By Peter Jacobi: Herald-Times Reviewer | email@example.com | Posted: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 12:00 am
The first responsibility that a producing institution has in presenting any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas is to treat them respectfully, to recognize they are not trifles but morsels. That’s certainly the case with one of their most popular creations, “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
Fortunately, the Indiana University Opera Theater’s current production of “Pinafore,” on view at the Musical Arts Center, provides the proper treatment. It has not been trifled with, not downloaded with silly updates of Gilbert’s bright yet brittle libretto, not cheapened musically by downgrading the artistic needs of a demanding score, not shorn of the traditions that mark its singular voice and idiosyncratic style.
And that’s a mercy.
This production is faithful and, consequently, enjoyable. Its validity and quality begin with a stage-spanning, right-for-the-subject set, first used in 1997 and again in 2005 by C. David Higgins, that of a ship’s quarterdeck. It, along with the gaudy mock proscenium and detailed costumes, effectively evoke the Victorian age.
Two talented visitors have been employed to make what happens on that set equally valid. For the music, there’s conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos who, on previous visits, scored with productions of challenge and marked differences: a giddy “Fledermaus,” a tragic “A View from the Bridge,” and a rollicking “Falstaff.” This time, he caused the pit ensemble, the University Orchestra, as well as casts and chorus to embrace Sullivan’s delightful and not-easy-to-master music and master it well enough to delight the audience; reaction both Friday and Saturday evenings was highly enthusiastic.
For stage directing and choreography, there’s a first-timer, Michael Shell, who came with a load of credentials and proved himself with this fast-moving yet sensible, often comic presentation. He drew out of his performers characterizations that were humorous but also still human, funny but not made fun of.
There was a problem both nights, one that Shell alluded to when we spoke a couple of weeks ago, one he thought had been solved: diction, the crystal-clear outpouring of the words. “I tell the singers,” he told me, “to ask themselves, ‘Do you want the audience to look at you or the supertitles?’” The decision had been made to not provide supertitles, a reasonable decision for a work performed in English.
But English happens to be not the easiest language to project clearly, and clarity was not achieved by all. In addition, to complicate matters, at least some of the singers have voices of limited volume, particularly when they speak or do recitative.
A number of folks told me they had problems understanding the words, and I agree. To not have supertitles and/or amplification in the MAC, a spacious theater, probably was a mistake. Not to make a giant squabble over this decision and resultant flaw, because there was much one could easily grasp, but this issue tends to occur with certain repertoire selections, particularly when younger voices are chosen to perform on the Jacobs School of Music’s big stage.
There was virtually no problem understanding the men’s or women’s chorus, the men portraying the ship’s crew; the women, the First Lord of the Admiralty’s “sisters, cousins and aunts.” Chorus master Walter Huff had trained them to a T. They served well and were well served with ovations.
One young man, Christopher Seefeldt, just a junior, ended up singing the Lord of the Admiralty role, that of Sir Joseph Porter, with both casts. As a bumbling old fellow unluckily seeking young love, he was outstanding, both at handling the operetta’s patter song and entering into character. He was among those with excellent diction and, yet, would have benefited from amplification.
Baritones Reuben Walker (on Friday) and Erik Krohg (on Saturday) were easily understood as the Captain of the Pinafore and proved “a right good captain he.” As the Captain’s daughter Josephine, she the object of Sir Joseph’s attention, sopranos Olivia Yokers and Tabitha Burchett successfully managed to develop the character of a woman with the desire to love another; they would, however, have benefited from supertitles and an acoustical boost.
As seaman Ralph Rackstraw, the man Josephine desires to love, Friday’s Trey Smagur and Saturday’s Benjamin Smith seemed to have worked hard to shape Ralph’s personality; they also stretched their tenors to meet some high note demands, not always but far more often than not.
Mezzos Anna Prokof and Eileen Jennings gave sauce and spice to the role of Little Buttercup, whose mistaken change of babies years earlier set the stage for librettist Gilbert’s aim in “Pinafore” to make fun of Britain’s penchant for class and rank distinctions; Jennings was better at handling the sound issues. Baritones Connor Lidell and Steven Berlanga portrayed Dick Deadeye and made him sufficiently odious.
The whole cast had been well chosen. So, too, Patrick Mero made good choices in lighting the action.
If you go
WHAT: “H.M.S. Pinafore,” by Gilbert and Sullivan.
WHO: Indiana University Opera Theater.
WHERE: IU Musical Arts Center.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
TICKETS: At the Musical Arts Center box office, Jordan Avenue, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; through Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000; or online at http://music.indiana.edu/.
© Herald Times 2014