Scottish Opera’ Pirates

29 Jun

If I had to introduce anyone to all the things that make me love Gilbert and Sullivan, playing them the second half of the first act of The Pirates of Penzance would probably be where I’d start.  From the moment when the daughters enter – that excited little string figure leading to one of their most delightful choruses, through to Frederic’s Oh is there not one maiden breast, Poor wand’ring one, the chorus of girls doubling with the Mabel/Frederic duet, the entrance of the Pirates and then the Major General’s patter number.  This seems to me to contain, the innocence, wit, sophistication, parody and sheer pleasure of these works and, if you don’t surrender to them, then probably Gilbert and Sullivan is not for you.  Sullivan manages to parody operatic style, but also catches a seriousness that gives an ambiguity and joy that I love.  Of course, there’s other wonderful stuff in Pirates, particularly in the second act, where the policemen are among their greatest comic creations and the Mabel/Frederic duet is among their most beguilingly lovely, but the earlier section, for me, has the confidence and certainty that sums up their art.

This thought seemed to me to be affirmed by the performance of the opera that I saw at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 28th June.  It’s a joint production by Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte  and is now on an extended tour.   It’s often a problem with G&S that they take time to warm up (though the most successful productions that I’ve seen manage to make it work from the start).  And this performance was no exception.  It began slightly uneasily as if worried that it might seem a bit dull and outdated for modern audiences, trying a bit hard and then, as the girls arrived, it relaxed and we realised that it was good.

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production was fresh and alert.  It didn’t do anything particularly startling but, within the basically Victorian setting, had fun.  It recognised that dance was a central element and Steve Elias’s routines looked good and were carried out slickly.  The police routine owed a little bit to the West End production in the early 1980s and was all the better for that.  The dialogue was spoken with point, directly, clearly and without the archness that is a temptation here.  And there were some lovely jokes – a chapel that is clearly too small for all the cast to fit into and a nice sense of the ridiculous.  It could have been a bit broader without losing anything but it remained an amiable, happy show.

The cast was very good indeed – a nice mixture of youth and experience.  Rebecca Bottone made a lovely Mabel, singing with real wit, great coloratura and turning Poor Wand’ring one into a real comic hit – I loved Lloyd-Evans’s idea, from Ruddigore, that she and Frederic hadn’t a clue how to deal with each other.  This was probably the best reading of the role that I’ve seen.  Sam Furness, still in the earliest stages of his career, showed bags of charm and a nice, light tenor as Frederic.  He’d be a smashing Albert Herring.  Rosie Aldridge was a beautifully judged Ruth – very funny indeed.

We had experience in the form of Richard Suart’s matchless Major-General.  I first saw him do it in the late 1980s and, while the details have changed, he presented a beautifully understated, very funny and skilful.  There may have been flashier performances but I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see do it.  Stephen Page makes a dashing, funny, ideal Pirate King, while Graeme Broadbent has a high old time as the Sergeant of Police who wants to be a star.

Derek Clark’s conducting was good.  It’s probably too much to ask for the finesse and sheer certainty of Sir Charles Mackerras in this repertory, but he brought out the instrumental details well.  The orchestra played gamely (they must be able to do it in their sleep by now) and the chorus sang similarly even if ensemble wasn’t perfect.

They were performing the show for the whole week and, perhaps surprisingly, the theatre was pretty full and, even better, the audience was really enthusiastic at the end.  Justly so.   Can we please have some more G&S of this calibre?

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