To end the 2012/13 season, Scottish Opera has teamed up with the D’Oyly Carte Company to create a crisp new production of The Pirates of Penzance, which heads off to England and Wales after touring Scotland.

The Pirates of Penzance, Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte Opera Company © KK Dundas
The Pirates of Penzance, Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
© KK Dundas

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were once mainstays of many school and local amateur productions, and indeed introduced generations early to the delights of acting, singing, playing or working as stage crew, not to mention the discipline and fun to be had putting on a significant entertainment. Today, these operas are perhaps considered period pieces, as more modern show repertoire is currently fashionable, so it is a challenge for a new professional production to overcome this thinking. This production was adeptly directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, thankfully resisting temptation to adapt and modernise the original. Here, simple and effective storytelling with great attention to detail was punctuated with plenty of amusing Pythonesque hilarity.

While some traditional G&S productions tend to the sumptuous, Jamie Vartan’s sets were simple, grey, angular block structures, set within a false proscenium arch. Costumes looked fabulous, but were generally understated, throwing the spotlight firmly on the music and action on stage. During the overture, stuffed with the familiar tunes to come, in the first of an amusing series of scenery gags, a seagull flew across the front stagecloth as a map of Cornwall descended, toe first, and a shaky model of the pirate ship docked in Penzance.

There are a lot of choruses in Pirates, and many are complicated as different musical themes often mesh with one another. The luxury of professional forces produced some stunning singing, including the glorious hymn to Poetry which suddenly comes blasting out of nowhere during the finale of the first act. The boisterous pirates were capably led by Steven Page’s Pirate King, with a very Scottish Andrew McTaggart as Samuel his apprentice and sidekick, and all had plenty of slapstick fun. The daughters of Major General Stanley, seeking a beach where they could paddle in peaceful seclusion were scarily no-nonsense, costumed in ivory dresses and marching parasols. When surprised by the pirates, they reacted by using semaphore with tiny Union Jacks.

The serious business of this opera rests with Frederic, the innocent slave of duty, and the bookish Mabel, both necessarily double cast in this production as, unusually for opera, it plays consecutive nights with occasional matinees. Here, Welsh soprano Stephanie Corley was a star turn as Mabel, the only daughter “whose homely face and bad complexion have caused all hope to disappear of ever winning man’s affection”. Her thrilling performance of “Poor wandering one” with its demanding coloratura set a high standard for the evening. Nicholas Sharratt was also in fine voice as the hapless Frederic, torn between loyalty to the Pirates and the Major General’s large and formidable female family.

The story is particularly silly – pirates who won’t fight orphans, and policemen who despite being full of bluster are timid and useless, only managing to do their duty after a surprise visit from Queen Victoria. Yet the humour of this production kept it remarkably fresh. Graeme Broadbent was a particularly comic Sergeant of Police with silly walks and a problematic sandwich, and as patter stalwart Richard Suart got to grips with “The moon and I”, his absurdly tiny chapel was filled literally to the rafters by his daughters squeezing into and over the pews.

Derek Clarke, standing in at this performance for John Owen Edwards, kept things moving along in the pit smoothly. There were a few rough edges in some early chorus entries, and in the famous Major General patter song, but generally this was well sung throughout. The diction was particularly good, questioning the need for the English supertitles built into the top of the proscenium arch. Apart from dealing with what must be a daunting supertitle challenge of the Modern Major General, this was a difficult opera to supertitle to avoid laughs coming before the music.

Traditional opera audiences can be a bit sniffy about Gilbert and Sullivan with its rather dated satire, sometimes cringeworthy dialogue, often bonkers storylines, and just not being “serious opera”. It was good to be reminded, particularly in this well-sung production, of the infectious music and general fun to be had. This production’s publicity has been using social media on steroids, as Scottish Opera reaches out to new audience. There were certainly plenty of youngsters in the appreciative audience in Theatre Royal, perhaps getting their first taste of what live opera can be like. Hopefully they will be back for more.

****1