Pirates, policemen and patriotic persuasion in, er, Penzance? – no, Wellington!

Wellington G&S Society presents:

GILBERT AND SULLIVAN – The Pirates of Penzance

Cast :  Colin Eade (Major-General Stanley) / Derek Miller (The Pirate King) / Keith Hobden (Samuel, his lieutenant) / Jamie Young (Frederic) /  Lindsay Groves (Police Sergeant) / Tania Parker-Dreaver (Ruth, a piratical Maid) / Hannah Jones (Mabel) / Megan McCarthy (Edith) / Laura Dawson (Kate) / Pasquale Orchard (Isabel)

Choruses – Pirates, Policemen, General Stanley’s other daughters.

Music Director: Matthew Ross

G&S Orchestra and Chorus

Chorus Master: Hugh McMillan

Stage Director: Gillian Jerome

Wellington Opera House

Wednesday 12th September, 2012

It wasn’t the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last – the thought “what terrific tunes these are” struck me freshly with resounding force as I listened to the Wellington Gilbert and Sullivan Society Orchestra’s neat and stylish playing of “The Pirates of Penzance” Overture, which began one of the season’s performances of the work in the Wellington Opera House.

As with all great music, one never seems to tire of hearing those melodies, in this case expertly brought into being by the orchestra under their Music Director Matthew Ross.  I remember being impressed with his direction of last year’s “HMS Pinafore” by the Society, and hearing “Pirates” this time round confirmed the impression I got that musically, at any rate, these performances were in reliable, well-considered hands.  The opening Pirates’ chorus went with a swing, as did Keith Hobden’s enthusiastic singing as Samuel, the pirate lieutenant, an occasional approximately-pitched note notwithstanding.

Tanya Parker-Dreaver made a characterful Ruth, her diction in particular an absolute delight throughout her tale of woe relating to her confusing the words “pilot” and “pirate”. Other characters such as Jamie Young’s Frederic and Derek Miller’s Pirate King looked impressive, but sounded happier and more at ease during their songs than with the dialogue, which in places came across as rather too sing-song. However, considering that Frederic was supposed to be “the Slave of Duty”, Jamie Young’s engagingly whole-hearted delivery of his dialogue fitted the ingenuousness of the character, even if his post-bevy-of-beauties dismissal of Ruth’s claims upon his affections could have been put across with a bit more Verdian gusto.

The agents of Frederic’s initiation regarding truly feminine charms – the Major-General’s beautiful daughters – were themselves delightful, moving and singing with engaging girlishness (I particularly liked the sound of Laura Dawson’s Kate), though a disappointment at the conclusion of “Climbing over Rocky Mountain” was the loss of intertwining-melody at the end, where we expected to hear the opening tune counterpointing with “Let us Gaily Tread the Measure” – I could only hear the latter, admittedly sounding forth splendidly and sonorously.

Though Frederic needed a bit more spunk when first confronting the girls, his appeal to their hearts for love was nicely sung, apart from some strain at the song’s highest notes – the sudden arrival of Mabel, the eldest daughter, was well managed, Hannah Jones properly owning the stage and her part on it, despite a soubrettish tone that hardened whenever she pushed her voice – her soft singing was simply lovely.

From the sudden arrival of the pirates, intending to kidnap the girls, through the Major General’s own entrance and patter-song, up to the pirates releasing the girls in response to their father’s falsely-constituted plea for mercy, the action went with a hiss and a roar. Particularly impressive was the Major-General, Colin Eade, whose energy, focus, delivery and general bearing associated with the character compelled attention from his first entry. His near sotto-voce reprise of the famous patter-song, prompted by the Pirate King, caused much merriment, innocent and otherwise!

But director Gillian Jerome’s stagings whirled the story along nicely as the end of the Act loomed, the often/orphan sequences amusingly dealt with, and the Major-General’s “orphan-boy” song filled with Victorian pathos, the perfect foil to the “I’m telling a terrible story” asides. The ritualistic splendor of “Hail, Poetry!” made its proper impact, and the final ensemble conveyed a happy amalgam of exuberance and relief.  Again, only Ruth’s final dismissal by Frederic lacked sufficient sting, an important exchange in view of Act Two’s change in Frederic’s fortunes.

Act Two’s “ruined chapel” scenario I thought could have been used more theatrically in places, especially the frequent comings-and-goings of both pirates and policemen leading towards the story’s would-be murderous climax – I thought some entrances and exits too literally applied, with opportunities for amusing juxtapositionings of the adversaries not really taken – when the police sang, towards the end, “Yes, we are here, though hitherto concealed!” one did something of a head-scratch, as they had been in full view for some time. Lacking weight of numbers the Policemen were somewhat disadvantaged right from the beginning, though vocally they made a good fist of their “We cannot understand it at all” recitatives. And, as the Police Sergeant, Lindsay Groves led his constables with nicely equivocal authority, readily displaying a soft-hearted interior, and a none-too-convincing bravado.

In places throughout the Second Act I thought music director Matthew Ross’s tempi a tad hasty, denying the characters the chance to fill out their tones and fully savour their words – The Pirate King’s and Mabel’s vengeful “Away, away!” upon hearing of Major-General Stanley’s deception I thought too rushed throughout the “Tonight he dies” sequences, the words gabbled instead of being spat out vividly – somehow the murderous intent of Sullivan’s grand-opera parody at that point was lost in the urgency. As well, the on/off stage exchanges between pirates and policemen at “A rollicking band of pirates, we…” were pushed too hard to my ears, the words suffering as a consequence – we lost something of the delicious antiphonal perspectives of “We seek a penalty – fifty-fold…” And I thought the Major-General’s paean of praise to nature “Sighing softly to the river” ought to have been more expansive, allowing the pirates to make their ironic interjections such as “through the trees” really tell.

Production-wise as well, the whole on/offstage interaction between pirates and policemen that dominates this Act didn’t for me have quite enough dynamic spark – I wanted more knife-edged comings and goings between the adversaries in the lead-up to the final conflict – more “shared” entrances with appropriate “double-takes” and sudden surges of adrenalin. And the “moment of truth” for the pirates, the Police Chief’s appeal to their loyalty to Queen Victoria, cried out for something cathartic, some kind of patriotic knife-thrust or body-blow! – perhaps with the police at that point baring their chests superman-style to reveal Queen Victoria t-shirts? – well something along those lines. The outrage of the appeal required some outward sign, similarly outrageous, for the sequence’s climax to really strike home.

Both hero and heroine grew in stature in this Act, Hannah Jones’s Mabel truly affecting in “Ah, leave me not to pine”, and with plenty of youthful exuberance in the superb “O, here is love”. And while Jamie Young couldn’t quite nail Frederic’s highest notes, his wonderfully sappy response to Mabel’s entreaties warmed all audience hearts, creating a truly “Brief Encounter”-like moment of frisson before the lovers’ parting. Another pair whose stage-presence took on deeper dimensions were Ruth and the Pirate King, whose “Paradox” song was delivered with wonderfully cat-and-mouse relish, to the bemusement of their intended victim, Frederic.

So – if not quite as consistently satisfying as last year’s “Pinafore”, this “Pirates” properly entertained, with generally high musical values, some vivid character assumptions and a number of memorable moments – the people I managed to speak with afterwards all reckoned they’d had a jolly good evening in the theatre.

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