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How could I capture
On paper, examples,
Just mere samples
Of the patter which dribbles
From what Gilbert scribbles.
The guffaws and laughter
Linger long after
The plot is forgotten.
(These lines are so rotten!)
Please try this yourself for a few minutes and you will come to appreciate the literary genius of W. S. Gilbert, whose lines Arthur Sullivan so artfully set to music. Never mind that the actual plot may be somewhat trivial today, the wit and charm with which G & S treat it has made the works of this writer/composer duo timeless.
The Piedmont Opera closed its 33rd season this week with a delightful fast-paced trio of performances of HMS Pinafore, the first "hit" in a veritable ocean of popular light operas which (unlike the doggerel above) flowed from the pens of Gilbert and Sullivan in the second half of the 19th century.
Following the lead of Jacques Offenbach, whose many satirical operettas were popular and influenced Gilbert and Sullivan's subtle satires of Victorian England, the plot of HMS Pinafore involves the conflicts of social parity and marrying "above one's station" versus the more democratic "love levels all." But the opera pokes fun at a whole host of social mores - from the pompousness of an "Englishman" to the rank of an admiral who has never been to sea and to superficial politeness, "if…..if you please!" The program note of Piedmont Opera's music director, James Allbritten, points out that the opera even satirizes the popular Verdi opera, Il Trovatore in more ways than one, especially when "poor little" Buttercup admits to the crime worthy of Alzucena in the swapping of babies in her care.
Butterfly was well cast with mezzo-soprano Deborah Fields as a comic and endearing character. Her dark rich voice contrasted sharply with the aggressive Cockney of her speaking voice. Director Michael Shell had her capering and cavorting all over the stage, especially with the Captain Corcoran, younger but as much attracted to her as she to him. Tall, dark and handsome, the role of the captain was sung by Jonathan Lasch in a gorgeous rich baritone voice. Concerned, in the first act, that his daughter, Josephine, should make a good marriage, Captain Corcoran has been encouraging Sir Joseph, the Admiral and "Ruler of the Queen's Navee," to persevere despite Josephine's apparent indifference. John Davies makes a fine admiral with a commanding if caricature-like stance (and prance) and a powerful and clean baritone voice. Of all the singers, Mr. Davies was the easiest to understand.
The object of his affection, Josephine, spurns the Admiral because she is in love with a commoner, the sailor Ralph Rackstraw, sung by tenor Marvin Kehler. Kehler's voice is sweet and pure, but still small and in the first act, "pitchy" (sharp) to use the cute term Randy Jackson has given us. The villain in the opera (because he stinks, limps and wears a patch over one eye) is Dick Deadeye who is actually the only un-affected truthful character on stage. Deadeye was admirably sung by bass-baritone Brian Banion, also a consummate actor and a hilarious dancer in the drolly choreographed (presumably by the Director, Michael Shell) dance with the captain near the end of the second act.
Saving the best for last, Josephine was sung and well-acted by the beautiful soprano Jodi Burns, with a beauty of voice which becomes more impressive each time she sings. Spot on pitch, with a gorgeous purity of tone and fast but controlled vibrato, she was a pleasure to hear. I did, however, regret the absence of supertitles, because Ms. Burns' diction was unclear, especially in the higher registers.
In a role reversal in the second act, where
"Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream,"
Captain becomes commoner and marries Buttercup while swabby becomes Captain and marries Josephine and the "Ruler of the Queen's Navee" marries his own cousin, sung by Katherine Ardoin. Other small roles well sung were given to Scott Schumpert and Jonathan Burdette. And the crew of sailors and chorus of relatives acquitted themselves admirably. The Winston-Salem Symphony under the masterful baton of James Allbritten played cleanly, almost too cleanly – one longed for an occasional portamento or glissando.