Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Portand Opera launches Pirates of Penzance in high gear

Ryan MacPherson as Frederic, Talise Trevigne as Mabel and the
cast of Portland Opera's The Pirates of Penzance, 2014. ©Cory Weaver/
Portland Opera
Silliness and buffoonery reigned supreme in the opening night performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” presented by Portland Opera, at the Keller Auditorium on Friday, May 9th. Pirates scurried about, young Victorian ladies were prim and proper, and English Bobbies camped it up like the Keystone Cops. The high spirits of this production were inspired by the directions of Bill Rauch, who is the artistic director the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The production also marked the first ever collaboration between Portland Opera and the OSF. Rauch and his OSF team had mounted a highly successful production of “The Pirates of Penzance” two years ago in Ashland, the home-base of the festival. This same production, with some augmentation by Portland Opera and the Oregon Ballet Theatre, was the one that was featured at the Keller.

The whimsical mood of this performance was established with paper seagulls flying overhead at the beginning of the first act and bats in the second. Row boats and boulders were maneuvered about by tuxedo-clad servants. The stage was extended forward, covering much of the orchestra, and that allowed the pirates to drop an anchor into the orchestra pit.

The piratical nonsense was led by an athletic and swashbuckling Daniel Okulitch as The Pirate King. Sometimes his spoken lines were a bit difficult to follow because of the odd accent he used. Ryan MacPherson more than held his own as Frederic, the pirate apprentice and self-confessed “slave of duty.” MacPherson’s warm and virile tenor voice sounded excellent and balanced well with Talise Trevigne’s sparkling soprano in the role of Mabel. Trevigne created the vocal highlight of the evening with superb ornamentation of the high notes in “Poor Wandering One,” and the audience rewarded her with extended enthusiastic applause and cheers.

Robert Orth blustered, bantered, and cajoled his way across the stage as Major-General Stanley, but his delivery of the famous patter song, “I am the very model of a modern major general” was a little out of sync because he had to start it from the back of the stage. He also only did it only the fast version, rather than twice (first slow and then fast), which could have helped to counter the distance problem.

As Ruth, the pirate wench, Cindy Sadler used her comic prowess to swab the decks and make her case for marrying Frederic. Kevin Burdette’s Sergeant of Police was a scream with his booming bass voice and incredible repertoire of facial expressions and body language generating buckets of laughter.

Nicole Haslett, Melissa Fajardo, and Shalanda Sims held their own as Major General Stanley’s daughters, but they needed to sing just a little louder. The chorus sounded glorious under the expert coaching of Nicholas Fox.

Conductor Daniel Gary Busby paced the orchestra well, but needed to lower the volume a bit more for some of the singers. Set designs by Michael Ganio worked well on the stage of the Keller, and costumes by Deborah M. Dryden fashioned the show firmly in the Victorian era. Electronic amplification was used whenever text was spoken, and that worked fairly well most of the time, but now and then it was difficult to hear the voices clearly.

Sullivan’s score contains parodies of other composers, most notably Verdi, and a couple more may have been thrown in for good measure. In any case, there were take-offs on Wagner’s “Die Walkure,” Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Tosca,” “O Sole mio,” the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s “Carmen,” Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and even Gregorian chant. Staying true to the parod-isiatic impulse, the music took detours into more modern styles such as swing, pop, gospel, Caribbean, and rap. Gilbert and Sullivan would have surely approved.

Rauch cleverly steered the action into all sorts of risible situations, such as parasols against pistols, and policemen hiding behind props that are then hijacked by the pirates so that they can hide behind them. But the best one was the tableau in which the Bobbies, with their billy clubs extended, surrounded the pirates, who had their collective weaponry aimed at the Major General. Memorable scenes, such as these, plus the singing in the production, made “The Pirates of Penzance” a real joy. Hopefully, Rauch will be able to return and direct another show in the near future.
Daniel Okulitch as The Pirate King, Kevin Burdette as
the Sergeant of Police and Ryan MacPherson as Frederic in Portland Opera's
The Pirates of Penzance, 2014. ©Cory Weaver / Portland Opera 

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