We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Hunter Parrish and Deborah Voigt (photo by Erin Baiano)

So The Collegiate Chorale, after 74 seasons, is now Master Voices. And Gilbert and Sullivan's masterpiece The Pirates of Penzance has been itself press ganged into the service of cheap entertainment. This does not of course mean that the press has ganged up on them!

Actually, the audience laughed wildly and applauded just as wildly at this peculiar performance, which we found ill-conceived and ill-performed. This makes us feel like a cranky scold but we did not have a good time.  And Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas always promise a good time.

W. S. Gilbert's clever words and Arthur Sullivan's highly tuneful music go together like bangers and mash, like fish and chips. We have often held the pair up as examplars who created the perfect melding of text and melody; they created vocal lines that are highly singable and they knew how to handle the English language. Short punchy lines with clever rhymes bring out the best of our mother tongue.

Although the intricacies of the British political system in the Victorian Age may not be known to us, the basics of political corruption and the British national character are familiar sources of satire and we of the 21st c. can look back at their satire with glee.

But satire is not slapstick and the Borscht belt version we saw at New York City Center Thursday night left us in tears. The flaws were many. Let us enumerate.

Although we prefer fully staged opera, we are no stranger to concert versions (as in Opera Orchestra of New York) during which we can focus on the music and the singing. But the hybrid we saw was just irritating with the performers trying to (over)act with books in hand.

The amplification was irritating and the diction was poor with only Broadway star Phillip Boykin (as the Pirate King) and Douglas Hodge (as Major General Stanley) exhibiting good enough diction to catch most of the words.  Gilbert's text is so clever it is criminal not to enunciate clearly.

As Frederic, TV star Hunter Parrish couldn't sing his way out of a paper bag and his usually fine acting was severely hampered by carrying the libretto.

Deborah Voigt, lured from the opera stage, was wasted as Ruth.

Julia Udine, however, made a fine Mabel and has a lovely warbly soprano just right for the part. We would like to hear her someday without the distortion of amplification. There was one piece of satire that passed by without tampering and we were grateful for it.  G&S loved to satirize opera and Lucia Lammermoor's mad scene, in which she sings a wildly embellished vocal line in duet with a glass harmonica, was here rendered as a duet with the flute in "Poor wandering one". Nicely done! And no insult to Donizetti.

Some of Stanley's daughters sang well but we could not differentiate one from another.

The Orchestra of St. Luke's played rather well from the original scoring of the work. We heard a lovely oboe solo in the overture.

The massive forces of Master Voices were on bleachers onstage behind the actors and seemed to be wasted with all the histrionics distracting from the music. Ted Sperling conducted and directed. Presumably the histrionics and pratfalls were his idea.

Costume Consultant Tracy Christensen was guilty of too much and too little.  Tri-cornered hats on the pirates and the costumes of the Police took us back to Queen Victoria's day but Mabel and the Stanley girls looked like debutants from the mid 20th c. with silly little white caps on their heads. Most egregious was Ms. Voigt's pirate costume which was disastrously unflattering, making her look....FAT!

The alternative title of The Pirates of Penzance is the Slave of Duty. And so we did our duty and sat through the entire evening hoping that the memory will not spoil future performances of the piece by, say, New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players who generally do a fairly reverent job in the spirit of the original intent.

(c) meche kroop

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