The Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance
By Gilbert and Sullivan. Opera Australia. Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Conductor: Andrew Greene. Director: Stuart Maunder. Set: Richard Roberts. Costumes: Roger Kirk. Lighting: Trudy Dalgleish. Until November 6.

Who can blame Opera Australia for squeezing every potential dollar from their Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire? The bookings are always big, the audiences are always loudly appreciative and the famed comic operas can fund more eclectic, difficult, less obviously commercial productions like this year’s Bliss and next year’s Of Mice and Men.

So, with many an ‘oooo!’ and ‘aaarh!’, the OA’s 2006 Pirates has sailed again into Sydney Harbour with Anthony Warlow firmly in place as top billing. G&S aficionados might murmur that the Pirate King should hardly have precedence over focal points Frederic (Matthew Robinson) and Mabel (Rosemarie Harris), and especially over ‘the very model of a modern Major-General’ (Peter Carroll) — but that wouldn’t reflect the production’s focus or, to be fair, the audience’s obvious delight.

Long loved as Australia’s ‘Phantom’, Warlow can do no wrong. His pirate is firmly based on the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean model, plus lashings of his own hard-working, loose-limbed, camp, eyes-rolling eagerness. It’s only in the context of his actual role in Gilbert’s delicious opera parody that Warlow’s billing and his superstar walkdown at the end seem a touch — well — overboard.

Stuart Maunder’s pretty production is bright and breezy on Richard Robert’s splendidly simple setting with sliding cut-outs like a Victorian child’s toy theatre. The two romantic leads are particularly fine. Apprentice pirate Frederic is the plot’s focus and Matthew Robinson is handsomely dashing and believably over-dutiful to the ridiculously unfair pirate contract that Gilbert cooked up for him. His duets with Rosemarie Harris’s keen, determined Mabel are both silly and thrilling, exactly what Gilbert & Sullivan require.

Peter Carroll does an effortlessly expert job with his famous patter song, ending at express speed. Suzanne Johnston’s Ruth moves convincingly from a downbeat drab spurned by the object of her misplaced passion in Act One to a sexy pirate maid swishing a cutlass with great swagger in Act Two: a terrific journey. Richard Alexander has great fun with the cowardly Police Sergeant, singing with a booming bass.

The pirate chorus, oddly enlarged to include some prancing dancers in tights, sing with energy, as do the Major-General’s multiple giggling daughters, often flowing together down the raked stage like treacle. Though amplified (is this now usual at Opera Australia?), Gilbert’s brilliant, vital lyrics were often unclear, requiring recourse to the production’s overhead surtitles. Perhaps operatic training is not the best thing for opera parody.

Frank Hatherley

Photographer: Branco Gaica

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