The Pirates of Penzance

The New York City Opera on Saturday, March 10.

The Pirates of Penzance is as frothy as any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but years ago, it taught my brother and me the meaning of the word paradox, the seemingly impossible contradiction in which, for example, a young man might have lived twenty-one years but, having been born on leap year, celebrated only five true birthdays. In a weird way, that one little personal fact encapsulates Pirates for me. The story is completely ludicrous (the leap-year twist figures into a bit of intrigue surrounding a contract of apprenticeship to pirates), but underneath that goofiness is a real satiric edge, a kernel of substance that sticks with me, like that memorable vocabulary word, even as I giggle at the matrimony-obsessed buccaneers and primly bloodthirsty maidens.

I know that Arthur Sullivan’s music lampoons Italian opera conventions, even a few specific numbers, but I’m not familiar enough with Verdi and the like to catch anything more than the broad strokes. I’m better equipped to appreciate the nuances of W. S. Gilbert’s clever libretto. Too affectionate and screwball to be cutting, it nevertheless zeroes in on nineteenth-century Britain’s classism and glorification of “duty” at the expense of rational decision-making. The depiction of warmongering cheerleaders eager to sacrifice others’ lives while ensconcing themselves safely away still feels particularly relevant.

I enjoy Gilbert’s slyly subversive touches, but in the end, those are only grace notes all but drowned out by the resounding chorus of silliness. Gilbert doesn’t have the satiric bite of his contemporary Oscar Wilde, but the two writers do share an appreciation for the absurd and the arch. I prefer Wilde’s dry, crackling tone, but Gilbert and Sullivan’s giddy exuberance has its charm, too, especially when it’s brought to life as enthusiastically (not to mention skillfully) as in this New York City Opera production.

Matt Morgan played Frederic, the hapless young man accidentally indentured to a pirate instead of a pilot. After Frederic serves out his term (or so he believes), he tells the Pirate King (Marc Kudisch) that as he is now free to follow his conscience, he has a duty to renounce piracy and eradicate his former comrades. Frederic’s mission grows more complicated when he falls in love with the beautiful Mabel (Sarah Jane McMahon), ward of the very model of a modern major-general, only to learn that he might not be free of his apprenticeship after all.

The vocal work was strong, if not truly outstanding. Morgan’s voice was pleasant and agile, though a bit thin at times. McMahon was a standout, though to be fair, she is the one with the great showpiece, “Poor wandering one,” a hysterical coloratura extravaganza. Kudisch proved to be a warmly expressive baritone, and with charisma and comic timing to burn, he made an excellent Pirate King.

My favorite vocal work, however, turned up not in the solos but in the ensemble numbers. “Hail, Poetry!” is a completely irrelevant choral prayer (that’s the joke), but the chorus’ tone was so rich, the blending so smooth, that I forgot to laugh and simply let the lovely harmonies wash over me.

It’s not really the singing that makes Pirates work, though; it’s the acting, the comedy, and the company pulled that off with aplomb. Lillian Groag’s direction was a trifle odd, simultaneously winking at the Victorian era and returning to the operetta’s Victorian-era roots (no modern dialogue, no high-tech stagecraft, no camp). At its best, her production heightened Gilbert and Sullivan’s whimsy. I loved seeing Queen Victoria pop up every now and then in the background—on the beach, for example, when the Major-General’s flock of maidenly daughters make their appearance. Occasionally, though, the winks felt tiresomely meta. The overture, in which the Pirate King crashed a Victorian theatrical event, felt too self-conscious. During that episode, the production was chasing its own tail.

I gladly compliment Groag’s creativity, though. I wouldn’t have thought that Monty Python–style visuals—clear allusions to Terry Gilliam’s distinctive animation—would work with Gilbert and Sullivan, but they did, rather well in fact. The production ambitiously tied together more than a century of oddball British humor, and even when it didn’t quite gel, it was always buoyant—energetic and sunny and melodious—exactly what the librettist and composer would have wished.