Nothing could make me happier than seeing the San Antonio Opera move its productions from the fantastically awful space of Municipal Auditorium—basically an inky black hole of sound and light—to the Lila Cockrell Theater downtown. But as I settled into my seat for H. M. S. Pinafore this weekend, I realized that the Cockrell, though undoubtedly an improvement, is still far too vast and cavernous for the appreciation of musical theater: it might work for mostly visual spectacles—such as the occasional dance performance—but for sound, it’s pretty lousy. So while I was certainly prepared to mock the opera’s decision to supertitle the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan in English—hell, I was prepared to fling my feces like a bonobo—it was actually a thoughtful choice. At the very least, the choral numbers would have been completely unintelligible without additional help (and every patron I spoke to at intermission was grateful for it).
The production was directed by Alistair Donkin, a long-time associate of the (now shuttered) D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, a troupe normally identified with ‘traditional’ staging of G&S; and though there were a few anachronistic touches in the second act, this was definitely Gilbert and Sullivan offered straight up. But even straight G&S reads pretty gay—almost campy—with plenty of simple, loopy choreography and over-the-top acting (particularly by Donkin, who doubled as Sir Joseph Porter). The highlight of the production was certainly Janara Kellerman’s Buttercup, noted in her biography as possessing a “mezzo timbre velvety as the nap of a big, juicy peach" (a phrase I intend to appropriate for my own epitaph, or perhaps breakfast menu). There was good work also from Sarah Jane McMahon (a particularly acrobatic Josephine), while Timothy Birt (as Ralph) was occasionally swallowed up by the uninviting acoustics of the auditorium. For a $135 top ticket price, the production values seemed somewhat skimpy: just a skeletal poop deck and some projected clouds.
Next year’s slate of operas—Romeo and Juliet, Don Giovanni, and The Barber of Seville—isn’t exactly the most exciting programming in the operatic world, and there’s something to be said for the plans of the newly-announced Opera Theater San Antonio to expand into more adventurous territory. But for now, I think every opera lover in San Antonio is thrilled to escape the (s)hell of Municipal Auditorium; its conversion into the Tobin Center can’t come fast enough.
--Thomas "Peachy" Jenkins, Current theater critic.