An 1880s musical hardly antiquated

Classical Music

July 10, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In 1880, a musical show on Broadway was as much in demand as The Producers would be 121 years later. But audiences had a slightly easier time getting tickets than Mel Brooks fans do today, for this particular entertainment was running in at least six theaters simultaneously.

The only trouble was that the shoddy producers of these separate ventures were all guilty of artistic fraud. The public that paid good money to catch the latest sensation from England, Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, weren't experiencing the real thing.

The half-dozen productions on the New York boards were pirated versions, put together with impunity thanks to lax American copyright laws. These pale imitations contained different dialogue and even a lot of different music (one staging absurdly inserted Handel's Hallelujah Chorus into the score); none contained the original orchestration.

Naturally, the composer and librettist took a dim view of all this; so did their original producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte. The trio headed across the Atlantic to do battle with the pirates of Broadway by presenting the only authentic production of Pinafore, and promptly followed it up with the U.S. premiere of The Pirates of Penzance, which provided them a little copyright protection and a lot of artistic integrity.

Americans have subsequently treated Gilbert and Sullivan with a lot more respect, even devotion. Baltimore's Young Victorian Theatre Company, marking its 31st season of celebrating the genius of G & S, will present Pinafore this week and next. If last summer's production of The Mikado is any indication, audiences can count on a fun and faithful rendering of an ageless operetta.

Ageless? Maybe some aspects of the story are musty - a sailor loves a lass, but is thwarted by a higher-bred suitor until a revelation about a bit of baby-swapping turns the social tables. But there's still comic gold to be mined. When one main character is a thoroughly inexperienced guy who gets a plum government appointment, the satire is hardly antiquated. And the issues of class-consciousness in Gilbert's libretto that provided such mirth for the Victorians still have enough resonance in our time to hit home.

But the most enduring power of Pinafore, and most other G & S collaborations, comes in the marriage of witty verses and melodies that stick instantly in the ears.

We need not know a thing about a certain W. H. Smith, who went from paper boy to publisher to First Lord of the Admiralty in prime minister Benjamin Disraeli's cabinet without any seafaring talents, to savor Gilbert's send-up of him: a lad who "served a term as office boy to an attorney's firm" and "polished up the handle of the big front door ... so carefullee that now I am ruler of the Queen's Navee." Sullivan provides a melody that perfectly catches the metrical character of the lines, while contributing to the humor.

The composer is no less responsive to more serious verses, fashioning ballads that have just the right dollop of sentimentality, or coming up with full-fledged arias and duets that would be at home in a Donizetti opera. Sullivan's command of technique is everywhere in evidence in Pinafore. Consider the choral number that precedes the arrival of the ruler of the Queen's Navee - one melody for the sailors, another for the ladies of the admiral's entourage, woven together seamlessly.

Much to his regret, Sullivan owed his fame to the operettas he turned out with Gilbert, rather than such things as his high-toned oratorio The Golden Legend, his Irish symphony and his only grand opera, Ivanhoe. But if the composer never could conquer the realm of "high art," his reign over high entertainment of operetta will continue indefinitely.

The Young Vic's production of H.M.S. Pinafore, starring Sara Stewart as Josephine, Jeremy Blossey as Ralph Rackstraw and The Sun's Dan Rodricks as Sir Joseph Porter, will be directed by Roger Brunyate and conducted by J. Ernest Green.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and July 19-21, and 3 p.m. Sunday and July 22 at Centennial Hall, Bryn Mawr School, 109 W. Melrose Ave. Tickets are $27 for adults, $20 for children 12 and younger. Call 410-323-3077.

Opera alive

Those who think opera composing effectively died when Puccini did in 1924 haven't encountered Carlisle Floyd. The American composer has enjoyed an extraordinary success with the public since his first hit in 1955, Susannah, which has been widely performed ever since. Of Mice and Men, from 1970, has proved nearly as popular, and his latest work, Cold Sassy Tree, seems headed into the permanent repertoire. At his best, Floyd combines involving stories and unapologetically lyrical, dramatically telling music.

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