Vancouver Opera's The Pirates of Penzance plays it traditional, with moments of slapstick fun

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A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, December 1. Continues until December 9

It’s become fashionable to satirize The Pirates of Penzance, which itself parodies the society and politics of its time—not to mention opera itself. There has been everything from all-male casts to last summer’s Stratford Festival version set in the backstage of an old Victorian theatre. Here, Vancouver Opera gives us a traditional production that attempts to mine the humour in Gilbert and Sullivan’s script while highlighting the music with a full orchestra and mostly classically trained voices. While it isn’t the campiest, most rollicking or stylish rendition you are likely to see, it features some exquisite songs and earns some hearty applause and laughs. Don’t even try to resist: you will go home humming its tunes.

Nonetheless, a few things go topsy-turvy. The first act’s painted rocks and ship (borrowed from Edmonton Opera) are one-dimensional, and the second’s ruins are so flimsy that “pillars” shudder and shake as cast members whisk by them. With Pirates, you either have to go for historic richness or head entirely the other way, into almost cartoonish, Monty Python artifice. And the casting is inconsistent. On one end, you have Bard on the Beach’s Christopher Gaze, who also directs. The Vancouver legend is a seasoned actor but not operatically trained. This, however, didn’t seem to bother the crowd, which loved his wonderfully daft Major-General. On the other, you have veteran mezzo Judith Forst, who is steeped in opera and its more exaggerated performance style. The sophisticated grandmother of Canadian opera has the added burden of trying to play a much-younger, rough-around-the-edges 47-year-old pirate-nursemaid, Ruth.

Fortunately, the pirate apprentice Frederic (Roger Honeywell) and the virginal Mabel (Rachel Fenlon) have the vocal and comedic chops to steer this ship through all its silly machinations. Frederic has just reached his 21st birthday and is to be freed from being a pirate apprentice. The only woman he’s ever seen is the aging Ruth, so when he happens upon the Major-General Stanley’s bevvy of picnicking daughters, and the beautiful Mabel, he’s besotted. But having to do battle with a group of overly sensitive pirates, a protective Major-General, and a Keystone Cops–styled group of bobbies complicate things considerably.

Canadian tenor Honeywell has a Will Ferrell–like talent for physical comedy, especially in a slo-mo slapstick sequence in the second act. And watch his feigned earnestness when he learns that, because he’s a leap-year baby, he can’t hook up with Mabel till 1940, and pledges to wait for her, 50-odd years hence. He also soars effortlessly and openly on the high Bs and B-flats.

Fenlon trills like a bird, virtuosically yet hilariously, through her first-act coloratura sendup. And Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, though he doesn’t have the menacingly deep baritone you might expect for the Pirate King, cuts a game swath in his leather pants and heavy-metal mane; watch the relish he takes in smashing people’s noggins together, or waving a gun at his men, not to mention the conductor, when he wants something.

There’s some lovely, nuanced work from the chorus, especially in the shimmering women’s numbers. And accolades have to go to the VO Orchestra, under Jonathan Darlington, as well; right from the serene overture medley, the band takes an unusually gentle, unrushed approach to the score, highlighting its intricate harmonies and mellifluous strings.

And what of the operetta’s best-known hit—“I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”? Gaze plays with the patter song’s rhythms, slowing it down and semi-speaking it to nail its tongue-twisters. He also, as is traditional, adds a contemporary verse; this one riffs on Canadian geography and former prime ministers. Like the rest of the show, it’s not too over-the-top, but still enough to earn hoots from the home crowd (this helped by the fact the Major-General is so comically doddery).

After more than a century, Pirates served almost straight-up—or as straight-up as topsy-turvy Gilbert and Sullivan can be—can still please a crowd. This production, despite its flaws, did just that, with the audience clapping in rhythm at the curtain call like it was 1880 at London’s Opera Comique.

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