State Opera of SA. Her Majesty’s Theatre. Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. 14 May 2023
G&S lovers can never have enough G&S.
Adelaide long has had a Gilbert and Sullivan Society which flourished in the non-professional arena with a seemingly bottomless resource of willing and able operatic talent. Up and comers honed their skills and deep-dived G&S while audiences thrived seeing excellent light opera productions at affordable prices.
It is not that this phenomenon has gone. It is just “resting” with the local G&S mob presenting some Broadway shows and other musical joys - because the great big, official, State Opera South Australia has stepped into its G&S territory.
And good on it!
G&S long has been thrust into a quaint nether-land of opprobrium by serious opera adherents. One could describe it as the bastard nephew of the classical champions, and while Verdi, Rossini, Wagner et al. have been revered in assorted languages and degrees of high theatricality, the comic common touch of these old British satirists has been generally demeaned.
This critic can attest to this with a big “then” through yesteryears and, disappointingly, some “now” elitists and purists one thought may have learned better.
G&S is funny. Worse still, it can be downright silly.
Hence the delight in Stuart Maunder leaving the SA Opera company with the parting gift of a massive and mighty G&S Festival - an intense array of G&S works.
It is a huge commitment from the company members. They have been called upon to double up all over the place, sometimes playing two roles in two different productions in one day.
This critic may attest to this, having attended Pirates of Penzance at the matinee and HMS Pinafore a few hours later in the evening. Thus comes this unusual, blended overview review.
For Pirates, a very neat proscenium set is boxed on Her Majesty’s stage with lights outlining the name of the show. It opens with the Pirate King whooping into sight and cuing the curtain. This is to be the beginning of a new love affair with Ben Mingay, the crown jewel of State Opera, a performer who oozes star quality.
He’s a heavenly, diabolical, and very funny Pirate King. And his comic timing comes to the fore again in HMS Pinafore when he embodies the impossibly pompous Sir Joseph Porter. Indeed, he is the best Porter this critic has seen in quite a slew of Pinafores through the years, albeit it is a mystery as to why State Opera makeup caked his nose in suppurating sunburn sores. The vanity of Mingay’s Sir Joseph overrides his disfigurement with endless preening and posturing, highly exaggerated, but never over the top. And, of course, he sings like a dream.
Back on the Pirates stage, he’s butch and athletic amid his motley crew.
As the Pirate King, he comes up against the other particularly posh G&S stereotype, Major General Stanley who is delivered in an award-worthy performance by Douglas McNicol. McNicol is possessed of a mighty bass voice and a tongue twistable enough for the notorious string-of-eruditions song: "I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical // About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news // With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse…”
Like Mingay, McNicol springs again into action for the evening operetta. He is Deadeye Dick in Pinafore, and about as scruffy and ugly as he is sleek and fanciful in Pirates.
The double bill phenomenon is an extraordinarily rare chance to see this sort of versatility and Maunder certainly has pushed his performers to the far reaches of professional excellence.
Pirates features the heroine of Mabel, the most beautiful of the Major General’s daughters with whom the handsome apprentice pirate Frederic is to fall in love. He’s played with comic panache by John Longmiur with Desiree Frahn soprano-trilling to utter perfection as sweet Mabel. She is equipped with a stage presence almost as bewitching as that lovely voice.
With all these characters, quirky musical numbers, and quite ridiculous plotlines, one realises that G&S is all to be taken with very large pinches of salt. These works are satirical. They abound in digs at political and societal issues, the currency of which remains alive today. Hence the popular endurance of G&S.
HMS Pinafore has a lot of fun with authority, its inept police force with their “catlike tread” having kept audiences in gusts of laughter for a century. And still so, right now at Her Majesty’s.
Both shows are superbly choreographed with lots of quirky added details.
Indeed, Maunder has turned on a luscious treat all round. He has secured that living legend of costume design, Roger Kirk for the costumes and, in extremes, from plain seamen in stripes to the exquisite Jessica Dean clad in a delicacy of a shimmering romantic gown as Pinafore’s gorgeous Josephine, it is a showcase of excellence and finesse.
Never could it more truly be said that “the frocks are lovely” on a stage full of swirling full skirts and petticoats. Even Antoinette Halloran’s two comedy characters, Little Buttercup in Pinafore and the piratical nurse in Pirates, are clad in a splendour of whirling fabric and, if one looks closely, some clever character detail. Halloran has two big roles to deliver and she does so with immense vigour and wit.
One may strew compliments throughout the State Opera cast, not forgetting Nicholas Cannon, Jeremy Kleeman and Nicholas Jones as that handsome Pinafore hero. What a crisp, rich tenor he is.
Conductors Anthony Hunt and James Pratt deserve all the applause they attract at curtain call. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra responds beautifully to their batons.
All the production values merit a big tick - none more than Maunder whom one salutes as he ticks off.
When: 11 to 21 May
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre
Bookings - Pirates: premier.ticketek.com.au
Bookings - Pinafore: premier.ticketek.com.au