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The 62nd Lamplighters season gets off to a delightful start

Gilbert's sketch of Major-General Stanley
Gilbert's sketch of Major-General Stanleyby William S. Gilbert, form Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Last night in the Lam Research Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), the Lamplighters Music Theatre launched the San Francisco stage of their 62nd season. The program was a full-scale production of the Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, which I have previously called “one of the most popular selections from the G&S canon of all time.” This is clearly a Lamplighters favorite, since it last served to launch the 58th season, almost exactly four years ago in 2010. This time the production was staged by Jane Erwin Hammett with Music Director Baker Peeples serving as Conductor.

One of the great delights of Lamplighters is their traditional approach to the G&S canon. They are not interested in revisionism and never (well … hardly ever) try to “update” their content with contemporary references. In other words they are smart enough to realize that, where Gilbert’s words are concerned, you don’t mess with a good thing; and the words for Pirates admirably display Gilbert’s literary skills at their finest. Between the arcane references (in Ian Bradley’s The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan the notes are at their thickest in the pages for “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”) and some truly bizarre approaches to rhyme, these are words that run circles around just about anything written in the present day (with the possible exception of Stephen Sondheim at his best).

This opera was first performed in New York in 1879; and, in that context, Sullivan’s command of the musical practices of almost the entire nineteenth century are as impressive as Gilbert’s command of the words. This is most evident in his skills at counterpoint and his power to keep two or more melodic lines going at full tilt, usually involving both chorus and orchestra. Equally impressive is his venture into styles less frequently encountered in light opera, such as the “Hail, Poetry” anthem, which reminds us that Sullivan was also responsible for several of the major hymns composed during the nineteenth century (such as “Onward, Christian soldiers” and “Rock of ages”).

Within that framework of tradition, however, Lamplighters always finds ways to bring a stamp of uniqueness to each of their productions; and, every now and then, the group allows its inventiveness to go over the top. This happened last night in a relatively unexpected setting, the lyric setting of “Sighing softly to the river,” sung by Major-General Stanley (F. Lawrence Ewing). This is usually the calm before the storm of the finale; but, in the current production, Hammett decided to allow it to be “invaded” by the second act of the ballet Giselle, complete with clouds of mist on the floor, corps de ballet moves for both the pirates and the policemen, and a few outrageous lifts worthy of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

This production will receive four more performances in San Francisco, all in the same YBCA venue. These will take place at 8 p.m. tonight (August 15) and tomorrow (Saturday) night (August 16) with 2 p.m. matinees tomorrow and Sunday, August 17. Those well versed in the G&S tradition are likely to enjoy every minute. Those who are not are likely to discover why the rest of us are so hooked and may even be moved to join our numbers.