Lots of good folk out there are still passionate about Gilbert & Sullivan, emerging every January when the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players take over City Center. This year’s season was limited to a week’s run of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, and the two matinees I attended were packed. True fans can’t get enough of these operettas, even though many of them know each one by heart—newcomers excepted, of course, like the bug-eyed kid next to me on his dad’s lap, hugely enjoying his first Pinafore. Neither Gilbert nor Sullivan was able to conjure up this kind of special magic on his own or with other collaborators. Perhaps the fact that they could barely tolerate each other—an antipathy tempered by a healthy mutual respect—kept their creativity so potent.
Choice items from the G&S canon turn up from time to time at the City Opera, but NYGASP has been the widely acknowledged specialist in this repertory for 32 years, treating its performance traditions with care without lapsing into staleness or routine. Jokes about cell phones and Paris Hilton pepper the dialogue here, and nygasp frequently welcomes a surprise guest star (last year Hal Linden brought his impish charm to The Pirates of Penzance). This time, though, the accent was on pure company values, which artistic director Albert Bergeret keeps alive year after year with near-miraculous enthusiasm. Bergeret directs and conducts all the shows, zeroing in on the satirical point of each piece while prizing musical excellence and disciplined theatrical energy above all. Bergeret sees Pinafore, for example, as a study in excess—out-of-control nationalism, petty ambition, bureaucratic idiocy, rigid class codes—and has an unerring instinct for its comic possibilities. There’s a moment in nearly every G&S operetta when even the most ridiculous situation suddenly becomes poignant. In this Pinafore, it arrives in the love-hate duet between Josephine and Ralph, who discover how much they love each other but can’t quite admit it.
The Mikado lampoons British society from top to bottom, and Jonathan Miller’s famous production (seen not so long ago at the City Opera) boldly relocates the action to a turn-of-the-century English seaside resort, retaining the Japanese character references while still managing to make the satire as pointed and funny as ever. Nowhere else did Sullivan respond to Gilbert’s wit and verbal virtuosity with music of more humor, rhythmic flexibility, and expressive variety, qualities that never get shortchanged by NYGASP. This time, two of the company’s veteran singing comedians, Stephen O’Brien and Stephen Quint, were as polished as ever as the lovably incompetent Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., England’s First Lord of the Admiralty, and Ko-Ko, Japan’s Lord High Executioner. Impeccable diction, hair-trigger comic timing, and careful observation of musical values—it’s hard to imagine these classic patter roles done better. Keith Jurosko is another longtime nygasp treasure, here performing Captain Corcoran and the Mikado with impeccable vocal control and aristocratic phrasing. The ingenues could have used more vocal glamour and security, but every concerned performer onstage upheld NYGASP’s ensemble traditions with honor.