Operettas, as a general rule, don’t necessarily stand up well to the passage of time. There are exceptions to that rule, though, most notably the operettas of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their topsy-turvy world of words and infectiously tuneful music. Although the specific timeliness of Gilbert and Sullivan’s twisted premises has faded a bit, the comic satire that mocks false logic and humorous human conceits is as entertaining as ever. And the musical and theatrical potential has remained intriguing as well, particularly for U.S. opera companies looking for a lighter contrast to their more dramatic offerings. The Knoxville Opera Company production of The Pirates of Penzance, featuring David Keith as the Pirate King, certainly fell into that category.
Most Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have one role that is practically an open invitation to way-over-the-top comic campiness. In the case of The Pirates of Penzance, it’s the role of Major-General Stanley. In KOC’s production, Carroll Freeman, who also directed and choreographed, took the role of the Major-General and hit the perfect balance between flamboyant visual comedy, satire, and vocal delivery. His high-speed patter song, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,” was deliciously well sung, notwithstanding some amplification issues. It was gratifying to see Freeman, who has devoted himself to opera stage education for University of Tennessee singers, to once again be doing what he does so brilliantly—perform.
Exchanging the Major-General’s feathered chapeau for the director’s hat, Freeman exceeded even his usual levels of inventive and energetic staging. Even with minimal scenery, Freeman integrated the lead characters—the pirates, the policemen, and the Major-General’s daughters—into a fluid body of comic stage business and layer upon layer of group action that kept the audience’s eye moving.
Jokes of all sorts, of course, abound in the work; Gilbert’s pirate joke begins with the title. Penzance in Victorian England was a sleepy little resort town on the Cornwall coast—hardly an ideal spot for pirates of typical viciousness. Gilbert and Sullivan’s pirates, though, are less than typical having the comic flaw of a soft spot for orphans and the reluctance to attack anyone weaker than themselves. Keith, as the Pirate King, had a graceful swashbuckling swagger as well as fine comic timing. He had been upfront about being out of his vocal element amid opera-quality voices, but in fact, the role doesn’t necessarily require it. His stage presence more than made up for it.
The love-interest roles of Frederic and Mabel were taken by tenor Marc Schreiner and soprano Rachel Anne Moore, a seemingly perfect casting match. Schreiner’s height and boyish good looks were the ideal complement to his smooth, effortless delivery and clear lyrical tenor. Moore, a product of the UT Opera program, is on the verge of a fine career; she’s already a polished performer with a voice that is both powerful and flexible. Mabel’s aria “Poor Wandering One” was delightful as a parody of Italian coloratura, and in this staging, an unabashed reference to KOC’s last production, Lucia di Lammermoor. Poor Lucia must have misplaced her bloody garments.
Julian Rodescu’s bumbling and ample girth was a great sight gag as the Sergeant of Police, and his deep bass was solid. Unfortunately, due to some combination of diction, accent, and inflection, I couldn’t understand a single word of his song lyrics. In fact, the comic wordiness and intricacies of the Gilbert and Sullivan dialogue and lyrics are often obstacles for the audience in most productions; this is unfortunate since a whole level of carefully designed insinuation depends on catching most every word.
As one might expect, the secondary roles from members of the Knoxville Opera Studio were all well performed. Corinne Stevens was comically marvelous as the ample and “piratical” maid of all work, Ruth. Baritone Jesse Stock, as the Pirate lieutenant, is another performer to keep an eye on for the future. The Major-General’s vacuous daughters (Jessica Cates, Leah Kaye Serr, and Sarah Hoeppner) were vocally strong and appropriately ditzy. The choruses of policemen, pirates, and daughters were, as is usual in KOC productions, vocally robust and filled with a wealth of individual comic detail.
Thankfully Sullivan’s orchestration isn’t unduly arduous. Knoxville Opera Music Director Brian Salesky ably conducted an adequate orchestra consisting mostly of players imported from Chattanooga.