English National Opera's The Pirates of Penzance
4th December 2004
The great joy of Elijah Moshinsky's new production of The Pirates of Penzance for ENO is that it takes the work at face value, making no attempt to up-date or alter its very secure Victorian heart. This has a large number of benefits - not least that the humour is allowed to work its own period magic rather than straining to be relevant. Given this and a combination of witty settings by Michael Yeargan and fine musical performances throughout, ENO has a potential Christmas revival for many years to come!
Victorian it may be but it is certainly not traditional in any other way. Having been brought up on D'Oyly Carte it is very refreshing to find the characterisation rethought and the relationships carefully prepared. Karl Daymond's Pirate King - younger than is so often the case and leaning towards the Johnny Depp style of pirate - loves every minute of his overt play-acting. There is no way he could be taken seriously as a pirate and the plot makes more sense for this. Jean Rigby's Ruth is clearly tolerated by the pirates as they have no heart to throw her out, though the will is there given half a chance. Mark Wilde's public school Frederic has the gaucheness to make his sense of duty seem possible even if he takes it to extremes and he is encouraged in this by a straight-laced but highly personable Mabel from Victoria Joyce.
An indication of the subtlety of Elijah Moshinsky's production came with the Sergeant's solo - Peter Rose in superb form - where he shares his thoughts over a cup of tea. It was at once charming and totally convincing. As Gilbert and Sullivan become increasingly rare on the amateur circuit the music itself comes across more freshly for being less familiar. Given the large amount of early nineteenth century opera which is available both live and on CD we are in a better position today to understand what Sullivan is mocking than we were when I first started going regularly to opera. It also shows the strengths of Sullivan's ability to write melody. Mabel's Ah, leave me not to pine is a wonderfully introspective piece and there is much besides to enjoy on a simply musical level. Added to this the quality of musical performance was a joy in almost every case, particularly the precision of choral singing. Hail Poetry was spine-tinglingly wonderful - even if there poets chosen were an odd bunch. Where was Tennyson! The orchestra under Mark Shanahan sound full and romantic - an opera orchestra not an operetta band.
The one thing which surprisingly did seem out of place was the music for the Major General. Maybe, dare I say, Richard Suart is getting past the point where he can bring a new understanding to the part, for the patter song passed for little and the song to the breezes in the second act rather hung fire. A pity when all around it was so strongly focussed.
Bringing in Queen Victoria at the end was a nice touch but keeping her there for the curtain calls was somewhat irritating. Maybe the idea will be quietly dropped for later performances! It will be interesting to see how the production develops as different cast move through it.
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