What of The Pirates of Penzance at San Diego Opera? The production is good and includes some excellent singing. My YouTube search for Pirates clips to include with this article brought home to me just how excellent the singing in this production is.
Because most of the Gilbert and Sullivan singing out there is appalling. Not so at SDO.
Most Gilbert and Sullivan singing is appalling
What I appreciated most in the show was Gilbert and Sullivan’s willingness to take direct shots at Victorian culture and the British establishment. Gilbert and Sullivan’s music always pleases and charms the listener. But it’s light charm serves to make it all the more potent in its purpose: to skewer elements of Victorian culture so badly in need of skewering. The “Hail Poetry” hymn which closes the first act was just about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in an opera. The overly reverent music along with the veneration of poetry was a stinging indictment on the superficial elements of the era.
The Major General character, performed to perfection by Patrick Carfizzi, enters with the famous patter song, “I am the very model of a modern major general.” Why? The song serves to show that while the modern major general has been pumped full of information he is still a boor. The reputation of the British officer corps was not that of a well educated class of warrior poets. The perception was more of brutish thug.
The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 by an officer in Napoleon’s army. British academics, such as Thomas Young, ruminated that the significance of the stone would have been lost on a British officer.
Pirates is full of characters who are, at their core, idiots. The Pirate King is an unsuccessful pirate. The Major General has purchased a heritage in the form of an estate full of ancestors which are now his. Frederick, a babe in the woods stock character, changes sides willy nilly based on his sense of duty. He’s a traitor because of his loyalty.
What Gilbert and Sullivan have done is take a look at Victorian culture and decided that it was stocked to ceiling with fools and idiots. They could have simply said, “You’re all idiots,” but creating Pirates of Penzance does the same thing with infinitely more style.