Pirates of Penzance (ENO)

It must have seemed to the ENO the perfect irony.  Mike Leigh is not the first cinematic director to direct an opera, nor will he be the last, but he is the director who brought to the big screen in lavish style Topsy-Turvy, a telling of the narrative whence The Mikado became Savoy Opera‘s most enduringly popular Gilbert and Sullivan creation, helped by the glorious recreation of various scenes from that and other G&S operettas.

What could he bring to that other enduringly popular creation, the Pirates of Penzance, a well-known story with plenty of songs for the audience to hum and singalong to, and, even more ironically, a G&S operetta that has already transitioned to the big screen (see here)!  That Leigh had an eye and an ear for G&S was self-evident from his meticulously-researched movie, though it is one major step beyond to direct your own interpretation: what does Leigh bring to the party that would otherwise not be delivered by a more conventional director of opera?

Bear in mind as you read this that G&S works, like those of Shakespeare, are classics.  Bye their very ubiquity are no longer judged on the content of the work but on the comparative virtues of the production, where benchmarks are set and used to measure new pretenders to the crown.  Given the many splendid productions of PoP, Leigh has much to live up to, but he also needs to advance the art, to demonstrate a clear progression.

The reviews have slightly damned Leigh with faint praise (see herehere, here and here.)  The two primary criticisms of reviews to date are (1) that the set is a damp squib, and (2) that Leigh chooses to sit back, adopt a fairly traditional approach with almost no reinterpretation, leaving a nudge-nudge-wink-wink seaside postcard production, the point being that if you aim for popularism it’s best to leave the varnish intact.  “Mike Leigh’s exercise in affectionate nostalgia” says the Guardian. In short, rather than progressed, Leigh appears to have regressed by half a Century.

I will respond to both points of view in due course, but for starters let’s focus on the nature of live productions filmed and relayed to cinemas, currently a booming industry at the multiplex cinema chains. On the face of it, this is a win:win – it expands the audience, fills seats and offers the best view in the house at reduced cost.  Compare it if you will with the televising of a football game, giving multiple angles from many cameras, plenty of close-ups and a surround-sound experience to boot.  The only things missing is slow-motion replays and pundit analysis at half time, but you get my drift.  What you lose is the atmosphere of being there to take in the atmosphere, though it certainly makes for an event nonetheless.

In this production we saw the best and worst of this approach, starting with the overture.  The orchestra comes under the prurient gaze of cameras, one not offered to the good people sat in the Coliseum (where, you might recall, I recently saw La Traviata), such that you can practically see the hi-def nasal hairs of the double-bass player quiver in self-righteous indignation.

An impressive start, even before the curtain rose and the pirates launched into their opening number…. only for the screen to freeze.  Worse than that, it returned only for the sound to be out of sync with the pictures by a good two seconds.  Whatever else happens live on stage, no actor has yet mastered singing out of sync, so we can put that down to a ghost in the machine.

Luckily the glitch sorted itself and for the rest of the evening we could enjoy glorious technicolour and splendid multi-channel sound, all the better to appreciate the lavish performance, and indeed the we had the strange sight of Leigh’s set – a band of pirates mounted upon what appeared to be an angled red platform swinging into a blue circle.

With its hyper-modern construct of stylised geometric shapes in a palette of bold primary colours (blues, reds, greens) reminded me of nothing so much as an interior design catalogue, much less the set of an operetta set by the sea.  This contrasted sharply with fairly traditional costumes and did make you wonder what the director had in mind, since the design appeared simultaneously minimal and yet distracting for the audience, a paradox if ever there were one but hardly one befitting the Savoy Opera.

It was only very latterly in the second half the big circle came into its own, firstly for an amusing hiding place for the police force, and then as a perfect fit for a gigantic portrait of Queen Victoria.  Cunning ploy then? We will have to give Leigh the benefit of the doubt and move on, though I fail to see what value the set added to the production, much less remind you of Penzance (a place I visited for the first time not a year ago, and which possessed none of the aforementioned.)

In spite of this handicap, the performers plied their trade with gusto, giving full voice to the rapier wit and topical social satire of WS Gilbert, who in this telling has been given full respect and with few if any changes to the original script and score.  One common addition is the patter song My Eyes Are Fully Open (aka It Really Doesn’t Matter), actually from Ruddigore but which fits the duty scene to a tee.  You can’t blame Leigh for sticking to the intentions of the author, though personally I think this short and sharp song would have enhanced the production.

However, what we did get did service to the libretto.  Credit to the swagger of Joshua Bloom‘s Pirate King, walking in the footsteps of fine actors such as Tim Curry and Kevin Kline.  Unlike those two august fellows, Bloom’s King is more of a wry and amused onlooker than a gung ho talisman, but unquestionably leader of his gang of soft-hearted pirates and thrives in his role, as spoken in his solo defence of the role (see here for Kline’s version.)

Also worthy of note are the fine young tenor Robert Murray, pondering the dilemma of duty-bound Frederic with aplomb, and Claudia Boyle‘s coquettish Mabel caught my eye, and apparently that of most other critics, particularly with her masterclass of soprano technique on Poor Wandering One (no, that is not her singing.)  The final top note would defeat many, but not Boyle.

However my favourite character was unquestionably Rebecca de Pont Davies‘s Ruth, piratical maid of all work.  Made up to look goggle-eyed, this Ruth bears the disappointment of rejection by Frederic with feisty dignity, but for the odd carp and a bitchy glare worthy of Dorothy Parker at the end.  Her stated of age of 47, made under plain looks and permalimp are designed to put off the young Frederic, though I suspect she may have attracted many a gentleman in the audience regardless.  One wishes the renowned misogynist Gilbert had given her rather more to do.

I was perhaps less keen on Andrew Shore‘s Major-General Stanley, all bluff and bluster but somehow lacking in clarity and charm.  Granted that it is a patently absurd notion for Gilbert to give the Major-General 13 daughters of similar ages (I wondered what the name of that multiple birth might be), but Shore did not come across as a man with that many daughters, nor especially with the gravitas of a senior member of the military.  His famed solo, I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General, speaking as it does of how he is at the forefront of the art and science of military thinking, failed to ignite, and was delivered in a very straight rendition, shorn of the extra comic patter added in most productions, as the MG struggles to find a rhyme (see the words below.)

But I’m sure you are dying to hear about the great comic buffoonery of the all-purpose Mummerset policemen, one of Gilbert’s surer satirical inventions.  Truth be told, they give the impression of the Keystone Kops on valium here.  The sergeant, played here in a cloud of bewilderment by Jonathan Lemalu, ponders through his glorious comic solo When A Felon’s Not Engaged In His Employment (AKA A Policeman’s Lot) at a funereal pace and without a cutting edge of irony or farce.  To my mind more could have been done to extract humour, but then my interest to declare is that I intend to sing that song in the bass register someday!  At any rate, more could have been made of the police – an opportunity squandered.

Much has been thought through with care in this production, notably the choreography with which the different groups (daughters, pirates, policemen) bestride the stage.  Not quite a Pinteresque power game but Leigh allows the frisky girls their fun and affords the pirates a gloriously rousing chorus of With Cat-Like Tread – the stage lit up as the PK led his men (and woman) with spirit.

All told, the Guardian probably got it right in the phrase “affectionate nostalgia” – but some decisions seem strange.  At its best there is rollicking good fun enhanced by fine singing and playing, but Leigh’s vision and execution is uneven.  Had it been fully realised this may have hit the heights of the great revivals of recent years, but all the same you couldn’t dislike it.  All the same, I think Leigh’s finest skills are best applied on film, and I have no doubt his efforts in that medium will someday be fully rewarded.

For now, I am glad to have enjoyed Pirates once again, since it is and always will be a splendid piece of light opera, some razor-sharp wit, catchy songs and entertainment to be enjoyed by any age – even my kids!

PS. The words of the Major-General’s song:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;a
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news, (bothered for a rhyme)
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur‘s and Sir Caradoc‘s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore, (bothered for a rhyme)b
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus‘s uniform:c
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin“,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,d
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat“,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery –
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy – (bothered for a rhyme)
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.e
For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

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