Pirates of Penzance: Review

Rating: ★★★★☆

(This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course)

Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company have set sail with a sure-fire summer hit with their new production of Pirates of Penzance. A real crowd pleaser, this production deserves the success that it will undoubtedly have.

It became quickly obvious during the overture that this was a production that we were intended to laugh at. The seagull saw to that, first being heard crying plaintively above the sound of the orchestra and then appearing on strings from the very top of the proscenium and flying around over an azure curtain. When a pirate boat also appeared on strings from on high to float around on the sea that we were now seeing shimmering in front of us, before ramming into a large map of the West Country that had dropped down in pythonesque style from the heavens it was equally clear that the audience was not supposed to stop laughing from beginning to end.

Musically this was also a confident performance with strong leads and some phenomenal choral singing.

The Pirate King was first up on stage. Steven Page  led a competent crew  who appeared slithering about the deck of a cartoon ship. His voice had a satisfying dark molasses rum quality about it rather than the more effete pirate sherry which was soon being shared among the hands. The pirate crew themselves were shipshape in every respect. Buckling their swashes to and fro as the deck apparently surged under them they still managed a cracking first number that was to foreshadow strong and confident choral singing throughout the piece.

Rosie Aldridge’s Ruth was next. Her maid of all work certainly was intended to look plain but there was nothing plain about her voice which was notable not least for the most impeccable diction as well as a warm and comely tone.

Two lead couples are alternating as this production tours. On this first night, Nicholas Sharratt and Stephanie Corley sang Frederic and Mabel and did so as a pair of innocent and bemused youngsters never entirely sure what was happening to them – he dipping into a volume of “Scouting for Boys” for tips on how to behave just as often as she looked into a copy of “Scouting for Girls”. Sharratt’s lyric tenor tone fitted his character like a glove. Though clearly more at home in the upper register, he was never found wanting all evening. Miss Corley’s Mabel meanwhile was a bluestockinged delight. Although I did not immediately warm to her voice, it soon became clear that what she could do with it was delicious. Fortunately, Mabel quickly gets the chance to dazzle with dizzying coloratura delights and Miss Corley took the opportunity of decorating all her cadenzas with sparkling surprises to demonstrate what she had to offer.

Richard Suart had the Modern Major General’s patter off pat to be sure but was much more entertaining whilst his daughters were squeezing themselves into a tight chapel all around him at the start of Act II.

Graeme Broadbent’s  Sergeant of Police came straight out of the ministry of silly walks. There was nothing silly about his voice itself which was deep and rich. However there’s only so much comedy one can take and still listen to the music at all. His comic movements, gurning face and Yorkshire accent conspired a little to detract from the singing.

There were generally too many accents going on through the production. Neither Broadbent’s comedy Yorkshire policeman’s accent nor Andrew McTaggart’s comedy Glasgwegian Samuel (the Pirate King’s Lieutenant) did much to add to the fun. Someone seemed to have forgotten that a clipped Received Pronunciation heard in Glasgow is far funnier than the vernacular.

The daughters themselves were a wonderful ensemble of chattering beauties who were easily the equal of the male chorus.

Indeed, it was the choral singing of Hail Poetry that produced the most dramatic and surprising moment of the whole evening. Singing full-face to the audience, this was an astonishingly powerful paean that simply pinned the audience to its seats whilst causing every spine to tingle. After this chorus had hailed poetry, one wanted to stand on one’s seat and declaim verse to all around. It would be worth seeing the whole show just for that breathtaking cry of praise.

Visually there was much to look at. Costumewise, this was a fairly traditional production – full bustles and petticoats on the many daughters, pirates with blacked out grinning teeth and plodding policemen looking just as ridiculous as real policemen in helmets always do. However, designer Jamie Vartan seemed to have decided that in his mind, Roy Lichtenstein and the entire Monty Python crew should be in the wings conspiring to send pop-art cartoon props flying around them all. It did work and contributed hugely to the relentless humour.

There does come a moment when one has to ask what it being lampooned though. The Savoy Operas were great satires on the society around them. The only really significant weakness in this production is that the laughs (and there are a great many of them) are not so much sending up Victorian morals and Victorian institutions but sending up Victoriana in general and the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan in particular. One has to wonder when the laughter dies whether that is entirely the point.

Had all the pirates been Scots intent on harrying Little Englandshire in these pre-Referendum days in Scotland then we might have been on to something rather biting. All the more so if their piracy had been bought off with seats in the House of Lords. Ermine clad pirates bowing down to a tartan bedecked Victoria might well have nudged the production back into the satirical sea that Mr Gilbert surely intended us to navigate, never sure whether our pretensions would founder on the rocks of irony and sarcasm. As it was, this was a relatively safe production that steered well away from making us actually think about ourselves.

Of course, satire-lite played for laughs is only one custard pie away from slapstick and this production veered frighteningly close to that meridian more than once.

Notwithstanding those reservations, it isn’t difficult to recommend this show. It is laugh out loud funny and musically secure. Derek Clark conducted with more than enough aplomb to encourage us to hope that some of the recent difficulties that have beset Scottish Opera’s pit might be regarded as things of distant memory.

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans has a hit on his hands. That’s good news for Scottish Opera. Good news for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company who come back to life after 10 years of slumbers And it is good news for Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan. They are not passé yet.