thu 20/06/2024

The Pirates of Penzance, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Pirates of Penzance, English National Opera

The Pirates of Penzance, English National Opera

Savoyard supreme Mike Leigh and top cast play it straight to serve a comic masterpiece

Battle of the basses: Joshua Bloom's Pirate King worsts Jonathan Lemalu's Sergeant of PoliceAll images by Tristram Kenton for ENO

When ENO announced its return to Gilbert and Sullivan, rapture at the news that Mike Leigh, genius Topsy-Turvy director, would be the master of wonderland ceremonies was modified by its choice, The Pirates of Penzance. Last staged at the Coliseum – and unmemorably – as recently as 2004, the fifth Savoy opera seemed less in need of revisiting than several larger-scale successors.

By the end of last night, though, it was clear not only that Leigh and his musical team had been the best possible choice to tackle this work of classical perfection, but also that if operatic schedules could be rearranged and our greatest living Savoyard didn't have more films to make, he should return to give us one of these light-opera gems every season. That could keep the house happy for over a decade.

Having been tickled recently by the resourcefulness of companies staging the Savoy operas on a shoestring, not least Charles Court Opera’s reinventions at Islington’s King’s Head and the return of Sasha Regan’s all-male Pirates, I wondered what Leigh could do to charm us just as much. The answer would seem to lie in serving, as he writes in a fascinating programme note, "the Gilbertian requirements of outrageousness delivered straight", more or less as Gilbert the director seems to have done, and rather more than less. The results are exactly the opposite of the camp busyness which smothered a Scottish Opera Pirates and the Finborough Theatre’s disastrously re-written Princess Ida. There’s also something serious beneath the surface being said about time, the young being old and the old being childlike, which eludes clear definition, by me at any rate.

Down in the pit, David Parry captures the ingenious orchestration and the loving spoofs of everything from Handel to Wagner, so not just the bel canto repertoire he knows so well, with the perfect mixture of élan and subtlety, guiding the best of choruses and a very classy line-up of soloists into fresh and nuanced takes on the score. The results stand in the same relation to Regan’s riotous send-up as the Royal Ballet Swan Lake – or, rather better at the moment, the English National Ballet version – does to Matthew Bourne’s brilliant alternative: I wouldn’t want to be without either.Claudia Boyle (Mabel) and Frederic (Robert Murray) declare their love before her sisters in ENO Pirates of PenzanceYou neither can nor need to take Pirates out of its Victorian framework: after all, the paradox of a leap-year baby born on 29 February, thus reaching his 21st birthday in 1940, the tongue in cheek homage to Queen Victoria and the excessive reverence for the House of Lords – which is what the gone-wrong pirates turn out to be, no real plot spoiler there – demand no less. Yet the timelessness is there too. So Alison Chitty’s beautifully crinolined daughters of Major General Stanley, Victorian picturebook pirates and very 19th century policemen are contained within a more topsy-turvy kind of set which makes great play of the circular frame in the middle of the stage – I won’t spoil its funniest use, since the production photographer hasn’t either – as well as the stylised mix of blue sea and green rocky mountain.

That also makes the best of a space that’s not ideal for the intimacies of G&S (the present Savoy Theatre would always be a better option). Within it, Leigh effectively groups his principals and his chorus – only 13 daughters and a modest police force, very wise, though rather more in the way of pirates – so that, for instance, 12 of the daughters, shocked that sister Mabel should have declared devotion for unindentured pirate Frederic, decide they need to sing about the weather and cluster at the front of the stage to keep a keen eye on Parry. Thus the timing here and nearly everywhere else is impeccable.Andrew Shore as Major-General Stanley in ENO Pirates of PenzanceThere's no weak link in song and speech among the principals. Perhaps Rebecca de Pont Davies doesn’t quite cut the sympathetic 47-year-old figure Leigh clearly wants her to be in what his article describes as a very Gilbertian meditation on the rough deal life hands to the plain and ageing, but she’s still an unusual Ruth, the nursery maid hard of hearing who’s apprenticed young Frederic to a pirate, not a pilot. Joshua Bloom cuts a colossal dash as the Pirate King, obviously a nob from his accent, huge of diction and bass delivery but easy in his body so as not to quite overdo the camp like Jonny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. His opposite number – the link is made that both pirates and policemen try to do their duty, the theme of the work, but succumb all too easily to tender feeling – is the Sergeant of Jonathan Lemalu, another remarkable bass from the other side of the world. His deadpan delivery and melancholy crumpling for the famous number about a policeman’s lot are another splendid example of how underplaying the absurdity always works best.

It’s good to hear a proper lyric tenor, Robert Murray, as Frederic, who gets some of Sullivan’s loveliest lyric inspirations. He’s bound to be outshone by the human dynamo of Claudia Boyle’s Mabel (pictured above with Murray and her "sisters") delivering her wondrous waltz song with all the fun in the coloratura fireworks suggesting she could take on the role of Strauss’s Zerbinetta tomorrow. Like Valerie Masterson and Rebecca Evans before her, she takes the gold medal of G&S sopranohood, and on her first outing. The Act Two duet is as rapt and touching as Sullivan, master of pathos at surprising moments, intended it to be. And anyone who thought they might miss king of patter Richard Suart in the role of Major-General Stanley – he played the role here in 2004 – might have guessed that Andrew Shore (pictured above left) would not let them down. His old buffer is all naïve charm, dancing in a ring with his gels before embarking on a routine they all know inside out.

That Shore was playing Wagner’s Beckmesser only a couple of months ago isn’t the only reminder of that all-conquering ENO Mastersingers. As the company launch into the glory of an ode to poetry to give the Act One finale a special twist, we’re reminded that they were hailing Hans Sachs in only slightly more elevated style on the same stage recently. The warmth we feel inside at that point comes and goes throughout. So while you may laugh a lot but not to the point of crying, which I did in the all-male touring Pirates, the pleasure runs deep, encouraging the same love for this masterpiece and its companions that Leigh so obviously feels and can put so stylishly into disciplined action.

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