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February 7, 2004

Has the Lyric gone Lite?

The Lyric Opera's gone fluff, raising heckles here and there with their latest production, that Savoy staple The Pirates of Penzance. I attended last night's performance with great anticipation, prepared to intoxicate myself on a topsy-turvy Gilbert concoction and lilting Sullivan melody, and I left feeling all but completely sated. I must admit to an enormous soft spot for Gilbert and Sullivan. Having parents who performed in a local G&S group, I was infected by this vice at an early age. Summer evenings were spent in rehearsal, splitting my time between my crayons and casual study of the choreography. I even donned the tights and cake makeup myself on a couple of occasions, pulling duty in the role of townschild (Ruddigore and Yeomen, for the record). So maybe I'm susceptible to bias. And maybe I'm something like the poor sap who, raised on Velveeta, retains a taste for the stuff all their life even in a house of Brie and Camembert, but I'd like to think there's something more to it.

It seems there have been some alarmist cries and consternation over this low-budget replacement for more daring fare. While I expected some sort of defense of the merits of operetta—appeals to recognize the vocal demands of Sullivan's music or the dramatic pedigree of Gilbert's libretto—in the program (and it did not disappoint), the best apologetics were reserved for the Major-General's patter-song, with the addition of a verse touting the virtues of British culture but acknowledging that the show was indeed merely 'a replacement for Berlioz'. But that's all just a matter for the uptight skeptics; and judging from the refined operatic head-bobbing and foot-tapping, skeptics were in short supply. (At any rate, the skeptics need not fear, as apparently not all companies are as cowardly as the Lyric... Watch Anthony Tommasini brandish his rhetorical foil: the San Francisco Opera is only reluctantly 'shelving' two company firsts, contra the 'play-it-safe' Lyric which is 'dropping' theirs for plebeian dreck; note the boldness with which heroic San Francisco is credited for premiering John Adams' new Doctor Atomic in 2005-06 while the sad, sad Lyric won't stage the co-production till 2006-07... I guess we all need our straw men.)

Neal Davies and Peter Rose are outstanding as Major-General Stanley and Sergeant of Police respectively. By far the highlight of this altogether captivating production, however, is the performance of the show's female lead, singing in the role of Stanley's daughter and young Frederic's sweetheart, Mabel—something beyond glorious. I couldn't help but think that, Serious Music's defenders be damned, if I'd needed any proof of the value of a "high" production of this Victorian operetta, her performance was it. Only afterward did I consult my playbill to see just who this soprano might be: Elizabeth Futral, so... 'no shit', right?... of course she was marvelous—the woman is hardly in need of my endorsement. Really, what's so wrong with having such phenomenal talent perform such wonderful music?

I'll stop before I begin to gush too much more, but only after elaborating further that if there's ever any prospect of redemption or validation for "light opera" I strongly suspect that "Poor wand'ring one!" must be involved in some respect.

"Has the Lyric gone Lite?"
Posted by Dan at 03:59 PM


Referenced in this post:

Anxiety alters Lyric lineup
G&S Archive: Pirates of Penzance
G&S Archive: Ruddigore
G&S Archive: Yeomen of the Guard
Lyric Opera: Pirates of Penzance
Tough Opera for Tough Times