> Opera and Oratorio
The Pirates of Penzance
Hughes, Kress, Birrer, Best; Faulk, Wuehrmann, Moss, Christopher, Kelleher-Flight; Ohio Light Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Thompson. Albany Records 1331/32 (2)
With all varieties of Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance recordings available — from D'Oyly Carte through Joseph Papp, with many others along the spectrum — what possible reason could there be for another? If it's traditional fare you crave, there are arguably two recordings worth measuring this against — the 1968 star-studded D'Oyly Carte version under the baton of Isidore Godfrey, with complete dialogue (reissued in 2003), and the 1993 Telarc release, featuring Charles Mackerras and the Welsh National Opera.
The D'OC contains a few distortions consistent with 1968 recording standards; with no dialogue or overture, the Mackerras is incomplete, if vocally brilliant. The new Ohio Light Opera CD set is complete and very well engineered; transitions between music and dialogue are as smooth as glass. Music scenes were recorded on the stage of an otherwise empty Freedlander Theatre at Wooster College, which has in earlier OLO recordings led to varying sound levels. Not here. Sullivan fanatics may object to the chatter that sometimes overlays the music, but it also conveys the feel of a staged production.
The performance is straightforwardly traditional — no fussiness or interpolated porkpie humor, but with few "aha!" moments. Conductor J. Lynn Thompson can be forgiven if he opts for "pretty" over punchy: Pirates has a very lyric score. But the overture seems excessively string-y, and even the normally robust chorus "With catlike tread" gets the pretty treatment. Tempos drag in spots where more energy might help, to wit "When a felon's not engaged…." The orchestra is, as usual, excellent, and very good chorus work is evident throughout.
The cast is full of current-generation OLO favorites. As the Pirate King, Gary Moss is totally at ease, with a gruff, masculine presence. He falls prey to pitch problems in his big aria, "Oh, better far…," but recovers as the show progresses. David Kelleher-Flight's flawless diction and flexible lyric baritone make him a very aristocratic-sounding Samuel. The Sergeant of Police fits veteran Ted Christopher like a glove.
The Frederic of Stephen Faulk sounds appropriately young and earnest — perhaps still settling into his accent in dialogue scenes — with a secure, muscular tone (he sounds athletic!) that ably matches the vocal pyrotechnics of Karla Hughes's Mabel. The "Stay, Frederic, stay … here is love" duet section is lovely and believably sincere. Hughes displays seemingly effortless dexterity in negotiating Sullivan's leaps (e.g. "he looooves thee").
Lori Birrer and Sarah Best, Edith and Kate, respectively, are both excellent mezzos. Jacquelyn Kress brings to Ruth a clear and stylish mature sound. Nicholas Wuehrmann (Major-General), who also stage-directed this Pirates, seems a deserving inheritor of the Frederick Reeder patter roles.
There is no trace of the exhaustion these singers must feel: this recording was made at the end of the OLO summer program, which finds performers singing lead roles — or ensemble — in two different shows per day. Ohio Light Opera is recording the G&S canon at the rate of roughly one per summer; Pirates is the tenth. This is a very good Pirates of Penzance, uncut and technically strong, if not wildly exciting — a worthy addition to an all-but-complete collection.