English National Opera has a good track record with Gilbert and Sullivan, borne out chiefly in Jonathan Miller’s sparkling production of The Mikado, going strong for more than thirty years and facing revival next season. In a bid to achieve success with perhaps the most famous of the Savoy Operas, The Pirates of Penzance, the company has engaged the talented British film director Mike Leigh. ENO’s habit of hiring directors from outside the musical realm has met with starkly mixed results in recent years, yet this time the choice seemed a sound one; Leigh directed the 1999 BAFTA winning Topsy-Turvy, the winsome biopic about the gestation of The Mikado. It is clear that Leigh adores G&S, and his joy in the work suffuses a vibrant new production that must surely be judged a success for the ENO, albeit with a few qualifications.
Those familiar only with the dour naturalism marking films such as Vera Drake and Mr. Turner might have questioned how Leigh’s aesthetic would cohere with the fanciful effervescence of Gilbert and Sullivan. Fortunately, the usual verismo is abandoned in favour of bold colours and a lighter, more fanciful touch. In his incisive programme note, Leigh posits it is ‘their dark side, their hard edge, that so distinguishes the Savoy Operas.’ This insight, coupled with delight in the absurdist qualities of Gilbert’s libretto, steers him toward a production that engages in the requisite atmosphere of whimsy while eschewing the over the top pantomime which can be a hallmark of productions of G&S works. Leigh’s production strikes a middle ground, avoiding directorial imposition and playing it straight with traditional Victorian costumes and every letter of the libretto honoured.
The downside to this is that once the beginning is passed, the evening often feels overly safe. The sillier of the gags tend to speak for themselves, but little is done to tease out the humour or explore it in any meaningful way. The spirit of the work is left untouched without any directorial imposition that might have challenged it or offered fresh insight. One felt that either a surer hand at the comedy or else a shade more introspection would have made the evening more stimulating.
These criticisms aside, the production works well enough on the whole, and features some very stylish visuals. Alison Chitty’s designs, well lit by Paul Pyant, offer a striking aesthetic in bold colours, if their minimalism sometimes feels a little cheap. The most impressive touch was the overall stage concept itself, centred around sliding panels that form a wall over the stage. These cleverly shift to open out to reveal different layers inside, from the pirate ship in Act I to the interior spaces of Major-General Stanley’s chapel in Act II.
The overture—exquisitely played by the orchestra with every shade deliciously drawn out—is set against a backdrop featuring a seagull over an electric blue dab of paint. This adjoins a rectangular dash of bright red vaguely evoking a flag. The sheer painterliness of the design would not have been out of place in Mr. Turner, and made for an alluring opening.
Once the overture concludes, a circular hole opens from the panels to reveal the prow of a ship, lurching out over the stage with mast and rigging. The pirates congregate here as though straight out of a Disney film, familiar pirate outfits of naval coats and epaulettes joined with tri-corner hats and cutlasses. This is the most developed the staging ever gets. When Frederic, having finished his apprenticeship to the pirates on his twenty-first birthday, departs from the ship and wanders along the shore, the stage offers only a blue background to evoke sky and some green to conjure grass. When Major-General Stanley’s daughters appear, they sing ‘Climbing over rocky mountain’ whilst descending down what appears to be a diagonal green escalator. The colours are bright and appealing, but the comedy would have benefitted from a little more physical substance.
Fortunately, the music was of high calibre, the ENO Orchestra giving immaculately detailed form to the deft exuberance of Sullivan’s score. David Parry proved an ideal conductor of this repertoire, drawing out the orchestral nuances from the surging strings and playful woodwinds colouring the overture. Pirates is not Sullivan’s finest score, but it provides a panoply of clever musical touches dynamically brought to life in this performance. The singers were accompanied with sympathy and the necessary lightness of touch, the comedy very well coordinated between pit and stage. The ENO Chorus was on fine fettle, ‘Climbing over rocky mountain’ a delightful showpiece of the female voices, while ‘With cat-like tread’ and ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’ best showed off the pirate and police members of the chorus, respectively. The choreography under Francesca Jaynes was spot on towards the end in bringing together the marauding pirates and the hidden police, though elsewhere it could have benefitted form tighter focus.
It is hard to imagine a significant improvement to the cast ENO has assembled. Within an impressive ensemble, there were two standouts. Irish soprano Claudia Boyle is a magnificent discovery as Mabel, the only of the Major-General’s daughters to offer redemption to Frederic from his formerly piratic life. Her coloratura dexterity was heard to wonderful effect in ‘Poor wand’ring one’, the upper register of her voice pleasing and secure through the most difficult tessitura. She would be fantastic to hear in some proper bel canto roles, or as Strauss’s Zerbinetta. Her voice was matched by a steely self-assurance that proved her far from a naïve ingénue. The characterisation was apt pairing to Frederic’s waffling, incessantly duty-bound ambivalence.
The other highlight was Joshua Bloom’s booming Pirate King. Festooned with a long red naval coat and a plumed pirate hat bearing skull and crossbones insignia, his rich baritone commanded the stage. ‘Oh, better far to live and die’, his paean to the life of the pirate—compared with respectability, he observes, piracy is comparatively honest—was suave and captivating, its comedy finely judged.
The Frederic of Robert Murray offered a pleasant, golden-hued tone and some fine if not always noteworthy singing. He felt a little nondescript in the first act, though he did come into his own a bit better in the second.
Rebecca de Pont Davies amused with an exaggerated limp as Ruth, the piratical maid of all work, though her projection proved a little weak for the vast Coliseum stage. Andrew Shore was the very model of a modern Major-General, making the most of his patter-song and providing comic relief in his bumbling and endearing naivety. He was matched by Jonathan Lemalu’s sterling characterisation as a very funny Sergeant of Police, melancholically leading his men in wonderful rendition of ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment.’
So overall, the evening had much to recommend itself. If the drama could have used a bit more stage-business to bring out the comedy, Leigh offered a sure hand with characterisation that was matched by a superb cast. I couldn’t help thinking that much of my criticism of the evening stemmed from the work itself, which starts to flag as it proceeds and begins to call out for a bit more detail to keep it interesting. It also is a piece that would lend itself better to a smaller theatre than the massive Coliseum.
This may very well come across better when viewed in closer detail on the big screen. Leigh’s Pirates will be broadcast to over 400 cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 19th May, and has already sold more advance tickets than any ENO production screened thus far. The aforementioned cavils aside, it deserves success in reaching a wider audience. This is a fine production with an excellent cast, and even if the work itself falls short of the heights achieved by Miller’s incandescent Mikado, it should succeed in bringing the beleaguered ENO a measure of box office respite.
John E. de Wald
(Photos : ENO website)