Review – the Pirates of Penzance

May 31 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩ Upping the ante

The lovely Stanley girls soon come climbing over rocky mountain into Frederic's life...The Pirates of Penxance. Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Credit KK Dundas.

The Stanley girls come climbing over rocky mountain into Frederic’s life… Photo credit KK Dundas.

Festival Theatre
Tue 28 May – Sat 1 June 2013
Review by Thom Dibdin

Frothy and fun – just as any production of the Pirates of Penzance should be – this new collaboration between Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte Theatre Company has a rarely heard quality to it.

The big difference, particularly for those who might only have experienced Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera in an amateur or semi-pro production, lies in the sound soaring out from the pit.

Balanced, nuanced and bright, this is a performance from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera that lights up Sullivan’s score. And by bringing an understanding of the composers who he parodies, it adds another level to the whole evening.

On stage, the production is quirky and knowing in a way that will please those who are familiar with Gilbert’s twisting, convoluted plot – but which also allows it to unfold with a natural clarity that will not leave newcomers behind.

The dreaded Pirates of Penzance are celebrating young Frederick’s 21st birthday. On this day his indentures to the pirates expire – but, to their horror, instead of joining up on a permanent basis, he vows to follow his duty and do everything in his power to bring them down.

Off they send him with his one-time nursemaid Ruth – a suitably indomitable Rosie Aldridge – who misheard and indentured him to Pirates – not Pilots – when he was young. And who now, at 47, has designs on him for marriage. She’s the only woman he has ever seen, so who is he to argue. Unless, fickle youth that he is, she isn’t as beautiful as she says she is.

Nicholas Sharratt plays the naive Frederick with a mild-mannered sincerity, a good balance to the scurvy villainy of the Pirates, led by Steven Page’s rough-hewn Pirate King. With a seagull soaring overhead, and a wave towering behind the set, the tension between friendship and duty swings back and forth in great style over the opening scene.

A veritable bevy of young women
The Pirate King (Steven Page) and his shipmates in Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte’s Pirates of Penzance. Photo credit KK Dundas.

The Pirate King (Steven Page) and his shipmates. Photo credit KK Dundas.

That seagull is something of a totem for designer Jamie Vartan. It flies over the bright blue waters of the English Channel towards the south tip of Cornwall during the overture. It appears when Frederick takes to the land and is discovered by a veritable bevy of young women, the daughters of Major General Stanley.

And it is only finally done away with in Act II, when the spurned Ruth teams up with the Pirate King to inform Frederick that, as he was born on 29 February, he has not yet reached his 21st birthday. Her wild shot into the air brings the bird – or its feathers – to the ground, emphasising that it now is his duty to return to the Pirates and leave his new-found love, Mabel, the gorgeous youngest Stanley sister.

Vocally, as well as orchestrally, this sounds great. Stephanie Corley makes a particularly entrancing Mabel. Her coloratura in the shore-side scene when Frederick reveals himself to the Stanley girls is impeccably performed, while the staging makes excellent comedic use of the formal rules of opera.

As for the succession of duets between Frederick and Mabel in Act II – which begins with Stay, Frederick Stay, when he reveals that they can’t by married until 1941 – rarely can the ability of Sullivan to use cheap sentiment in his music be so eloquently displayed. It is a heart-rending, yearning scene that slips without effort from one style of music into another.

There is excellent use of the chorus throughout, too. Whether in the early pirate scenes, those with the Stanley girls, or with the arrival of the Cornwall Police to help Frederick catch the pirates, there is never any feeling that either quality of singing or quality of acting is being compromised.

Graeme Broadbent puts in a superbly over-the-top performance as the Chief of Police. Playing the gallery though the might be, he ensures that all is clarity when it comes to his heartfelt reminder that the lot of the policeman is not a happy one.

Something's disturbing the Major-General's sleep... The Pirates of Penzance. Scottish Opera & D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Credit KK Dundas.

Something’s disturbing the Major-General’s sleep… Phot credit KK Dundas.

Richard Suart, too, milks his role with brilliant style as Major-General Stanley. Strangely, though, it is in the famous patter song, I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General, that the whole production has its most sticky moment.

Derek Clark, who in all else is exemplary on the conductor’s podium, takes the thing at such a lick, that you would have thought he was going for a world record. Suart hasn’t a hope in achieving clarity in his tongue-twisting lyrics and there is no option but to follow the words in the surtitles.

Indeed, those surtitles are a strange presence in the evening. It is good to make sure that you can hear the words, but they are a distraction. When there is so much happening on stage, it is particularly irritating to find your eye wandering up to check the lyrics against delivery. Even worse to realise that, on one or two occasions, the words sung do not correspond to the words projected.

This is minor stuff, however. It might rob the whole production of its fifth star, but it does no such thing to the quality of the night out. This, you feel, is G&S as it should be delivered. Huge bravos all round, to D’Oyly Carte on its re-emergence and to Scottish Opera for first having the nerve to take on such a popular piece, but then to do so with such passion and commitment.

Go and see it. It’s your duty to do so.

Run ends Saturday.
Running time 2 hrs 10 mins
Tickets from:
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT. Tue, Thurs-Sat 7.15pm (Sat mat 2.15pm).

The Pirates of Penzance on Tour:
Tue 28 May – Sat 1 June Edinburgh
Festival Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
Thurs 6 – Sat 8 June Inverness
Eden Court Theatre
01463 234 234 Book online
Tue 11 – Sat 15 June Manchester
Opera House
0844 871 3018 Book online
Tue 18 – Sat 22 June Bristol
0844 871 3012 Book online
Tue 25 – Sat 29 June Newcastle
Theatre Royal
08448 11 21 21 Book online
Tue 2 – Sat 6 July Oxford
New Theatre
0844 871 3020 Book online
Tue 16 – Sat 20 July Cardiff
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464 Book online


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