‘Pirates of Penzance’ showcases Virginia Opera’s strengths and charm

The Pirates of Penzance at the Virginia Opera is a delightful show. Directed and choreographed by Kyle Lang, and featuring accompaniment by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adam Turner, this comic opera showcases the strengths of this company.

This opera, which boasts music by the famous (infamous?) Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W.S. Gilbert, tells the tale of Frederic (Martin Bakari). Having recently been released from his indenture to a band of pirates, he stumbles across a group of women who are unaware that the secluded place they have arrived at is the home of said pirates. Frederic falls in love with one of the women, Mabel (Amy Owens), and comedy ensues as he attempts to continue his relationship with her. Most of what’s truly funny about Gilbert and Sullivan operas is that they reflect truths about human nature. While originally intended as swipes at 19th-century British bureaucracy, most of what Gilbert and Sullivan parodied exists in some form or another today.

Martin Bakari as Frederic and Amy Owens as Mabel in ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ Photo by Dave Pearson Photography.

There was a good deal of heart in each of the performances, but the one that stands out is Amy Owens as Mabel. Her vocal control is undeniable. She is a more grounded soprano, as opposed to being too airy, so her performance is well-suited to comic roles. Her “Poor wand’ring one” in the first act is a delight. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock also impresses as The Pirate King. Allicock’s “Oh, better far to live and die” was exuberant and powerful, displaying a vocal depth and warmth that really showcase the Verdi-like overtones of the work.

Aubrey Allicock as the Pirate King and ensemble in ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ Photo by Dave Pearson Photography.

The Pirates of Penzance relies on a lot of good comedic timing almost as much as it relies on good singing. Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer, as Frederic’s erstwhile nursemaid Ruth, really nails a lot of the more critical jokes. Her acting is near-perfect. The same can be said of baritone Troy Cook’s Major-General Stanley, who performs the classic “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” admirably. Tenor Martin Bakari, as Frederic, brings a nice balance to the role. His tenor is neither overpowering nor washed out and his acting is well done. Bass Jeremy Harr also turns in a strong performance as the goofy Sergeant of Police, leading their act two highlight “When the foeman bares his steel.”

The Virginia Opera, like many others, borrows its sets and costumes from other companies. The original scenic and costume designer, James Schuette, has provided a lot to work with. The set itself is impressive, boasting a large and moveable pirate ship along with a cartoonish ocean backdrop. Both the set and costumes come together nicely to give the work a larger-than-life feel and aid the comedy by not being photorealistic. The pirate costumes lean toward our modern ideal, pulled more from Pirates of the Caribbean than anything else, and this plays out perfectly fine. Lighting Designer Driscoll Otto does a fantastic job of highlighting what they’re given to work with.

Troy Cook as Major-General Stanley and ensemble in ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ Photo by Dave Pearson Photography.

Director and Choreographer Kyle Lang gives the performers room to be funny. Much of the comedy is physical, and the blocking aids in communicating the overarching messages. The choreography itself is very impressive. Lang’s talent really shines, especially in the scenes where the women perform with their chorus.

The Pirates of Penzance shows that the Virginia Opera is a serious contender among local opera companies. This production highlights the Virginia Opera’s charm and ability to attract star performers, as well as rising stars. If you are a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, you won’t want to miss this one.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

The Pirates of Penzance will be performed next November 18 and 20, 2022, presented by Virginia Opera performing at the Carpenter Theatre, 600 East Grace Street, Richmond, VA. Purchase tickets ($19.50–$140) online. 

The program for The Pirates of Penzance is online here.

COVID Safety: Masking at performances is not required, though is recommended. Virginia Opera’s COVID-19 Protocols are here.