April 28, 2013

By Michael Saffle Special to The Roanoke Times

Correction (April 28, 2013, 6:56 p.m.): John Tiranno plays the character of Frederic in Opera Roanoke’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and Scott Williamson conducted. The review has been corrected.

Friday night’s sold-out Jefferson Center audience lavished laughter and applause on Opera Roanoke’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Created by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, “Pirates” opened at London’s Opera Comique in April 1880. The show is known as a “Savoy Opera,” after the Savoy Theatre where later Gilbert and Sullivan hits were first performed.

Gilbert created a saucy, satiric libretto, for which Sullivan composed music occasionally as lovely as Mozart’s. The perennial problem is how to combine musical loveliness (and wit) with low puns and lots of on-stage joshing.

Opera Roanoke’s conductor and general and artistic director Scott Williamson and his minions let the music speak for itself. Several cast members, on the other hand, kept the audience laughing with their lively antics. When they also sang and danced to Williamson’s baton, things went swimmingly.

John Tiranno played Frederic, a young pirate-apprentice who falls for Mabel (played by Ariana Wyatt ), one of the aging Major-General’s pretty wards. John Dooley shone as the Major-General, while Bradley Smoak proved a dashing Pirate King.

Striving to break with his ocean-going companions, Frederic helps the Major-General marshal a troop of comic policemen to fight them. The police run away. More details might spoil things for Gilbert and Sullivan novices, but watch out this afternoon for Leap Year’s Day 2076 and a guest appearance by “queen” Victoria.

Friday’s production featured some excellent music. A breathtaking ensemble performance of “Hail, Poetry” was received with stunned silence. Most of the time, however, there was lots of applause.

And there was plenty of fun. The faux-ballet Dooley contributed to “Sighing Softly,” a lilting parlor-song parody that was worth the price of admission.

Wyatt possesses a coloratura’s skill and a stand up comic’s sense of timing. She was especially wonderful in Act I. Smoak sang with flair, as did police sergeant Andrew Potter .

The only zircons among Friday evening’s diamonds were contributed by Suzanne Oberdorfer as Ruth. When Oberdorfer sang out and followed Williamson’s lead, all went well. When she stepped away from Sullivan’s score, however, things went awry. Her second-act costume, though, was a hit.

The sets designed by Jimmy Ray Ward and Laurie Powell-Ward were entirely successful. So were most of the other costumes, although one blue-clad chorine looked like a 10-year-old girl. Too youthful for piratical hanky-panky.

“Pirates” concludes Opera Roanoke’s 2012- 13 season. A second performance is scheduled today at 2:30 p.m. at Jefferson Center.

Michael Saffle is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.