1936; The Pirates of Penzance
By W. S. GILBERT and ARTHUR SULLIVAN performed by THE SCHOOL OPERATIC SOCIETY IN THE SCHOOL HALL on March 26th, 27th, and 28th, 1936
(This notice is based on a visit to the last of the three performances.)
The key note of this production was its integrity, a virtue that marked out the performances themselves no less than the long and toilsome weeks of preparation that preceded them.
For though the soloists might rehearse at ten minutes past four, the chorus at five o'clock, the orchestra at six, and the full company at seven, it was not until the week of the performances had dawned that the rest of us noticed ought of all this. The term had gone its solid course with gapless ranks; no Pirate had turned his back on Latin or Literature; no General's daughter had absented himself from the labs; and the devotion of the few had endowed the new Operatic Society with the shining and, considering the magnitude of its enterprise, unexpected virtue of being a genuinely out-of-school activity. We took our seat on the night in a correspondingly good humour.
In an impressive and decorous "well," emanating from the workshop, sat Mr. Belchambers' orchestra of 20 good men and true, and the tuning and preliminary twittering of such a range of instruments can never yet have been heard in the Monoux School Hall. The overture was perhaps their least effective achievement, but thereafter they greatly distinguished themselves, playing, neath the sway of Mr. Belchambers' firm baton, with a goodly volume, a masterly sureness, a ready discretion, a firm sweep of strings and a lyrical sweetness of flute, that were completely satisfying.
That same sureness, attainable by nothing but really hard work, was the hall-mark of the stage. Not a cue was missed; there was no thought of the prompter; recitatives were intoned as by mature Elijah soloists; encores granted without a moment's fumbling; and the chorus of the General's Daughters, filling the limited scene with their spreading gear, elaborately gyrated, but collided not.
These young ladies, quite the most lifelike constituent of the cast, were one of the outstanding successes of the production, and their first buzzing, fluttering entry was hailed with incredulous applause. Charmingly dressed, they were to remain throughout the evening gracefully, splendidly, amusingly in character. Only their tone might at times have been fuller.
No less effective in appearance, movement and by-play was the grim and leering Pirate Band, singing and acting with resonant zest. In Act II the male chorus is divided, and while the pirates stampeded splendidly "with cat-like tread." the rest, with drooping moustaches and doleful mien, gave a precise and at the same time admirably droll performance of the two policemen's choruses. It may here be said that the humours of the opera, however we of 1936 may individually estimate them, were fully understood and exploited by the entire cast.
And so to the principals. Here, it must be confessed, notwithstanding the many and enjoyable merits of the various performances, we frequently longed for a greater volume of tone. Wisely, no doubt, the voices had not been forced, and the effect was always musical, but the fact remains that, vocally, B.T.D.Otter and J.A.Cartwright were alone consistently equal to their roles, and to the hall.
E.N.Duff was admirably cast for the long and arduous part of Frederick, the Pirate Apprentice. He has a pleasant voice and sang throughout with an excellent sureness, most effectively, perhaps, in "Oh! Is there not one maiden breast" and in the first duet with Mabel. His acting was marked by a certain ingenuousness, that was well in character, but at times, too, by a stiffness and poverty of gesture which were less admirable. The same weakness somewhat marred the Pirate King of A.J.W.Dykes, particularly in Act I, where his lack of abandon made "Oh, better far to live and die" less exhilarating that it might have been. But he looked well, with glowing eyes amid coal-black locks, was consistently good in the important shorter musical pronouncements of his part. and made an admirable job of the explanatory incantation concerning Frederick's age. K.Paton, resplendently uniformed, revealed the soul of the Major General with an earnestness that was excellently ironic, and tackled well the difficult patter song in Act I.J.I'A.Cartwright made a definite success of the heroic part of the Sergeant of Police, bringing to it a clear and resonant voice and much effective humour of gesture and intonation. The encore repeat of "When a felon's not engaged in his employment" in the accents of Mayfair was a pretty compliment to the alumni of the Police College. D.G.Knappett sang and acted lustily in the part of Sam, the Pirate Lieutenant.
As Mabel, the female lead, B. T. D. Otter acted not so much poorly as not at all. But his singing was magnificent. When once the awkward coloratura passage of Mabel's entry had been negotiated, he sang until the end with a splendid sureness of pitch and tempo, a winning resonance and purity, that were a great delight. With its slightly plaintive timbre, his voice was equally effective in the lovely solo passages of the part (such as "Poor wand'ring one" and "Did ever maiden wake"); in the charming duet with Frederick in Act II ("Stay, Fred'ric, stay'."); and, in perhaps the best minutes of the evening, soaring freely above the full texture of orchestra and double chorus, with "Go ye heroes. go to glory!" Mabel's principal sisters, Edith, Kate and Isabel, were delightfully played by D.P.D.Curl, A.L.Dallas and R.D.Barry respectively; Edith with a smiling matronliness; Kate with a coy and delicate grace, a charming piece of acting; and Isabel as a sterner brunette. Curl had most to sing, but was unfortunately too inaudible. As Ruth, the Pirate Maid-of-all-work, R.R.Davis acted vigorously, but seemed vocally somewhat miscast.
But it is to the concerted numbers that the mind reverts: to the first duet of Mabel and Frederick against the weather chatter of the General's Daughters; to the fine hymnal outburst "Hail Poetry"; and to the complex and hitchless finale of Act II, with its swift-moving denouement, its lively interplay of soloists and chorus, recitative and recapitulation, and Mabel's last haunting "Take heart" on that succession of separated quavers.
However hard they worked on the stage and in the orchestra, much of the credit for the success of the performances and for those qualities of sureness and smoothness that were their outstanding characteristic is due to other helpers: to the skill, the patience and the enthusiasm of Mr. Gerald Matthews, the producer; to Mr. Brobyn, who secured point and audibility for the spoken dialogue; to Mr. Skinner, who coached the soloists and, if it may be divulged, swelled the choruses from the wings: to Mr. Arthur and his attendant luminaries, who installed and controlled the lighting with their usual resourcefulness and efficiency; and to Mrs. Belchambers, Miss Bolton and Mrs. Curl, who gave most valuable help in connection with the female costumes. The scenery, stable and satisfying, had been kindly lent by the Woodford Fellowship. Mr. Rayner and Mr. Emery were Business Managers, and Mr. Watson Advertisement Manager, and their duties were by no means light. (It is pleasing to record, incidentally, that the production paid, and more than paid, its way.)
And all the threads converged in the hands of Mr. Belchambers, the musical director, co-ordinating genius, ultimate driving force, in a word, the sine qua non of the production. We certainly hope he will undertake something similar in the future with the more Otters, the better.