Opera Anywhere, faithful to its name, popped up on Saturday evening at Wolfson College, spreading itself along the quayside and in punts on the water of the creek off the R. Cherwell. An audience of c. 140, armed with picnics - the whole works in some cases, with fruits de mer and champers - spread itself on the grassy bank above the creek, peering down upon it. Despite being surrounded on three sides by the 1967 college buildings of Powell and Moya, 'among the best English architects' for the exacting Nikolaus Pevsner, the eye is led over the little, rustic harbour to alders and weeping willows and on to the river beyond.
The Pirates of Penzance is, with The Mikado and HMS Pinafore, one of the trio of most popular Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas; though perhaps a lesser work that the other two, lacking the exoticism of the former and the satirical edge of the latter. Here there were staging pitfalls to be overcome: the void in front of the players was large, occasioning some acoustic problems with mikes functioning less than perfectly. Mike Woodward's Major-General Stanley in scarlet uniform and white pith helmet was a victim of this, the intricate lyrics of his I am the very model... for many of the audience being whisked away into space. The stone quayside was unavoidably narrow so that pirates and maidens tended to be strung along it like so many shirts on a washing line. As expected, the propulsion of the punts was capricious, the maidens making a belated appearance to ironically rapturous applause. Of course OA is unmoved by staging challenges, and the audience cared not a jot.
After the picnic interval the action moved indoors for Act II in a graveyard, actually the gleaming Wolfson Auditorium, all chestnut panels and ribs of pre-stressed concrete. Again, there were slight acoustic problems in that the 5-person band, and particularly the piano, tended to compete with rather than accompany the singers. But the energy and commitment of the cast were such that my neighbours, many of them quite young children, listened and watched the 137 year-old arias, recitatives and dialogue with rapt attention.
The stately Mark Horner's bumbling police sergeant raised perhaps the biggest laughs of the evening, and how he managed to cram himself into his half-barrel I shall never know. The pirates were suitably all bark and no bite, and I thought Samuel Pantcheff their chief, a pirate king with scruples, was the star of the show with his full bass and insouciant presence. Amy Webber's Mabel coped well with her Poor wand'ring one solo in the tricky, outdoor conditions, and Tristan Stocks' naive Frederic demonstrated a pleasing tenor voice in his duets. Vanessa Woodward was a agreeably dim-witted and sly maid-of-all-work, and I enjoyed Nikki Bagshaw and Katie Blackwell as daughter and ward. Ms Blackwell I remember as one of the three little fan-fluttering maids in The Mikado. She's the kind of invaluable actor and singer who squeezes the last drop out of even a small part.
At the end, the audience cheered and stamped. Opera Anywhere's spotted a niche in the market and is working it with panache. Great stuff!