The Pirates of Penzance

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Petra Shepherd loved the swashbuckling pirates, flat footed policemen, razor-sharp satire and memorable melodies in this new ENO production

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Acclaimed film and theatre director and Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado Mike Leigh makes his operatic directorial début with a new production of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE.   I was lucky enough to catch it at the London Coliseum last week.   Gilbert and Sullivan isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but this production seeks to woo a younger audience and successfully does so.   However, Gilbert and Sullivan fans and those who may already have seen the production countless times will not go home disappointed.  The ENO production is true to the original, featuring all the classics – swashbuckling pirates, flat footed policemen, razor-sharp satire and memorable melodies – I loved it!

ENO’s international reputation for working with exciting directors from across a wide range of artistic disciplines offers a fresh perspective and unique approach to their productions.  Mike Leigh is the latest artistic talent to apply his skills to the world of opera.  Previous directors ENO has worked with include Terry Gilliam, Anthony Minghella, Benedict Andrews, Rufus Norris, Carrie Cracknell and Fiona Shaw.  Leigh is a lifelong fan of the quintessentially English musical duo.  He wrote and directed the 1999 BAFTA winning film Topsy Turvey and is president of both the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and the W.S Gilbert Society.

The Pirates of Penzance tells the story of the pirate apprentice Frederic and his love for Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley and was first performed on 31st December 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York.  It therefore might perhaps come across as a little dated.  However, it’s not the story you’re coming to see but the clever satire and hilarious lyrics, most famous of all in the tongue-twisting song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”.  Who doesn’t already know half the words by heart?  Although the London Coliseum, as it also does for operas not in English, screens the words to the songs on a screen high above the stage.  It’s difficult to tear your eyes away from the central stage and the characters and clever design to the screen. The words trip along so quickly that it’s also difficult to keep up with them flashing across it, but worth doing every now and then, just to remind yourself quite how inventive the lyrics are.

Special mention must go to British Baritone Andrew Shore in his debut role as Major-General Stanley for carrying of the patter so well and to Australian/American Bass Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King.  “For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King! ”   I was a little disappointed with British Tenor Robert Murray in the role of Frederic, mainly as he seemed far too old to be playing a 21 year old pirate apprentice.  A little niggle, probably enhanced by the fact that the last production I’d seen was at my nephew’s prep school with all the parts played by 12 year old boys, an altogether different production.

For those worried that Leigh might have tampered with the original, rest assured he plays it straight.  The story remains the same as do the lyrics, the costumes are Victorian and in keeping with the time and yes, the Major-General is in a Scarlet uniform with a cockerel feathered hat and the pirates look as pirates should. Having recently seen various West End Shows and Juke box musicals with the miked up cast members belting out tunes at deafening levels, it takes a while to adjust to the un-miked performers.  I would have preferred it all a bit louder but my guest, an opera buff begged to differ and gave all the performances a big thumbs up. All in all, it is what it is, a gloriously silly romp on the high seas.  With the election over, spring well and truly on its way and the UK altogether in a brighter mood, this popular farcical comedy really is great fun and sure to be a hit.

Pirates of Penzance
English National Opera
The London Coliseum
St. Martin’s Lane