CORNISH, N.H. — Opera North took Gilbert and Sullivan “under the big top” at the scenic Blow-Me-Down Farm this past weekend and it proved a resounding success. In fact, all three performances quickly sold out.
Opera North has a lease on the historic estate-farm overlooking the Connecticut River with a view of Mount Ascutney, part of the Saint-Gaudens National Park.
For the third year, Opera North has been expanding its activities there, this year taking a fully staged production with orchestra, of “Pirates of Penzance.”
The Upper Valley region’s professional opera company isn’t abandoning its traditional home, rather diversifying its possibilities. Four performances of Verdi’s “Macbeth” will be presented at the Lebanon Opera House Aug. 4-10.
“Pirates of Penzance” is one of the most popular of these 19th century operettas, the witty satire of William S. Gilbert set to the equally witty music of Arthur Sullivan. Subtitled “The Slave of Duty,” the tale is of the young Frederic who is apprenticed to a band of pirates until he reaches 21. On the eve of his 21st birthday, he falls in love with the comely Mabel, daughter of the haughty Major-General, and wants to marry her.
Unfortunately, Frederic was born on Feb. 29, and he is indentured until his 21st birthday. What is a “slave of duty” to do? Hijinks ensue, satirizing the British social system – and the rest of us.
Opera North’s production was a delight at Friday’s opening performance. Separating this from most productions was a cast of young opera singers and perhaps even more notable, the accompaniment of a full orchestra.
Despite a fine cast throughout, it was when Gillian Hollis as Mabel made her entrance, that the stage lit up with her brilliant coloratura soprano and sunny good looks. Although a bit stiff, tenor Tonatiuh Abrego sang beautifully and looked dashing as young Frederic.
Christopher Flockton, a stage-TV actor with less vocal heft, delivered Major-General Stanley with plenty of wit and the famous G&S patter. Mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney was Frederic’s aging nurse, full of wit and lust. And baritone Christopher McCluskey had great presence as the Pirate King, both vocally and theatrically.
Another distinction of the production was spectacular dancing choreographed by Kurt Domoney, also the stage director. (I didn’t know opera singers could dance.) He also successfully set the action with the audience on three sides and the orchestra behind. Only the Queen Victoria scene felt clumsy and confused. But having the action almost in your lap made for a feeling of immediacy.
Artistic Director Louis Burkot led the excellent 21-piece professional orchestra (and the singers) in a spirited performance that also delivered the score’s pathos. One problem of using opera singers is that they didn’t always have the precise diction of musical theater singers, making it difficult to understand everything.
Musically, though, the performance was high-level.
And the tent was a success. Despite the evening’s heat, the tent, which seats about 350, felt well-ventilated and comfortable and the seats weren’t bad. It will be interesting to see what Opera North decides to do with the delightful Blow-Me-Down Farm. (Just not “La Boheme!” Please.)