease clearly visible on his face and in the way he and his cohort marched stiffly to the beat of their ‘taran-tara’. Instead of the abstract silliness with which some productions portray police officers, Nakatani and his team found the truth of their characters, as shy, soft-hearted bureaucrats facing unpleasant duty, which added to the charm and swagger. hilarity of the production.

The same could be said for Craig Irvin as The Pirate King. He wore red striped tights, a coat with tails and a giant top hat and delivered “Oh Better Far to Live to Live and Die” with swashbuckling panache, but under the trappings of piracy lay a decent man who had made a moral choice to become a pirate and who had a real concern and affection for his apprentice Frederic.

Some opera companies give in to the same temptation as community theater troupes to add extra bits of comedy that detract from the humor already inherent in Gilbert’s libretto. (Making the Pirate King a self-stabbing klutz seems like a favorite – thanks Kevin Kline.)

Director Kyle Lang wasn’t above comedic embellishments and a few cheap laughs in the Utah Opera production. In addition to dozens of silly sight gags, Saturday’s performance inserted jokes about Covid testing and missionary sisters. However, the free comics primarily grew out of plot and character, and accentuated the series’ innate humor rather than working against it. Lang paid attention to the music, which was always reflected in the movements of his actors. This was especially true in ensemble numbers.

As Ruth, Meredith sang with crisp, exaggerated diction and equally exaggerated gestures, which matched the rhythm of the song, and her impressive contralto voice filled the room and handled the phrasing with aplomb. She also showed acute comedic instincts in the next scene, in “Oh False One You Have Deceived Me”, as her character tried to stay chipper while absorbing Frederic’s harsh appreciation of her appearance.

The sets and costumes, designed by James Schuette, were what one would have imagined when the opera premiered in New York in 1879. A giant gold medallion with a skull and crossbones was attached atop red velvet curtains, which opened to reveal a mundane three-sided ship with an oversized pirate flag. Roughly painted blue waves on plywood denoted the ocean, and a few rocks and bits of vegetation on the yellow-and-white checkerboard floor denoted the beach. The graveyard comprising the second act featured tombstones made of polystyrene or foam rubber, which the characters moved around as needed to hide. Overall, the effect was charming, requiring just enough imagination from the audience and reminding them that this was a farce and not a serious drama.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who also conducted the season opener Hairdresser, did an admirable job in the pit, setting the tone with the seductive opening of the opera, capturing the spirit of the work with careful phrasing and crisp articulation. Its tempos were free, allowing singers to speed up or slow down depending on the action on stage. As mentioned above, there were moments of sublime musicality, including the duets of Frederic and Mabel, which Wedow led with subtlety and sensitivity.

The Penzance Pirates continues until May 15. utahopera.org

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