ON MARCH 5, Atlanta Opera offered an exceedingly satisfying production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 operetta The Pirates of Penzance at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. It was the first time that Pirates had been presented by the company, but ticket sales accelerated so rapidly here that the company was compelled to offer a fifth performance this month.
Should a serious opera company produce an operetta by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert? The answer is yes— if the casting and stage direction are superb. This production by Seán Curran, originally seen at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, was revised scenically as a co-production of Atlanta Opera and Palm Beach Opera. Dancer and director Curran stamped the production with delightful choreography that surpassed the conventional box-step and infused each ensemble number with comedy. Curran’s musical collaborator, conductor David Agler of the Wexford Festival Opera, likewise harnessed the best that the cast and orchestra had to offer.
Kevin Burdette played pirate extraordinaire as the Pirate King. Burdette is an opera singer first and foremost, but is as dynamic moving across a stage as any music theatre pro on Broadway. Matthew Newlin, his young Tamino-esque intern Frederic, is a member of the ensemble at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Tall, blonde and melodramatic to the hilt, Newlin sustained the high B flat in “Oh, is there not one maiden breast” effortlessly. The object of his affection, Maureen McKay, negotiated Mabel’s music with a crystalline soprano, precision and charm; she omitted the E flat at the end of her waltz, “Poor Wandering One,” but we didn’t miss it.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are ideal for crossover artists. Curt Olds gave his Atlanta Opera debut as a rhyming and rousing Major-General Stanley in this production. Donning smart argyle stockings, he hilariously directed the orchestra with the words, “presto agitato” for his patter encore. And his Act II ballad “Sighing softly to the river,” which is typically a lull in Pirates, was anything but. Olds frolicked his way through the verses with silliness to spare. The Ruth, Victoria Livengood, another versatile singer, took a bit of time to warm up her contralto, but was an apt comedienne, colorful and cartoonish.
Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun proved that no role is too small for careful consideration: local singers were not cast in secondary and comprimario roles for this production of Pirates of Penzance. Instead we heard budding singers with voices of great interest, among them Will Liverman as Samuel and Jasmine Habersham as Edith. —Stephanie Adrian