Gilbert & Sullivan

An Exciting “Pirates of Penzance” is Performed in Australia


A-OP-Priates of Penzance (Australia)
No, that is not Depp on the cover!

An Exciting “Pirates of Penzance” is Performed in Australia 

   After watching the mutilated “Gondoliers” as performed by Opera Australia, in which neither Gilbert’s lyrics nor dialogue was spared updating by those concerned, I was most reluctant to watch their 2007 “The Pirates of Penzance” on the Kultur label. So I played it safe and ordered it through Netflix…and I loved every moment of it! Now I have my own copy and will use it to play for friends and in my lectures.

For starters, it does not change any of the lyrics or dialogue, except for a few harmless ad libs. Although it is heavily influenced by the Joseph Papp rock version, the orchestration here is Sullivan’s. Costuming the Pirate King (Anthony Warlow) to closely resemble Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a joke that wears out quickly butalso  does no harm. But he does adopt a body language that is often curiously effeminate, perhaps not intentionally.

The Pirate King (Richard Temple) in the original production’s costume

John Bolton Wood’s Major-General Stanley first appears in kilts and gives his patter entrance song at a fast clip. Only at the very end of the opera does he appear in his proper uniform. David Hobson’s Frederic looks a little older than a 21 year old (or 5.25, if we go by birthdays!), but sings well and has a good sense of humor. His Mabel (Taryn Fiebig) gets a good deal of comedy into her “Poor wand’ring one” without making it silly.

I was delighted to see that the Police are costumed in accurate uniforms without any clownish additions and no rubber-leg dancing. Also Richard Alexander’s basso is just right for the Police Sergeant. Suzanne Johnston makes a sympathetic Ruth in Act I, looking really older than 47. But in Act II, in a pirate costume and lipstick, she looks sexy and 100% piratical.

The scenery is minimal, with such items as the pirate vessel, trees, and tombstones being wheeled on by the cast. It all works beautifully, at one point to the accompaniment of an orchestral vamp.

Warlow underneath the Depp makeup

A short introduction  is given instead of the overture. But the full finale, which Gilbert wrote for the New York opening, using a reprise of the Major-General song followed by “Poor wand’ring one,” makes a great ending. So kudos to stage director Stuart Maunder and conductor Andrew Greene for the best “Pirates” on video yet.

The running time is 112 minutes, the picture is widescreen format, but alas no subtitles.


Essay Series Essays

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 1

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert


IMG_20150606_0005_NEWThe Topsy Turvy World of W.S.Gilbert: an Overview 

Now that we have all seen the film “Topsy Turvy”–and read no more of this until you do!–we can consider the reason for that title and how it defines a unique type of satire that started with Aristophanes, was perfected in its English form by Gilbert, and is still popular today in Monty Python and its imitators.

[Side note. Edith Hamilton, in her study of “The Greek Way,” devotes an entire chapter comparing the Greek and the British dramatists.]

You recall from the film Gilbert’s consternation at reading a newspaper review praising his genius at the “topsy turvy.” Well, it was his own fault. From the very beginning William Schwenck Gilbert delighted in paradoxes and championed a format in which the perfectly absurd was considered the norm and all else followed logically. Nowhere is this more explicit than in his early “Bab Ballad” piece called “The Dream.” Here “I dreamt that somehow I had come / To dwell in Topsy-Turvydom” in which place babies teach their elders, only the virtuous are arrested, all sailors suffer from seasickness, and similar inversions of our norm are normal. His conclusion is that he would be very happy there “Where greatest fools bear off the bell / I ought to do extremely well.”

Gilbert, with his military background and bearing, was quite a bully with an acid sense of humor–and like all such men he was basically a big baby. Consider as only one example that he picked his childhood nickname, Bab, as the adjective for his collection of Ballads! And as another, how when he became a Justice of the Peace in his latter years he delighted in being called Your Honor. More important was his conduct during the arguments and lawsuits he filed against Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte after the so-called Carpet Quarrel pitted Gilbert against the other two at the time of the run of “The Gondoliers.”

My favorite Ballad is called “Etiquette.” Here two Englishmen are stranded on a desert island; but not having been introduced on board ship, they cannot converse now. One of them, Peter Grey, winds up on the end of the island that has oysters a plenty, “But oysters were a delicacy Peter couldn’t bear.” The other, Somers, found himself surrounded by turtles, which “always made him sick.” Naturally each of them dotes on the delicacy indigenous to the other’s turf but are content to let things rest rather than break “the arbitrary rule of etiquette.”

250px-Bab_BalladsAfter quite some time, one hears the other invoke the name of Robinson, a common acquaintance! So now they may speak, both knowing the same person, and delight both in each other’s company and in each other’s food supply. Their bliss is finally interrupted by the sight of a ship, which sends out a launch to rescue them. But, alas, it is a prison ship bound for Australia–and quite unacceptable to these gentlemen. However, far worse, the convinct in the launch is none other than Robinson, “Condemned to seven years for misappropriating stock!!!”

Alone again, the two men are shocked to have consorted with the friend of a criminal, and the two slowly gravitate toward the original state of things: without verbal conversation, they return to their own original ends of the island, and a steady diet of the food they most detest. You see: a perfectly normal consequence of an absurd premise.

imagesNow let it be understood that Gilbert was not a G. B. Shaw. He was no revolutionary who wanted to reform the system. His target was those who carried certain features of the system to absurd lengths and his method is well expressed by Jack Point in “The Yeomen of the Guard”:

When they’re offered to the world in merry guise,

Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will–

For he who’d make his fellow-creatures wise

Should always gild the philosophic pill.


Which, I think, is a pre-echo of Mary Poppins’ “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”!

The problem for Americans watching the Savoy Operas is that so many of Gilbert’s barbs fall on blank areas of our understanding. What exactly is he making fun of, we wonder? Oh, much of his satire is universal enough and we don’t have to know about each person mentioned in the Major-General’s patter song to appreciate that his head is filled with facts that have nothing to do with the military–which he admits anyway in the last stanza; or about Oscar Wilde and the pre-Raphaelite Movement to appreciate how young women can go mad over oddly dressed celebrities with long hair who spout nonsensical lyrics. And with our way of electing officials, we don’t have to look eastward across the Atlantic to know what it is like to have authorities totally unfit for their High Offices and yet be praised for those very qualities that make them unfit!

(Did not one Republican contestant for the Presidency of this country say in 2015 that he could find out what is going on the world each morning by Googling it? Pure Gilbert.)

I can see two approaches to studying this fascinating Sir William and his methods: play by play or area by area. Since many books are available using the first format–and I have limited space anyhow–I think the second would be best. So in our next article, we will consider the Very Important Person.

Gilbert & Sullivan

Ohio Light Opera Dishes Up a Happy “Gondoliers”


IMG_20150531_0001Ohio Light Opera Dishes Up a Happy “Gondoliers”

  I believe that the score to Arthur Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” is his happiest, while the plot is a topsy-turvy affair in the true William S. Gilbert manner.. In the past, The Ohio Light Opera has been performing and recording on CDs full productions of rarely done operettas. The Gilbert & Sullivan works so far in their series of recordings have fairly complete dialogue and therefore are in competition with the D’Oyly Carte recordings of those works that contain only the musical segments..

However, the latest release on the Troy label, “The Gondoliers,” has competition from a D’Oyly Carte recording with dialogue on the Decca label; and I was afraid that this OLO version would suffer in comparison. In two words, it doesn’t!

This is a nearly perfect recording of the musical tale of two gondoliers, Marco (Jack Beetle) and Giuseppe (Nicholas Hartley), who having just married Gianetta (Kemper LeCroy-Flarin) and Tessa (Sahara Glasener-Boles) then learn from the Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra del Bolero (Gary Moss) that one of them is really the King of Barataria and (later in Act II) that the same one is also married to Casilda (Anne Marie Frohnmayer), the daughter of the out-of-pocket Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Ted Christopher and a light-voiced Sandra Ross). Trouble is, no one but the king’s mother knows which is the king and which the gondolier. And she is on her way to sort things out.

And so the two rule jointly as a monarchy based on republican (small “r”) principles. The only satire is against the belief that ALL people can be equal in rank, and that line of thought comes to an end half way into Act II. The plot’s ending is a nod to one of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, and no more need be said.

The dialogue is spoken with a good tempo and the enunciation is very good with final “t’s” and “d’s carefully hit off. (I cannot understand why “livery” is pronounced with a long “i,” but let that go.) The dialogue is absolutely complete and the music is conducted with verve by J. Lynn Thompson.

The booklet has minimal notes abut the background of the play and the entire text of the dialogue and songs. I would call this one a Grabbit.