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. But this is far too large a space for Gilbert’s intimate wordplay and muttered asides, and with surtitles rather haphazard (they come and go according to their own logic) I do wonder how much anyone balcony and above is missing.
Visually, however, it’s a show that plays to the back of the house, setting the bustles-and-boaters detail of Victorian costumes against designer Alison Chitty’s zany geometric architecture. Bold swathes of primary colours frame naturalism with contemporary abstraction, taking the edge off any period fussiness with their clean lines, and generating a wonderfully witty effect for the Act II finale, in which pirates, policemen and assorted unmarried Wards of Chancery all stumble upon one another. It’s only a shame that neither Leigh’s rather anonymous direction nor Francesca Jaynes’s choreography matches Chitty’s visual volume, content with understated gestures that are lost in the memory of the spectacular assault of Joseph Papp’s 1980 Broadway reimagining.
The cast is a mixed bag. A stellar ENO debut from the Irish soprano Claudia Boyle gives Mabel all the attitude that Gilbert and Sullivan forget to write for her, colouring some fine coloratura with just the right balance of seduction and no-nonsense determination. Robert Murray makes a puppyishly charming Frederic, teasing all possible beauty from the big ballads with his bright lyric tenor, and sparring touchingly with Rebecca de Pont Davies’s urgently fond Ruth. Jonathan Lemalu is luxury casting as the Sergeant of Police, delivering beard and Cornish burr with equal aplomb.
Things get less certain with Joshua Bloom’s Pirate King — all swagger and booming charisma, but never fully delivering vocally — and, on opening night, the brilliant singing-actor Andrew Shore got off to a wobbly start with an ‘I Am the Very Model’ that threatened to trip over its own patter, jokes flying past unnoticed at far too dangerous a speed.
If this Pirates were politely raping and pillaging in a vacuum then I’d suggest that you take your maiden aunts and small relations and have done with it. The trouble is that G&S is something of a crowded scene these days. Audiences have been spoiled by Sasha Regan’s anarchically brilliant all-male productions (including Pirates, currently touring the UK), Opera North’s recent Ruddigore, not to mention recent productions by Charles Court Opera and even a stab at Princess Ida by the Finborough Theatre. We now expect invention as well as affection in our Victoriana, which is why Mike Leigh’s Pirates inspires only modified rapture rather than joy unbounding.