For works created largely as topical humor, the Savoy Operas of Gilbert & Sullivan have had remarkable staying power.
Many of Arthur S. Sullivan’s compositions were written as parodies of other composers and other styles, but their tunefulness — and, sometimes, real beauty — have given them lives of their own.
William S. Gilbert’s way with words is as engaging and witty as can be. It’s no wonder audiences are still attending operettas like “The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty” almost 140 years after it had its premiere.
On Friday night, Winter Opera St. Louis opened its 13th season with “Pirates.” It’s a winning, cheery production of one of G&S’s best, with some fine voices and good energy, albeit with a whiff of community theater.
Director John Stephens (who, as a singer, has appeared in numerous productions of “Pirates,” and who has directed it several times before) knows the score well.
His staging was proficient and frequently comical, with a few cheap laughs thrown in. (Painting “STANLEY” on the Major-General’s purchased family tombs was heavy-handed, unnecessary and just looked like graffiti: we got the joke from the dialogue.)
His cast was more than competent and did a fine job overall with Gilbert’s literary language.
As Frederic, whose dedication to doing his duty under all circumstances drives the plot, tenor Pedro Barbosa made a handsome romantic lead, moved well and sang sweetly; it’s not a large voice, but he uses it well.
He and the high-flying Mabel of Chelsea Friedlander were well-matched physically and vocally, and were an appealing couple altogether.
The production had a real contralto in Sara Couden’s Ruth, the piratical maid-of-all-work. Couden has a strong presence and a great sense of comic timing, and she greatly helped out the small chorus tenor section in Act II.
Andrew Pardini’s Pirate King could have been a little more swashbuckling, but sang well, with a full-bodied baritone. Gary Moss was a vocally nimble Major-General Stanley.
Jason Mallory turned in another first-rate comprimario performance as the pirate Samuel. Baritone Robert McNichols nailed the fumbling physical comedy of the Sergeant of Police but, peculiarly, didn’t sing all his lines as written.
The smaller roles were well-cast. The women in chorus master Rebecca Koebbe’s ensemble were generally stronger vocally than the men but they all performed with musicality and a proper sense of fun. Conductor Scott Schoonover kept things moving and together musically.
Scenic designer Scott Loebl’s sets were well-designed, with visual interest and multiple levels, making Stephens’ job a little easier.
Felia Davenport’s costumes were better in the second act than the first, with the sailor-suit robes of Stanley’s daughters a particularly nice touch. An English vicar at the time would be unlikely to wear a cassock for everyday, but if he did, he’d wear it with a band cincture.