The modern major general, in Saturday's "Pirates of Penzance," proved how very modern he was by coming onstage for his first appearance via balloon - descending slowly like one of those gods who drop in at the end of some operas by baroque composers to settle insoluble problems. This may be considered the most outrageous innovation in the New York City Opera production, and it was a clear sign that this company is willing to put its own stamp on the operettas that have been identified for a century with the D'Oyly Carte Company, the Bayreuth of Gilbert and Sullivan.
At the risk of being counted a heretic, I would like to applaud the innovative spirit of this production, as much as for the moderation with which it is applied as for the pleasing new look it gives to the familiar material. Let me add at once that this production was hilarious and beautifully sung (the average vocal quality of the New York Company seems substantially higher than that of D'Oyly Carte) and that Judith Somogi's conducting was a marvel of lightness, crispness and pure sparkle. A company that did less justice to the music might be open to more criticism for incidental tinkering with the stage business.
In a sense, this operetta should be considered fair game for a company of New Yorkers; it was composed there and had its first performance in the Fifth Avenue Theater. That was nearly a century ago, but this production was so bright and fresh that you might think "Pirates," like its hero, counted its age only in leap-years.
The matinee performance, which I saw, was very well cast, with top vocal honors to Elizabeth Haley for her brilliant coloratura work as Mabel. Henry Price, as Frederic the reluctant pirate, was properly handsome and in good voice, thought he had less mastery of small comic gestures than Miss Haley. James Billings, the major general, stole the show, as he is supposed to do, and Jane Shaulis as Ruth the hapless maid-of-all-works, gave a beautifully rounded performance, precise in diction, rich in tone, and very funny.