sat 18/11/2017

The Pirates of Penzance, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow | reviews, news & interviews

The Pirates of Penzance, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

The Pirates of Penzance, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Gilbert and Sullivan need a lighter director's touch in this musically strong new production

Steven Page (centre) as the Pirate KingKK Dundas

Of all the Savoy operas, this merry clash of pirates, policemen and a Major-General flanked by an entire chorus of loving daughters finds Sullivan most in tune with the mid-19th century Italian opera he so lovingly spoofs. So why can’t Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production be similarly fleet-footed with Gilbert’s resourceful, literate lyrics and whimsical plotting? 

Lloyd-Evans has at his disposal high-quality operatic soloists, a brilliant young chorus and a witty designer. All are squandered. The problem isn’t any clever uprooting into another time and place; after all, Scottish Opera, in league with a regenerated D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, promises us "pure, uncomplicated fun". Rather it can be summed up in those three fatal words: Trying Too Hard.

I’d completely forgotten until I checked his biography after the show that this was the director who made me laugh in all the wrong places during his clodhop through a tragic turkey at Holland Park, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. Here I chuckled, probably a little knowingly, at many of the lyrics – how could one not, at "we shall quickly be parsonified/Conjugally matrimonified/By a Doctor of Divinity/Who resides in this vicinity"?; at the action, very little.

Major-General Stanley (Richard Suart) surrounded by his daughters in Scottish Opera's The Pirates of PenzanceThe ensemble numbers are so giddy with frantic choreographic routines (by Steve Elias), semaphoring and general chaotic overacting that the verbal parrying which should be enough to animate them by itself gets smothered. A nightgowned Major General Stanley (Richard Suart) sings in the Act Two finale of how "the poplars, in their pleasure, wave their arms around"; so, concealed coppers and pirates, all be trees and do likewise, at length.

Most of the singers are too accomplished to be dragged down. The exception is Graeme Broadbent’s Sergeant, straight from the police academy of funny walks. Unfortunately that also comes with endless facial gurning and the unfunniest of northern accents, bizarrely echoed at times by his west-country bumpkin troop. Only Suart (pictured above surrounded by choral daughters), as the doyen of all G&S character part players, is licensed for disciplined extremes. Rosie Aldridge, as we know from her recent cameo binge drinker in Vaughan Williams’s Five Tudor Portraits, is a deft and funny comic actress. As Ruth, the piratical maid of all work who’s madly in love with the charge 26 years her junior, she’s vocally focused but forces her dramatic hand. Similarly splendid of voice but too blustery to impress is Steven Page’s Pirate King.

Nicholas Sharratt as Frederic and Stephanie Corley as Mabel in Scottish Opera's The Pirates of PenzanceThe young lovers from the first of two alternating pairs (pictured left) come off best. Nicholas Sharratt’s sweet light lyric tenor manages to still the high jinks in Frederic's two loveliest solos; Stephanie Corley, stuck throughout with the concept of Mabel as a goggle-eyed bluestocking, has to over-parody the great coloratura waltz song but is allowed to settle in the wistful Act Two duet. A glimpse of the innate humour comes when the two are allowed to play straight their anticipated reunion in 1940 but the cause, the revelation that young Frederic was a leap year baby and, at the age of five rather than 21, still indentured to the pirates, also passes for little in an overworked trio routine.

Veteran G&S interpreter John Owen Edwards – says the programme, though it appeared to be alternate conductor Derek Clark taking the first night bow – neatly underlines the spry continuity of the score. The young chorus, stepping in for Scottish Opera’s long and shamefully disbanded regulars, shines in the spine-tingling and very unexpected Act One ode to poetry and manages to articulate crisply through so many fussy routines. Jamie Vartan economically conjures many more scenes than the original provides for – tilting ship, picturebook Cornish cliffs, tiny chapel which provides for a predictable homage to the cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. But all this is much diminished when the director ignores the key G&S lesson to trust the material and let the sounds, both verbal and musical, take care of themselves.

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