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29 March, 2007

GREAT Pirates! Shame about Flavio and Donna del Lago, also at NYCO

New York City Opera

Final season performance Thursday 29th March 2007

SamuelScott Guinn
Pirate KingMarc Kudisch
FrederickMatt Morgan
RuthMyrna Paris
MabelSarah Jane McMahon
Major GeneralMark Jacoby
SergeantKevin Burdette
Cond.Gerald Steichen
DirectorLillian Groag

Dear Colleagues,

The last performance of this G&S was most enjoyable with a polished and hilarious routine with purpose and vigour. Americans take their G&S very seriously. There were many in pirate shirts, pirate hats, scarves and eye patches. There was even a private reception for fans in the foyer - which I accidentally ‘crashed’. And they had a piano.

It must have been a challenge, especially following the successful modern Broadway version, to do something ‘different’ to this Victorian chestnut. The NYCO decided to go back to the original era – and avoid most modern stage effects in favour of cardboard cut-out illusions, flags, ribbons, ropes, backdrops and simple props, all of which might have dated from the 19th century theatre. According to the program, Maestri Gilbert and Sullivan had travelled to New York to mount a revival of Pinafore in late 1879 while also working on the score for Pirates which was still under wraps for a premiere on Broadway on New Year’s eve.

The overture started with four young ladies watching a stage within a stage of clever imagery displaying nautical themes, Victorian personalities, etc. They were joined by a lone pirate who slid down a rope from the flies. Their responses and the stage antics were hilarious, bringing out the staff to have him ejected for unruly behaviour. We were treated to a sinking galleon, SS Titanic, Wagner, Verdi and even Queen Victoria herself who later poured tea for the maidens in Act II.

The orchestra played superbly with some deviations from the original score on three occasions: Ms McMahon’s coloratura “Poor wandering one” used the cadenza from Lucia’s mad scene, flute included. The Aida trumpet obligato sounded briefly after some Egyptian stage items from that opera were carried across the stage at the start of Act II when Major General Stanley had retired to his draughty dressing room. Next arrived our male chorus on board ship to the strains of Flying Dutchman. These all caused great mirth amongst the regular opera goers but must have flummoxed the rest. The choreography was animated and complex, including three cartwheels done by Mabel in place of a walk off exit!

The Cornish beach front was transferred to Brighton, complete with pier and portable bathing change rooms. The “Modern Major General” song was encored with double time for verse 3 which is normally done lento.

The singing was from good to excellent with a large chorus of both sexes filling the hall which is more than could be said for any of the principal singers, even with microphones. The amplification was still subtle but insufficient for that chasm of a theatre. Somebody dropped their body microphone at one point causing an embarrassing clunking/scraping which took a minute to remedy.

All in all a highly enjoyable evening at the theatre despite these small setbacks.

I wish I could say the same of Flavio and Donna del Lago, both of which I found uneven and boring. It is hard to believe that the same composer wrote Julius Caesar with so much when Flavio has so little. I don’t enjoy counter-tenors in major roles. They are unnatural, strained and nearly always of much less volume than ‘normal’ voices, male and female. From the many descriptions and one recording, they certainly bear little relation to what castrati must have sounded like. It remains to be seen what happens to their vocal mechanism after decades of singing in this manner. My guess is that such singing is not consistent with a long vocal life for most. David Daniels’ smooth and beautiful singing is an exception but even he sounds small and boyish next to Ruth Anne Swenson in full flight.

Despite its lovely score, only one singer did justice to Donna del Lago. Laura Vlasak Nolen as Malcolm was capable of projecting the Rossini bel canto into this vocally unfriendly ‘barn’. In act I she sings ‘Mura Felici’; ‘Elena! Oh Tu, Che Chiamo!’ ‘Oh Quante Lagrime’ as a magnificent scena equal to any in opera. The production started with a snow storm and went downhill from there. The stage was not even swept during the intermission (and the ‘snow’ did not melt). Chairs were moved senselessly and the inside/outside scenes were blurred, rather odd for winter in Scotland. Three out of ten. And not a patch on the Blue Hill Troupe’s production of Yeoman of the Guard which I would have given six!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..