By common consent this work is the most perfectly finished of the Savoy Operas. It can simply be read as a rambunctious, witty, paradoxical comedy with a well-balanced set of characters both charming and whimsical. However, there are more than surface charms: the musical standard is impeccable, offering plenty of examples of Sullivan’s characteristic sweetness and brio, together with plenty of cute, knowing operatic parodies of arias from Verdi and Gounod. It also offers Gilbert a full range of opportunities for his characteristic nonsensical, often legalistic, logical switchbacks, which can still be very funny when played with deadly seriousness or deadpan naturalism.
This production was first seen in 2015 and emerges again for a run of 16 performances. ENO has great pedigree in this repertory going back through Jonathan Miller’s Mikado to the vintage ventures into authenticity by Charles Mackerras. Mike Leigh’s background also suggests great possibilities: his film Topsy-Turvy is still a fine introduction to the unique sweet and sour world of G&S, where nothing is sacred and little remains as it seems for long, whether as an object of romance or satire.
The secret here is to avoid the tired literalism of the old D’Oyly Carte Company traditions, while retaining the spirit of the original in a different setting. By this standard, things promise well at the start. Designer Alison Chitty has gone for bold colours and cutaway sliding sections of the stage: green and red dominate in the first act and green and purple in the second. The huge size of the ENO stage is conquered thereby, and there is plenty of scope for the set pieces to spread themselves, while retaining more intimate spaces for the more introspective numbers. So far, so good.
But all is not as it should be. The gorgeous arc of long breathed melody in the overture should unfold like a sail, but from the outset everything seemed far too slow and underpowered. Characters were under-nourished, and much of the acting and singing in the first half was undercooked, barring some excellent chirpy, pert coloratura from Mabel (Soraya Mafi), who brought the show alive with her spirited rendition of ‘Poor wandering one.’
Whatever the qualities of the original production the revival director has not managed to resuscitate them here, particularly in Act One, which lacked shape and flow, and where the leads did not interact with great conviction or credibility. In particular the Frederick of David Webb seemed under-directed despite a very pleasing voice; and even that wonderful singer-actor Andrew Shore lacked presence as Major-General Stanley. He was very cautious in his notorious patter song in Act One, and omitted the opportunity to accelerate the pace in the final stanzas.
Things were more together in Act Two where Shore was more effective and assured, delivered a very affecting version of ‘Sighing softly to the river.’ However, vocal honours of the evening went to John Tomlinson as the Sergeant of Police, who gave a choice rendition of ‘When a felon’s note engaged in his employment’, that was funny but also in character without playing to the gallery: Gilbert would have approved.
The best feature of this production was the work of the chorus. The bevy of daughters, policemen and pirates were admirably crisp and incisive in their delivery especially in the culminating crowd scenes, when the orchestra too, under Gareth Jones’ direction, lifted its game, with some especially sweet instrumental solos. The direction here was also neatly characterised with some neat collective group movement, timid and threatening by turn – some genuinely ‘cat-like’ treads!
As the image of Queen Victoria descended at the end (looking alarmingly like John Prescott) and quelled the pirates, there was a neat, unintended contemporary ‘Brexit’ moment, when the chorus acclaimed the pirates as ‘noblemen who had gone awry: we love our House of Peers’. How Gilbert would have relished the unbelievable twists and turns of current politics and what a patter song might he have made out of the passage of Article 50….