Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Pirates of Penzance

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Pirates of Penzance

Article excerpt

The Pirates of Penzance

English National Opera, in rep until 4 July

Forget the pollsters and political pundits -- English National Opera called it first and called it Right when it programmed Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance to open just days after the general election. Who else is the target audience for an operetta that guilelessly proclaims, 'We love our House of Peers', and celebrates both the dynastic possibilities of marriage and the material aspirations of a Major-General who bought his ancestors along with his faux-baronial castle, if not Tories (shy or otherwise)? But if ENO has hit a political home run, the same can't be said artistically of a production Gilbert himself might have described as 'skim milk masquerading as cream'.

Mike Leigh swore he would never direct an opera. So it was only a matter of time before the British auteur followed the long line of film-directors-turned-opera-novices to ENO to try his hand. If the results aren't exactly Mike Figgis terrible, they're no Anthony Minghella either.

A knowledgeable and devoted G&S fan of long standing -- president of both the Gilbert Society and the Sullivan Society -- Leigh brings all the affection of his 1999 G&S film Topsy-Turvy to his Pirates . But where the film's good nature concealed a sly wit, lacing its porcelain cups of tea with generous slugs of cynical social commentary, the operetta is barley-water-with-the-vicar mild, and about as interesting.

Apt it may be, but funny Pirates simply is not. Any show whose plot hinges on the crucial mishearing of 'pirate' for 'pilot', following that up with an uproarious episode of similar confusion over 'orphan' and 'often' (pronounced in vowel-bending RP) is just not playing at the same level as Mikado , Iolanthe or even Patience . Musically, too, it's a bit of a second-string score. Anonymous melodies blur into one another, with the noble exceptions of the classic patter-song 'I Am the Very Model of A Modern Major-General' and the wonderfully laconic 'A Policeman's Lot Is Not a Happy One'.

More than almost any other Sullivan work, however, Pirates is a web of operatic pastiche, adding fragments of Wagner, Verdi and Schubert to its basic I Can't Believe It's Not Bellini coloratura. Framing this music in the Coliseum's gilded proscenium adds a certain heft, a friction, to these allusions, and it's certainly a delight to hear the ENO orchestra coaxed into full-moustachioed Victorian splendour by David Parry (who catches every sideways glance, every knowing musical wink on the page), giving Sullivan's dexterous scoring its due. …

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