“The Pirates of Penzance” – Arizona Opera

This review aired on KBAQ October 25, 2010


Arizona Opera, Symphony Hall
Phoenix, AZ

When Gilbert and Sullivan operettas premiered in the late 19th century, they were theatrical revolutions. For the first time, contemporary theater included pointed political slams. Today, these now creaky shows don’t have the sting they once had and the sing songy music isn’t as pleasing. The silly stories now plod, and, while a few political jabs are still potent, they represent a distant historical time without much relevance today.

For a Gilbert and Sullivan piece like Arizona Opera’s weekend staging of “The Pirates of Penzance” to keep audiences entranced, it needs a wild theatrical flair and constant comic malarkey. Fortunately, Arizona Theatre Company’s artistic director David Ira Goldstein, marking his Arizona Opera debut, brought this skill and it helped the production.

But even Goldstein’s directorial merriment and singers who brought fine voices and playful irreverence to the now starchy characters couldn’t conquer a production too steeped in operatic pomposity and straddled with a colorless and badly designed physical production borrowed from Opera Carolina. Therefore, Goldstein’s latest “Pirates” production didn’t have the sharp comedic zing that the same show had when he staged it several seasons back for ATC.

The other negative was Arizona Opera artistic director Joel Revzen’s stodgy conducting that failed to make the blithe and witty score effervescent and bubbly. From the overture’s downbeat, Revzen’s conducting was stymied in stuffy formality so he never got much sparkle or delight out of the orchestra.

The story tells of Frederic’s apprenticeship with pirates. He discovers Mabel when the Pirates confront and do battle with a Major-General who has a bunch of daughters including his lady love. Although the pirates win, they renounce their evil ways and marry all the Major-General’s daughters.

Goldstein’s light, comic touch helped make the production sail comically and the singers did their best with Goldstein’s witty shenanigans. Unfortunately, the lengthy dialogue sections weren’t always understandable. Sarah Jane McMahon’s sparkling Mabel, complete with wickedly funny splits to end a song, couldn’t have been better vocally or comically. Brian Anderson sounded great as Frederic but he never succeeded in making his character really funny. Curt Olds was a daffy Pirate King and Steven Condy was a hoot as the overbearing Major-General. The ensemble strutted around with comic mischievousness.

Arizona Opera’s “The Pirates of Penzance” tried and sometimes succeeded in bringing comic flair to make the operetta fun. Too often, though, it got scuttled in haughty grand opera musical pretentiousness and the production’s dreadful physical look detracted. This “Pirates of Penzance” closed October 24. For tickets to future Arizona Opera productions, call the Arizona Opera box office at 602-266-7464 or order tickets online at www.azopera.org.

Grade: C