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The Sunday Opera: Two by Sullivan: "The Pirates of Penzance" & "The Rose of Persia"

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It’s music of Sir Arthur Sullivan on this week’s Sunday Opera (1/5 3:00 p.m.) with two of his operettas: the well-known “Pirates of Penzance” and the far lesser-known “The Rose of Persia.” As they might say in Philadelphia: “One wit, and one witout,” and that “wit” is W.S. Gilbert.

For the “Pirates of Penzance,” we’ve chosen the 1981 Broadway revival (the 25th revival!) which updated the book and music and was a hit running 787 performances and winning that year’s Tony for Best Revival. The cast includes Kevin Kline as The Pirate King, Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, Rex Smith as her love Frederic, Eileen Brennan as Ruth, Tony Azito as the Chief of Police, and George Rose as Major General Stanley. This production is quirky and fun, and although the singing may not be first-rate all around, the energy and obvious glee of the cast more than makes up for it.

“The Rose of Persia,” on the other hand, is very much a piece of its time. After Sullivan’s partnership with W.S. Gilbert crashed, D’Oyly Carte did his best to match Sullivan with another librettist. That librettist was Basil Hood who wrote at least six operettas for the Savoy Theatre as well as many others including adapting works like “The Merry Widow” for English audiences.

“The Rose of Persia” contains some lovely music, but it has a storyline that rivals the most convoluted plot conceived by Gilbert.

A philanthropic man runs afoul of a cleric until the cleric is made the beneficiary of the man’s will. Through many machinations, disguised wives and sultans, a hallucinogenic drug, and multiple death threats, there’s still a happy ending. It’s just too long to go into here.

Unlike “Pirates,” the recording we’re using features mostly the music with very little dialogue, so it’s a good chance to hear a work with which you may not be familiar. The studio recording to which we’ll be listening features an excellent cast, the Southwark Voices, and The Hanover Band conducted by Tom Higgins. It may not be complete, but the sound is excellent, and it does offer an excellent look at this forgotten work.

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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