January 21, 2005: Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

The Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane. English National Opera. Chicago Lyric Theatre production.

A sparkling production of this G & S classic with fine singers, especially Victoria Joyce as Mabel, and many good singing actors. We expect a singing actor for the light baritone role of Major-General Stanley, and we get one, in the person of Richard Suart; we didn’t expect one in the role of the Pirate King, but got one anyway, in the person of Karl Day­mond, whose vibrato is so rich that when he sings at full musical force you can hardly tell whether he’s on the note or a third below, but whose diction like Suart’s is excellent. He did his third of the trio in Act II — the recitative sequence more talking than a singing sequence — and it was just right, given his singing limitations.

The organizing idea was of a kind of toy theatre or Victorian greeting card approach to the fiction. The large stage of the ENO was raised up, almost down to the proscen­ium arch, but there was a high step along the front, below which was an additional shallow but wide acting area, with steps up to the higher area on either side and a trapdoor smack in the middle. Ranged on high at either side were delicate black iron girders reminiscent of filigree structures and ranging well back on either side. Above and within them, in Act I, were a series of flat painted cloud formations and a drop picturing a seascape, with the Pirates’ ship at anchor in the distance. In Act II, Major General Stanley’s estate, a tall solarium, seemingly conjured up with wrought iron, had been flown, achieving a framing effect. If fitted beauti­fully into the available space; and the costumes, originally designed by Anne Tilby, were a delightful combination of authentic Victorian and witty whimsy — as in the Act I sequence with the daughters of Major-General Stanley, some of whom wore under-dresses and chaste yet provocative corsets for their walk at the sea-side, later to be dressed with over-dresses, more respectably. The Pirates wore a wild melange of pick-me-up, brightly colored costumes that seem to have come right off of a twopence-colored toy theatre sheet from Pollock’s. The Pirates’ choreography was rather simple — such fellows (noblemen gone wrong though they are) cannot pretend to any sophisti­cation in such matters; but in Act II, when the male cast has divided into Pirates (tenors) and Policemen (basses) and the daughters have changed into more sumptuous at-home dresses, the possibilities for more imaginative, complex choreographic combinations were envisaged, and were fully realized — and the policemen coming on and then off again were almost all correct in their execution.

This G & S opera, the second of the collaboration, after Pinafore, came off fairly well, though it gets off to a slow start. Act I pales in comparison to such scenes as the Act I finales of The Mikado and authentic tongue-in-cheek pieces like Ruddigore. The whole business with the lily-livered police­men in Act II, who quake in their boots as Mabel and the daughters urge them on against “the foe” with “Go, ye heroes, go and die!” is hilarious. Gilbert was really in his true element here: the combination of the absurd plot, based on Ruth’s hard-of-hearing mistake in apprenticing the young Frederic to a pirate instead of to a pilot, and the fateful accident of his birth in a leap year, on February 29th, and its delightful exposition in the Act II trio, together with Gilbert’s send-up of military (in the person of that walking anachronism General Stanley) and police (a friend­lier travesty, with its plea for greater understanding of a policeman’s unhappy lot), created deliciously good material for Sullivan to exercise his abundant comp­­ositional and melodic skills upon. Mabel and Frederic’s Act II duet is exquisite, and the two melodies by counterpoint sung by daughters and police­men in Act II — a musical strategy that Sullivan was to use again and again, in Ruddigore, Iolanthe, and elsewhere — has lovely, authentic charm and is also highly dramatic. It is no wonder that these comic operas, which benefit from the highest quality professional attention that can be lavished on them, but which can be — and are — staged by ambitious and enthusiastic amateurs, are so frequent­ly revived after well over a century, because they are so entertaining and rewarding to produce.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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