The Pirates of Penzance at Nashville Opera

I saw the Nashville Opera’s final performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance at TPAC’s Polk Theater this past weekend. This comic opera premiered over 150 years ago and still gets laughs. The plot is silly: Frederic has been indentured to pirates through an accident (his nursery-maid misheard his father, who asked her to indenture him to a pilot, not a pirate), and as he comes of age, he leaves the pirates to obey his duty to destroy them. He runs across beautiful girls and falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of a Major General. Frederic is then visited by the pirate king who tells him that, although he’s been alive for twenty-one years, since he was born on a leap year he’s only technically had five birthdays. Since his contract of indenture said he would serve with them until his 21st birthday, 63 years in the future. Frederic’s sense of duty compels him to return to piracy, a lot of policemen and pirates run around the stage until then end, when all the pirates give up piracy in the name of the queen.

(Photo: Anthony Popolo for Nashville Opera, 2023)

One of the first things I noticed when arriving for the Sunday matinee were the children playing with piratical photo props, hooks and hats and telescopes. Then when we sat down, kids were peering over the wall into the pit to stare at the musicians and their instruments. It reminded me of when I was a kid in 2006 and got to see the Nashville Opera perform another Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Iolanthe. I remember being captivated by the stage, the music, and the jokes. If I had been one of the children watching The Pirates of Penzance on Sunday, I would have considered the moment when the head of police’s pants fall down to reveal his heart-covered boxers to be the peak of comedy. I don’t recommend taking children to every opera just as I don’t recommend taking them to every movie, but the Nashville Opera doing Gilbert and Sullivan is a perfect introduction to the stage.

Before the curtain went up on the full house, Stage Director John Hoomes came out and told us that five minutes before the end of the Saturday-night performance, the actress playing Ruth (the nursery-maid) fell on stage, but got back up and finished the show. After it had ended she told him she thought her wrist was broken. It was, and she spent all night at the ER. Later I found out that she took minimal painkillers for the performance and is awaiting surgery later this week. Despite this, she would continue her role in the Sunday show. “The cast she’s wearing is real, don’t think it was a directorial choice,” Hoomes said.

After he spoke, a spokeswoman from a corporate sponsor came out to read a long buzzword-collage speech off her phone. I’m thankful for generosity that supports the arts, but it made our pre-show enthusiasm wane slightly. After that was over, the lights dimmed and the orchestra, under Conductor and Nashville Opera Music Director Dean Williamson, began the overture. They were able to regain the pre-show enthusiasm; then and throughout the entire opera, the orchestra sounded excellent. It was full, balanced, colorful, and able to move fluidly through each mood. Each soloist was strong, and together they captured the sense of humor needed to partner with the singers and to make the show.

(Photo: Anthony Popolo for Nashville Opera, 2023)

One of the delightful things about The Pirates of Penzance is the amount of voices it has; there are thirteen young women under the Major General’s care (if I counted correctly), and a matching number of pirates. We get rich moments of over a dozen women harmonizing with each other, the same with the men. When they all harmonized with each other the effect was overwhelming. I can sit down and play a seventh chord on the piano and it just sounds like a chord, but if I hear a large group of people singing a seventh chord I think “Oh the tension!”

The sets were simple and most of their personality came from the projected backdrop, designed by Barry Steele. Mainly being a simple background, it occasionally participated in the comedy. As the nervous policemen sang their ridiculous song, the backdrop, which had been mere arches and stone walls of a chapel, suddenly had Monty Python-esque photograph cutouts of policemen with wagging mouths popping out from behind the stones. My teenage brother was with me and he thought this was a particularly hilarious touch. Later when people sang about the paradox of leap-year birthdays the entire background spun upside down. At the end, as the pirates were asked to yield in the name of Queen Victoria, a massive image of her looking particularly dour and victorian slid up and covered most of the screen, adding to the suddenness and pomposity of the deliberately goofy deus ex machina.

Glenn Avery Breed designed the costumes. The pirates wore good classic, colorful attire, the sort of look that cheap children’s costumes mimic poorly. My favorite costumes were those worn by the girls, light dresses with two different sets of patterns in many different colors. It allowed the girls to blend together and separate the differently-dressed Mabel from them, while having bright pops of color. The cut of the dresses made the choreographed dances, the sways and the movements of their colorful matching umbrellas, more fun.

(Photo: Anthony Popolo for Nashville Opera, 2023)

Tosha Marie’s choreography was well done, funny and taking full advantage of the large cast. Each of the dances fit their songs and scenes, but my favorite choreographed moment was when the girls, singing that they’ll be kind to Mabel and allow her to have a private moment with her new boyfriend Frederic, sing about the weather while slowly shifting across the stage to listen in on the oblivious couple.

The orchestra partnered perfectly with the cast, which as a whole was solid, with several standouts. Emily Pulley played Ruth, the piratical nursery-maid, and she was easily my favorite performer in the show. She is energetic, has a lovely voice, and absolutely top-notch comic timing. Added to all this was admiration that she was able to achieve this with a freshly broken wrist. Judging by the size of the cast, which covered most of her hand and went up past her elbow, it must have been quite painful. After intermission her character appeared in piratical costume, and with a goofy hook stuck on to the end of her cast, making her look lopsided with a massive white hooked arm. The cast may have not been a directorial choice, but it might prove to be one in the future.

Evelyn Saavedra played Mabel, giving her oblivious extraness of the comedic love interest, and she sang her comically ornate songs with humor. Alysha Nesbitt played Kate, and her voice and stage presence made her stand out from the other women on stage. Curt Olds was Major General Stanley. His physical comedy was excellent and when he was creeping around in his long nightgown, trying to hide from his daughters, he channeled Marx brother energy from their famous scene in Duck Soup.

I saw the Nashville Opera do the Pirates of Penzance in their 2015 season, and years before that I had seen the Kevin Kline theatrical version. As I attended the show on Sunday, I remembered some of the major plot points and that it was funny. What I hadn’t remembered is exactly how funny it is and why it is such a staple of comic opera. I look forward to being able to take my son to future performances of such excellent comic opera.

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