The Pirates of Penzance is without a doubt one of the most popular and most successful of the G&S canon, containing some of Gilbert’s most amusing lyrics and characterisations, alongside examples of Sullivan’s best music. It also holds the distinction of being the only G&S opera to receive its first performances in the United States, premièred on 31 December 1879 at Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City. The synopsis for this production, outlined very briefly in my programme, was cribbed almost word for word from Wikipedia, and so there you can read about it in slightly greater detail than this afternoon’s audience. The performance began with the audience on their feet in an unexpected chorus of “God Save the Queen” and, though audience participation is not strictly part of this review, I would highlight that each person sang in his or her own choice of key. Thereafter, the overture was played and a sense of pitch resumed.

© Charles Smith
© Charles Smith

The curtain rose to reveal a skull and crossbones drop concealing the pirates seated at their table, who gave a rousing chorus of “Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry”, colourfully dressed and dramatically animated. These pirates are not terribly masculine, and their costumes border the ridiculous, ranging from the traditionally scruffy look to something resembling a pantomime Dick Whittington, but the conviction of performance was captivating and held the audience through from the opera’s opening to its close. The hand-picked gentlemen of the chorus, ranging from early 20s to almost 70, gelled remarkably well vocally and dramatically, the older singers managing to sustain the same impressive level of energy displayed by the younger. Similarly, the women’s chorus were well matched vocally and extremely funny in synchronised humour – a credit that is always due to the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company chorus is that everyone is on the same page musically and comically. Small dance figures, tastefully choreographed by Cecilia Darker, were executed with style and amounted to an entertaining visual display. Of the ladies, Major-General Stanley’s Daughters, played by Alexandra Hutton, Amy J. Payne, Nichola Jolley and Amy Spruce stood out as being especially in tune with one another, Nichola Jolley having a particularly beautiful voice and sense of fun. Similarly Mark Burns and Stiofàn O’Doherty, the youngest boys of the chorus, are repeat G&S Company members and present distinctively involved performances that seem to probe just that bit deeper – the latter’s bizarre yellow stockings also providing some amusement.

The principal roles were taken by both seasoned Gilbert and Sullivan specialists and younger rising stars of the company. In a trinity of obligations, John Savournin directed, choreographed and sang the Pirate King in a well thought-out production with no little sense of tasteful humour. The hero Frederic, played by Nicholas Sharratt, warmed up slowly but eventually sang with a charmingly clear voice and good diction, although his acting was somewhat affected by over-pronunciation and the inflections of his spoken dialogue flowed with a marked similarity to Philip Potter’s 1968 D’Oyly Carte Opera Company Decca recording with Isidore Godfrey – if Sharratt learnt his part listening to his recording, then he’s been rumbled; if not, the likeness is uncanny. Alexandra Hutton’s patient and understanding Mabel was a good companion for Sharratt, possessing a sweet voice that sparkled in Sullivan’s silly, show-off pseudo-coloratura. A singular, particularly unfortunate moment for the pair came in “Ah, leave me not to pine alone and desolate”, which I consider to be perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan’s most tender duet. This was taken too slowly, so that the mood became stagnant instead of flowing lyrically, and after the accompanying recitative in which Frederic reveals he will not be of age to marry until 1940, Mabel’s response – “It seems so long” – was played for laughs. I would suggest, though, that this is a heartbreaking moment of patient love; the underpinning score is not comic, and the dramatic tension might be better served if this moment was re-thought. Of special note, Richard Gauntlett’s Major-General was suitably hilarious and revealed moments of humour that have previously evaded me completely – his ad-lib remarks and acting in “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” inspired forceful applause.

The production itself was charming – no more elaborate staging, other than the beautifully painted set, subtle lighting and perfectly adequate props, could have made it any better. The orchestra, extracted from regional professionals, played very well and though some numbers were a little slow, conductor Andrew Nicklin led a strong, stylistically informed performance. The arrival of Princess Ida and Iolanthe are now awaited with eager anticipation...