This is altogether a fine era for ‘G&S’. The tired and fusty productions of the D’Oyly Carte era are a distant memory, and since Mike Leigh’s ‘Topsy Turvy’ audiences are increasingly aware once more of the cutting edge of satire that defines these works and the anticipations of Surrealism rather than simple silliness that they contain. Opera Holland Park ends its season with its version of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, the fifth G&S collaboration. We enjoy a frothy and delightful confection whipped up in collaboration with Charles Court Opera, one of the most inventive and authentic companies in this repertory.
Facing a complete loss of earnings in New York thanks to the pirating of their works, Gilbert and Sullivan decided to open their 1879 comic opera in the USA and make it a story about – what else? – pirates. There is very little plot to speak of – a young man mistakenly indentured to a far from a ruthless band of pirates may or may not be able to escape his exaggerated sense of duty. The pirates fall in with a troop of daughters of a pedantically over-informed major-general, who tries to reassert his authority with the help of a singularly incompetent group of policemen before an order is restored by the invocation of Queen Victoria’s name. In this production, some symmetry is imposed by a framing device which suggests that all these elements are the product of a child’s box of toys, an interpretation reflected in the basic building blocks of the flexible stage design.
Even today the satire bites sharply and it is to the credit of the singers here that their crisp diction in speech and voice ensures that every dart lands: conventional respectability, lavish reverence for the monarchy, clueless police, an ill-informed blustering Establishment, and fatuous aristocratic pretensions, all seem depressingly still relevant. It can be no surprise that Queen Victoria denied Gilbert a knighthood even as she honoured Sullivan. But even the irresistibly tuneful, deftly orchestrated numbers are also slyly parodic in ways Sullivan’s audience would immediately spot but we probably cannot. Stylish parodies of Donizetti, Verdi, Schubert, and Elizabethan lutenists abound and are equally stylishly delivered by a flawless and confident cast.
John Savournin directs and leads from the front as the Pirate King, full of roguish swagger. He is ably backed up by a well-choreographed band of cut-throats, and a Frederic in Peter Kirk with the right blend of gormless innocence and heroic tenor aspirations. Yvonne Howard’s much put-upon Ruth is feisty and stoic as needed, and the bevy of starchy daughters provide comic defiance and some nifty work with their umbrellas. On the side of law-and-order, Trevor Eliot Bowes and his constables offer up a dolefully melodious police contingent whom you can’t imagine ever arresting anybody.
But the stand-out performers here are Daisy Brown as Mabel who really nails the brilliant display ‘coloratura’ in ‘Poor wandering one’, and Richard Burkard, who manages to make the Major-General a much more sympathetic figure than the usual brittle martinet. He has the virtuosity for the famous patter-song, but also finds a strain of melancholy in the second half that provides some contrast to the fun and games.
The creative team achieves a great deal with limited means. In the pit, David Eaton is a sympathetic accompanist for the singers, but also draws some really crisp playing from the reduced forces of the City of London Sinfonia – particular credit to the solo timpanist who also had to handle all the percussion! Costumes are in bright cheerful primary colours following the toy-box theme, and there is neat choreography from David Hulston that ensures there is always some interesting movement taking place within all the various tableaus presented on the walkway that circles the orchestra.
This is a neat, precise, clear production that strips away layers of varnish from this staple of the repertory. Polymath director John Savournin and his team deserve our congratulations for ending the season with such elan and for once trusting to the underlying quality of the original work without imposing an alien agenda.