OPERA REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance: ENO

May 14, 2015


REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance

Gilbert & Sullivan at ENO

Mike Leigh’s swashbuckling new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance at the English National Opera is stuffed full with sentimental pirates, blundering policeman, absurd adventures and improbable paradoxes, The Pirates of Penzance is Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular comic opera.


This highly anticipated swashbuckling farce with its new staging is directed by Mike (I’ll never direct an opera) Leigh, who made his operatic debut this evening. I liked his version, all geometric sets and ultra-simplistic colours from Alison Chitty, they worked well, softly gliding and sliding into and out of view giving a feeling of constant change while actually being severely minimalistic. The costumes were in period and silly enough to bring smiles while maintaining the sense of propriety and dignity that is the fulcrum for a good Victorian joke.


Claudia Boyle as Mabel was superb, utterly effortless with her high notes and her voice as light and airy as her attitude, simply delightful! Joshua Bloom’s Pirates king was fun and enthusiastic and his thick sonorous voice wrapped itself around the slippery libretto with gusto, Andrew Shore’s Major General was oddly lacking in the great pretentious majesty that the role needs and was not utterly convincing with his patter song. Jonathan Lemalu’s Sergeant of Police  was wonderful, all timid bombast and his voice a pleasure as it rolled around the cavernous auditorium and Rebecca de Pont Davies’s daft Cornish Ruth was simple perfection with a hearty dose of cougar .


The chorus were, as usual, simply great and seemed to be having a great amount of fun with the silly, simple but effective choreography which brought attention to the geometrical and intricacies of the musical composition in a way I’ve not noticed before.  It was visually very interesting to see the singer and the music given such a literal choreography and once I realised what was going on was fascinated. Choreographer Francesca Jaynes deserves a pat on the back for this apparently simple but actually incredibly detailed dancing and movements. Lovely to watch.

View the trailer here:

It’s slightly sad that more than a hundred years on the jokes at the expense of the slavish response to entitlement and royalty sill get big knowing laughs from the British folk in the audience, one suspects this is Leigh rolling back the camp enough so we can see Gilberts original target.  However, this was a fun and witty evening, done with care and consideration but still allowing the sophisticated absurdity and mocking anti jingoistic heart of this operetta.


Conductor David Parry gave a real sheen to the music but it seemed to lack an essential oomph or energy and perhaps this is because I’ve only ever seen Pirates done heavy on the camp, seriously overdone on the pomp and this carefully restored version may well have lost the accretions of expectation and Monty Pythonesque performance that have gathered onto it over the years, allowing the clever melody and sophisticated parodies to shine through in a much warmer and softer way.  Pirate’s music at its best is the equal of the great operas that are being lampooned here and Parry’s careful conducting gives us plenty of emotional space to appreciate the music without being overcome by the bombastic clichés.

Warm enough to please the fans clean enough to please the critics and fresh enough to draw in a new curious crowd. Leigh gave this the feel of an old musty hideously painted chest inherited from a maiden aunt; then when stripped of twelve layers of paint and varnish shows a simple wonderful piece of authentic parlour furniture underneath, rich with polished grain, unsuspected detail and serious craftsmanship.


This is the first time I’ve every truly enjoyed a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta, but like the rest of the enthusiastic audience I left the ENO humming it into the night.

Live at the London Coliseum until July 4, 2015 and at your local cinema on Tuesday May 19.

For more info or to book tickets, click here:

The Pirates of Penzance is sung and surtitle in English | Running time: 2hrs 20mins

Signed performance Friday, June 5.

London Coliseum

St Martins Lane