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Summer Gem: Cimarron Opera Company

Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” was performed by the Cimarron Opera Company in Norman in July. The sprightly melodies and nonsensical story were brought to life by a talented team of directors and a cast with delightful voices and real acting ability. Cimarron Opera has been a part of performing arts in central Oklahoma since the mid 1970s; the summer operetta and opera camp have been fixtures for many years. The summer program usually focuses on a Gilbert & Sullivan production; these light operas demand as much from a singer as any of the better known German or Italian operas.

The young gondoliers of the title are brothers, one of whom is thought to be the long missing heir to the kingdom of Barataria. The big question is, which one? Since the young heir was married in childhood, the two gondoliers’ recent weddings are now in question. This sets up four voices pledging love and bemoaning fate in sprightly G&S style. Hunter Birkhead (Marco) and Greg Gore (Giuseppe) sang the gondoliers with just the appropriate touch of pompous entitlement and disingenuous naïveté. Their partners, sung by Alexandra Sanford (Gianetta) and Christine Couron (Tessa) were well matched, providing a good balance to the various duets and quartets. Couron in particular blended a lovely voice with very funny acting.

The other young couple—two is never enough for G&S—caught up in this included Andra Erbar (Casilda), the girl who is “married” to the missing heir, and Kurt Leftwich (Luiz) who is the drummer/band/factotum to her father. Again, both sang beautifully, and Leftwich was particularly powerful in the role, which showcased his range as an actor and a singer. Completing this quartet were Mark Johnson (the Duke of Plaza-Toro) and Marcy Gonzales (the Duchess of Plaza-Toro) who play Casilda’s penny-pinched parents. Johnson and Gonzales delivered high camp with energy and strong singing. One of the most comedically effective moments of the show was the entrance of the Plaza-Toro quartet, complete with boat, to sing energetically about sea-sickness.

Orchestrating the original removal of the prince and the overall management of the scene is the grand puppet-master, Robin Noad (Don Alhambra). Noad sang the role of the G&S antagonist with great strength, giving the comic role some real depth. As the uncredited deus ex machina, Grace Otto (the nurse) was beguilingly comic as she delivered the punch line of the show.

“The Gondoliers” incorporates social and political parody and commentary with the multiple layers of love story. The all but guaranteed happy ending brings the various couples together, restores the long-lost king to the throne, and re-asserts the proper order of things in the world.

Musical/vocal direction was by Kevin Smith; the orchestra was led by Mervin Tay. Stage direction, by Kassie Carroll, was inventive and effective without either interfering with the physical demands of singing or limiting the story. This is a tricky line to navigate, and Ms. Carroll, herself a graduate of the Cimarron Opera summer camp program, steered her course very well indeed. The unit set, which served effectively as the streets of Venice and the court of Barataria with little dressing, was designed and lit by Pete Franklin.

“The Gondoliers” ran July 11-13 at the Nancy O’Brien Performing Arts Center in Norman. Two weeks earlier, June 27-28, students of the Cimarron Opera summer camp performed an edited version of “The Gondoliers” on the same set. These young performers did an excellent job with the bare bones of the story. Standout performers included Martha Hayes as Casilda, Ansley Elliott as Tessa, and Natasha Naik as Don Alhambra. Aaron Stewart as Marco and Isaac Trachtenberg as Giuseppe also delivered solid performances.

The Cimarron Opera summer program is an agreeable way to get acquainted with opera. The summer camp serves to introduce youngsters to the issues of producing, performing, or seeing an opera. If you missed this year’s sparkling edition, consider attending next year.