Sullivan – The Pirates of Penzance

Sydney Opera House, Friday September 24 2010

Conductor: Andrew Greene. Production: Stuart Maunder. Sets: Richard Roberts. Costumes: Roger Kirk. Major-General Stanley: Peter Carroll. Pirate King: Anthony Warlow. Frederic: Matthew Robinson. Mabel: Rosemarie Harris. Ruth: Suzanne Johnston. Sergeant of Police: Richard Alexander. Samuel: Andrew Brunsdon. Edith: Amy Wilkinson. Kate: Tania Ferris. Isabel: Angela Brun. Opera Australia Chorus. Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

I didn’t fancy Rosenkavalier in what I believe to be a traditional production, and couldn’t get tickets on the web for Rigoletto, so I decided I’d give The Pirates of Penzance a go. The photos looked like it might be fun, and you expect a national opera house to do it proud. However, I left asking myself “what’s the point?”

This was a pretty enough production, with a stage within the stage and sky-blue proscenium lit up in lights. Red-wheeled, cardboard cut-out, “coloured engraving” sets were pushed or pulled on and off by the characters themselves – the pirates’ ship (large version and small), trees, funeral monuments, all with doors characters could appear through… The Pirate King was got up as Captain Jack Thingie from those Caribbean films (even I knew that: I had the misfortune to have to sit through one once). The girls were in pretty Victorian muslin, with parasols, the Major-General wore a kilt and white helmet.

But the singing style turned out to be Disney-musical crooning, what’s more, miked and piped through a poor, echoing sound system. The only way to tell who was singing at any time was to watch the singers’ lips: they might as well have been miming; and it sounded to me like there were different volumes for different performers, depending on just how weak their voices were.

The acting and fooling around were at the level of children’s pantomime.

The Sydney Opera House was of course as splendid (architecturally speaking) as ever. It is, as I said the last time I was here, a much more interesting and impressive building than it looks in photos. At night it’s magnificent, as are the views from the upstairs bar at the back: to the left, the bridge; to the right, the moon and moonlit bay; and ferries gliding or scuttling in and out, depending on their size and speed. The puzzling thing is why such a great building has such awful interior lighting, with all the comfort and charm of a warehouse. And why it’s home to such a flimsy piece, which could just as well have been staged in a smaller (and less expensive) venue.

Sydney is a surprisingly dressy city (lots of little black dresses and tall stilettos), so there was good people-watching, and I was delighted to see one handsome young couple in black whiling away the time before the show, not with a glass of champagne, but with a bottle in a bucket. That, I thought, was style.


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