07 May 2007

The Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance
Opera Australia
17 May 2007
The State Theatre, The Arts Centre

There were cat calls, hollers and whoops of joy from the audience.  Most knew every lyric, were humming in the foyer and just itching to sing along. It wasn’t a midnight performance of Rocky Horror – this was Australian Opera presenting The Pirates of Penzance.

A Gilbert and Sullivan opera is as English as a white bread sandwich or egg and chips. By no means sophisticated or original, but an enjoyable favourite, that many like to orphan indulge in.

The plot resolution is shocking, the characters lack substance and there are no surprises. Nonetheless, the paradox is that 75, 000 people have seen this production since it opened last year.

Opera Australia’s new production of Pirates is simply perfect for their audience. It’s not an especially creative re-interpretation of a classic work. I’m sure it could be an intelligent musing about rejection and the impermanence of beauty, or even a sensible exploration of sense of duty. However, it wouldn’t be filling the State Theatre. G&S fans know what they like and this production serves it up in great big splendid bucketfuls.

It is all a bit of joke, but it really doesn’t matter, because the audience are not only complicit in the joke, but would be horrified if anyone really took it too seriously.

As expected from a company of this calibre, the casting in excellent. Reg Livermore was born to be a G&S comic and his Modern Major General is the very model. Suzanne Johnston’s Ruth is a balance between crone and emancipated, hot 40 something and Taryn Fiebig brings a subtle, and appreciated, depth to Mabel. The chorus is cast with some of the best young singers, who I’m sure we will see as principals in years to come.

It is, it is a glorious thing to be Johnny Depp. Tradition asks directors to follow Gilbert’s lead and have characters as parodies of prominent public figures. So, I suppose the Pirate King being based on Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean is fair. But it isn’t really a parody, as much as an impersonation. Anthony Warlow does it rather wonderfully, yet it is also a glorious thing to be Anthony Warlow, and I would have liked to see a touch more originality.

Richard Roberts design is simple, iconic and delightfully ironic. With a rake, a proscenium of light globes and cartoon ships that wheel on and off the billowy waters, this design shows how to have a lot of fun with tradition and still create something of beauty in its own right.

If you like G& S, this is unmissable. If you’re hesitant about opera, but like a good musical, you’ll probably love Pirates and want to see more and more. Sullivan’s melodies are memorable and Gilbert’s eloquent diction creates a delightful fiction. The best thing about having surtitles was being able to read the wit and wordplay (and look out for the surtitle joke in ACT 2).

At the end of the night, everyone had a lot of fun. Pirates is G&S designed, directed and performed very, very well and the audience loved it. Hurrah for Opera Australia.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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