Keller plunders ‘Pirates’

Portland Opera's transfer of Ashland's sprightly Gilbert & Sullivan gets lost in the 3,000-seat auditorium's cavernous translation

What a difference a house makes.

When director Bill Rauch’s spritzed-up production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance played at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2011, it was daring not just for its latter-day musical insertions (from the Beatles to Michael Jackson) but also for its setting: it played on the Elizabethan Stage, the festival’s 1,200-seat open-air theater, a space open to birds and bees and rain and the ambient buzz of motorcycles and monster trucks rumbling through town. The production mostly triumphed over those odds, thanks in part to miking that added a slight metallic undercurrent to the actors’ voices but also allowed the music and lyrics to come across crystal-clear. The show was a deserved hit.

Justice will be served: the constables of "Pirates." Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Justice will be served: the constables of “Pirates.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

So when Rauch and Portland Opera struck a deal to recreate the production in Portland, with the same design and production team but a new cast of acting singers rather than singing actors, hopes were high: what might this charming production be like in the enclosed and more soundproof setting of Portland’s Keller Auditorium?

The opera’s Pirates opened Friday night in the Keller, and despite a standing ovation that felt much more spontaneous and heartfelt than the usual obligatory struggle to their feet by Portland audiences, one thing stood out for me: the Keller can be a worse killer of sound than Ashland’s outdoor stage.

That shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’ve sat through an untold number of touring musicals with wretched, sometimes ear-splitting sound systems in the city’s massive 3,000-seat performance hall, a problem often compounded because traveling shows usually insist on using their own sound techs rather than relying on locals who know the hall’s quirks. But in spite of occasional muffled sounds from scenes set too far upstage, the opera generally sidesteps those problems, partly because its productions are acoustic and its singers are used to projecting into large spaces. The Keller’s far from a perfect space for opera, but it’s at least minimally serviceable. (The 900-seat Newmark Theatre is much better, but too small to be economically feasible under the opera company’s current model.)

As the opening night audience’s enthusiasm attests, this Pirates has a lot going for it. First, of course, is the play itself, whether you call it an opera, operetta, or musical comedy. Arthur Sullivan’s score, a rollicking original with a pastiche of popular parts from Verdi to Gounod, is eminently hummable, a brilliant and witty expression of high-Victorian style. And W.S. Gilbert’s libretto remains a sparkling example of British parody, from its tongue-twisting lyrics to its passionate spasms and tweakings of the stiff upper lip. Rauch’s production, with its dashing costumes by Deborah M. Dryden and Michael Ganio’s cleverly contraption-laden set, moves swiftly and gives a knowing nod to the conventions of 19th century theater.

But something’s been lost in the transfer. Part of it is the beefing-up of the show to fill the Keller, a move that looks good on paper but results in less crispness and agility. Part is vocal approach, a problem highlighted by Talise Trevigne’s pivotal performance as Mabel. Trevigne, a rising star in the opera world, has lovely tone and fine stage presence. But she sings vowels in a show that demands consonants. It’s nearly impossible to understand the words she’s singing, and in Pirates, unlike so many full-blown operas, the lyrics are at least as important as the music. They’re essential – the soul of the show, really.

And that’s where the Keller truly lets this production down. Using microphones is a no-no in opera, and for good reason: opera is a celebration of the wonders of the human voice, amplified only by the training and abilities of the human body. A microphone simply changes things, and while a good jazz or pop singer can use one as an extension of her voice or even as a separate instrument capable of being manipulated to make its own sounds, it violates the nature of opera. Bowing to practicality and the great amount of dialogue in Pirates, Portland Opera decided to mike the speaking parts, but not the singing. And when the singing begins, clarity often goes out the window. The veteran Robert Orth, for instance, is splendid as Stanley, the fatuous “modern major-general.” But for his opening scene, which ought to be a highlight of the show, he’s stationed atop a high bridge far upstage, where the Keller’s acoustics are typically at their worst, and his voice is heavily muffled, hardly projecting at all. He’s not the only one. For most of opening night’s performance I found myself constantly checking the supertitles so I could tell what was being sung. And Gilbert & Sullivan shows rely so much on their quick and dizzying verbal wit that no one should ever have to rely on supertitles to get what’s happening: it’s like eating a candy bar with the wrapper still on.

MacPherson, Trevigne, and the major-general's daughters. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

MacPherson, Trevigne, and the major-general’s daughters. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

In spite of its deep problems, this Pirates seems a genuine crowd-pleaser. The comedy works, and often very well, although some of the musical add-ons seem excessive and a little jarring in the way they break Sullivan’s compositional style. Rubber-limbed Kevin Burdette, looking like he stepped straight out of a Mack Sennett silent-film comedy, leads a sprightly and impeccably entertaining chorus of cops as the Sergeant of Police. Tenor Ryan MacPherson is limber and vocally articulate as Frederic, the pirate lad whose birthday falls unfortunately on February 29th. And there is good support from several of the major-general’s bevy of daughters, among them Nicole Haslett, Melissa Fajardo, and Shalanda Sims.

In spite of its several pleasures, Portland Opera’s Pirates feels like a missed opportunity. I enjoyed the performance, but only after lowering my expectations. And I lowered them largely because the Keller seems particularly unsuited to this show.

Barring the addition of an acoustically resilient 1,800-seat opera and ballet house, which at this point in Portland’s civic and financial evolution seems a dim prospect at best, what might have brought out the best in a Penzance that had already proved its worth in Ashland? The answer might be just a few blocks away, at the 900-seat Newmark Theatre, where the opera company already produces one show a season – and where its productions are often among their seasons’ highlights.

What if the company had treated this production as the work of musical theater it most resembles, and mounted it in the Newmark for a three-week run? Yes, there would be obstacles, from casting to scheduling to finding seats for subscribers and maintaining (and paying for) a longer run. But it could also break the opera beyond its regular ticket-buying base and into the potentially larger theater audience. And the show itself, cut back to something closer to its Ashland size, would look and sound better.

Is this the time for the opera to start thinking seriously about shifting more of its attention to the smaller but more artistically suitable Newmark, reserving the Keller for a few big shows? It could be the very model of a modern mobile opera company.

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 Final performances of Portland Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, May 15 and 17, at Keller Auditorium. Ticket information is here.

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2 Responses.

  1. Thanks for the discerning review, Bob. I too found much to enjoy in this production, particularly Rauch’s unscripted additions and the energetic performances, but struggled with the same venue-imposed impediments. Maybe it’s time to renew ArtsWatch’s discussion about the suitability of the Keller vs. the Newmark, earlier raised here: http://www.orartswatch.org/portland-operas-postcard-from-morocco-do-we-need-more-of-less/.

  2. Mike O'Brien says:

    Whew! I thought my hearing had suddenly failed.

    A good show though I missed that D’Oyly Carte crisp lyricism. I really like your suggestion to stage in the Newmark.

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